Top Ten Things I Learned in Teaching Instrumental Music I -Fall 2015 at Northwestern University

10) Detailed planning is not a worthless exercise

In my previous teaching, I was very much the "vague notion of what to do" is enough, and I'll figure out the rest of a lesson as I go. And that work pretty well. But when it comes to younger students, that more granular plan is necessary to keep everyone on task. Planning everything down the minute makes a huge difference in making the most out of every minute you have. And while MORE content might seem like it would burn the kids out, keeping them consistently engaged helps the momentum of the lesson. The days where the kids were surprised at how fast the time had gone were the days where we had the most to do, and when it was all set up beforehand to do it.

9) You only need to know a little more than the kids do

I'm not a violinist. But my violin students would have never known it. While we don't want to depend TOO much on raw musical talent and prior experience, teaching beginners on an instrument you've never played before is a perfect time to exploit that. I get it: you've got other things going on in life, and can't become a violin virtuoso. But knowing just enough is actually enough. And if you have it intellectually, then you often don't even need to pick up a violin during class. That will even increase your awareness, and you can demonstrate violin knowledge to your students without actually playing the violin. 

8) Whenever possible, give everyone in the class something to do--there's always something!

For anyone who has watched my second clarinet lesson video on this website, you'll know I learned this one the hard way. Kids get distracted easily, and can tune out if they're not directly engaged. Even if you don't want to hear them, allow them to assist in your feedback. Give them something to be accountable for. Have them shout out "REST!" whenever there's a rest in the parts other students are playing. There's always something to do for everyone. Finding what it is takes some creativity, but it's the kind of thing you can easily plan for, and have in your 'bag of tricks.'

7) Repertoire grade levels are only meaningless until they're not's list of grade levels on their website for pieces is all over the place. Some pieces listed as a Level II in one state will be a Level IV in another. It's all very flexible, and ultimately at the mercy of the judges, not the composer. Composing or arranging to a specific grade level is HARD. And sometimes, you have to dial back your creative impulses to make something more playable, or educationally sound. When it comes to being a teacher, it's about the kids, not you. A simpler arrangement doesn't have to mean a 'simpler' arranger. It often takes more knowledge and elegance to make a simple arrangement work than a complex one. 

6) There's SO much great repertoire out there for Band and Orchestra

The biggest concrete find of this course was the Teaching Music Through Performance book series. Sadly, those books are expensive, otherwise I would buy a full set to have on my shelves at home. While the repertoire lists published on this site represent a small sampling of the treasures those books have to offer, it's a virtually endless treasure trove of great performance ideas. Any young band or orchestra director would be lost without access to these books, or ones like it. 

5) There's more than one way to engage with a piece of music

Just learning notes and rhythms isn't enough. While you can get great scores at competition by 'willing' your students to play the way you want them to, is that the best use of your time? Composition, historical context, and interdisciplinary activities are just as good a use of time, even if they don't lead to a trophy you can put in a case outside the band room. 

4) Show, don't tell

Talking too much is the number one thing to slow down and derail a lesson. The more you can keep them playing, even if that means playing yourself to model, will keep the lesson moving along. Music is a language all its own, and speaking it sometimes means playing it. Playing WITH the kids may draw your focus from giving assessment and feedback, it creates a more communal environment that really puts the focus back on the music itself. As a teacher, there's a time to stand and deliver, and there's a time to sit and participate. It's finding that balance that makes each of them work.

3) Sometimes tell, don't show

Direct musical modeling can sometimes be dangerous, if you rely on it too much. Just ask anyone who poo-poos the Suzuki method. Once you get into a larger rehearsal setting, you won't have the time to model every part you need to on every instrument. Become more efficient and clear with verbal feedback is important. This may be even more challenging than actually learning every instrument, because there are so many more ways to interpret a sentence than a musical passage. Appropriate use of academic language and specificity of feedback are challenging, and they are things that you won't become good at overnight. But keeping those things in mind at all times can lead to a long term development of verbal engagement with your students in ways that will become more and more effective.

2) - Plan your Feedback

Feedback is not always a dynamic, in-the-moment, thing. Sometimes, it's actually possible to know what problems your students are going to have. Once you get to know your students better, this becomes easier and easier to predict. What you have to do is go into a lesson with a list of as many specific things to provide feedback on, that relate to the lesson's material. It's better to have too much prepared to comment on and need to get to it all, then to have no idea what you're looking for, and spend the whole lesson grasping at straws looking for things to improve. Know what you want to improve, then get in there and improve it.

1) The edTPA is a fickle beast, that needs to be wrestled with

Sometimes the things that the folks upstairs want to see aren't what's totally best for your students. My advice: give them what they want, and then get creative once you have the job for real. It gets better. 

But seriously, take the edTPA seriously. There are a lot of very specific things you have to do and consider. And while it seems like the commentary and planning forms have all the infer you need to do well built into them, they don't. Read the handbook. It is a veritable treasure trove of little tidbits that will make your lessons and commentaries exactly the kind that the judges are looking for. It's true that a 35/75 is passing, and a 47/75 is high honors, but those comparatively low percentages are not an excuse to phone it in. This thing is hard, and should be treated as such.