This year I’ve noticed a significant level of overall improvement among my beginners than in previous years. More of my beginners are graduating to intermediate band mid-year than ever before. (Students must be capable of playing music past page 13 of their method book to do so.)
It’s possible that this is due to a particularly good crop of students, or that my pedagogical skills are getting better for each instrument. But my hunch is that the strongest reason is because I am raising the level of expectation and am not intimidated to teach new concepts.
The best example of this is probably teaching beginning clarinetists to play above the break. In previous years, I wouldn’t bother to teach this because so much music is available which doesn’t require clarinetists to play above middle Bb. But my approach over the past couple years has been, “Let’s just do it. You’ll squeak and it will sound terrible at first. But you’ll get more and more comfortable as you get used to it.” And they are doing well at it.
Another example is expecting brass players to expand their range. The wealth of literature for young bands often doesn’t require brass players to play higher than concert Bb. But learning to play higher than that will make that concert Bb seem easy by comparison.
There have been at least two factors which had previously kept my expectations relatively low.
1. The method book doesn’t teach that skill yet.
2. I may teach the skill incorrectly.
Regarding the latter, I remember a conversation with a fellow teacher who was very opinionated about the dangers of teaching incorrect technique. She had been taught something incorrectly by a school music teacher, and then went to a private teacher who made her unlearn some bad habits. She was very outspoken that no teacher should ever make a similar mistake.
I believe her strong statements had a negative effect on me in that it made me reluctant to teach anything I wasn’t 100% confident in. For an elementary music teacher, that’s almost impossible during the first few years. Every teacher is going to have strengths and weaknesses, but with time and good coaching from other specialists, even a saxophonist like me can learn to teach proper cello technique to beginners.
Regarding band method books: They are written with all instruments in unison, and unfortunately don’t teach woodwind players their higher register notes. This is merely because brass players would have difficulty playing those same notes. Why not teach flutists and saxophonists to play up to a written D above the staff.
So here’s some encouragement to any young teachers of beginners: keep improving your knowledge of other instruments, but don’t be afraid to try new things. Your students may be capable of more than you think. Expect more from them and have confidence that they may exceed your expectations.