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New vs Hard

Is it new or is it hard?

This is a question I often ask my students. At first glance they look the same to students. However, some things are genuinely difficult to do on an instrument, but other things are just new or I haven’t learnt that yet. As simple example of new, but not hard would be the following examples for a beginner trumpet player:

newhard Ex1

Both examples are quite easy, requiring the player to only move one finger. However F is one of the first five notes, whereas F# is not. So the second example will seem “hard” to a beginner…until you explain the fingering. At that point what seemed hard turns out to just be “new”.

When writing for junior bands, it is important to realize that some publisher guidelines simply reflect the order in which students learn concepts. This is not the same thing as order of difficulty. Let’s explore this idea with respect to note choice. Typically in a method book the 1st  five notes are concert Bb, C, D, Eb, F. This is usually then extended up to include G and down to include A.

newhard Ex2

So, E natural occurs later in the method books than Eb not because it is harder, but because the method books chooses to start with Bb, C, D, Eb, F (i.e. a major scale). Similarly, A natural comes before Ab, because…well I suspect it’s just because it fits into Bb major, whereas Ab doesn’t. So these two notes could be used in a very beginner piece if you wanted because it will generally take about 30 seconds to explain the new fingering…and you’re done!

This is a good example of a concept a publisher/editor once said to me – namely in any given piece you can ask students to move one step away from what they already know. The emphasis is on ONE step. Only one step and only one per piece!

CAVEAT – I get that not all instruments are the same and although the previous examples are true for all brass and mallet percussion instruments, it’s not necessarily true for every woodwind instrument…but you get the idea.

A counter illustration is probably useful at this point…

Bb is taught straight away, but method books take a long time before they introduce “B” natural because “B” natural is genuinely awkward for trombone (7th position). It will also have big intonation issues for trumpet. It will be very sharp unless the 3rd valve slide is adjusted (which is an intermediate concept). Low brass instruments with only 3 valves will have exactly the same issue. The whole point of a 4th valve on low brass instruments is to solve this intonation issue.

Now, to all the flute players in the room screaming at their screen right now – yes, “B” natural is quite easy on the flute. And while we are at it, yes concert Bb major is an awkward scale for flautists to start with and yes, you would prefer to start flautist off with notes below the break (aka below “D”).

But,  I’m glad the flute players were all screaming because it illustrates yet another point…

the deeper your understanding of each instrument of the band is, how it works, what is easy and what is hard for that instrument, the more effectively you can write for band and the better you will be able to exploit the specific capabilities of each instrument to produce great original music.

Say that seven times with a mouthful of marbles!

So in conclusion, moving one step away into something new is OK, genuinely hard is not.

[Photo by Leio McLaren on Unsplash]

How to cover scales with ketchup (tomato sauce)

This is post isn’t about composing, but I’m so excited about my current approach to doing scales with students that I thought I’d post about it. I’m guessing most of you reading this do some teaching of beginners so hopefully you find it helpful.

If my children are any guide, then the only way to make vegetables palatable is to drown them in tomato ketchup. As I teacher, I’m always searching for the magic ketchup that will make scales palatable to my students. Whilst I’m not sure that such a thing exists, some approaches to scales seem to work better than others.

My students and I have a fundamental difference of opinion. I want my students to be able to play all 12 major/minor scales a a decent tempo, and from memory. My students don’t want to practice scales at all. This cartoon captures their sentiment perfectly…

Awesome already

My current approach to solving this stalemate is based on only doing the first 5 notes of the scale. I start with C major, then I do D minor, then D major, at which point the process repeats itself.The picture illustrates what I mean.


Here’s all the reasons why this approach is cool:

  1. Five notes fits our short term memory processing abilities much better than the full scale.
  2. It covers both major and minor scales
  3. Major and minor scales are integrated with each other. Previously I would do a few major scales, then if there was time and I could be bothered, a few minor scales.
  4. It avoids explaining a harmonic minor scale with the raised 7th. Notice that this extra complexity occurs exactly where are our short term processing power runs out (at the 7th object/thing).
  5. Instead minor scales are presented as a variation (or one step away) from a major scale. I know that D minor and C major aren’t the relative major and minor scales in a classical theory sense. But from a learning point of view it is much easier to teach D minor as “take a C major scale, drop the bottom note and add one note on top”. (I use my fingers to demonstrate.)
  6. It highlights the fact that it is the 3rd note that is the key factor in defining a scale as major or minor. This holds true across modes (Lydian, Major, Mixolydian are all “major” modes with a major 3rd, the remaining modes all sound “minor” with a minor 3rd).
  7. It makes getting to a new scale a matter of altering one note. It the above example the next scale is E major, but students only have to alter the G to a G#…easy!
  8. For beginning students it allows them to learn a much wider range of scales within a limited note range. Limited note range isn’t so much of an issue on strings, but on brass instruments it certainly is.
  9. To get the full octave scale, all that needs to be done is to combine two 5 notes groups. 5 note C major + 5 note G major = full octave C major. Better than that 5 note C major + 5 note G minor = full octave C mixolydian. Similarly, 5 note C minor + 5 note G minor = full octave C dorian. Or, 5 note C minor + 5 note G major = full octave C melodic minor ascending.

Before I finish, I should acknowledge that I got this concept initially from a colleague Steve C — yes he and I do actually sit around talking about how to teach kids scales and have fun doing it (even without ketchup). Thanks Steve!