I Used to Play in the School Band

When people find out I’m a music teacher they often tell me some version of the following: “Oh you play (flute, clarinet, saxophone)! I used to play (flute, clarinet, saxophone) in the school band. I really liked it but (I quit to play sports, budgets were slashed, or some other reason). I still have my horn though! I wonder if I could still play it.” I always tell these people that if they get out their instrument and start playing, they might be amazed at what they still remember, even if it’s been decades since they played. The reason is that muscle memory lasts much longer than regular memory. Your body remembers how to do things that your mind has long forgotten.

I used to play flute in the school band, and it was a great experience. It teaches you how to blend into an ensemble, how to follow a conductor, and how to read music. However it doesn’t do a lot to help you improve your individual technique. That’s why I started taking private lessons when I was fairly young. Once I started doing that, and practicing more regularly, I noticed that I got better much faster than most of the other students.

During my first couple of years of high school, I didn’t play in the band. I was making a lot of progress in my private lessons, and getting ahead of the other students who were only in the band. Music classes could be frustrating sometimes. We played the same pieces over and over every day, and often didn’t make much progress because people weren’t practicing at home. Being a school band director can be very stressful. It’s like teaching a regular class of 30-40 students who all have really loud noisemakers. Because of this, the directors would sometimes get pretty angry, or even melt down completely. It’s only now that I have some understanding of how difficult their jobs really were.

My high school had terrific music teachers, and when I started playing in the band again I enjoyed it and learned a lot. I was also in the choir and the jazz choir (did I mention that I was in choirs my whole childhood as well?). In college I picked up the saxophone and joined the jazz band, but I decided not to major in music so I eventually moved on.

I’ve been a part of one music project or another for most of my adult life, and I’ve learned that the basic things you learn in school band apply to any music group. Listen carefully, play in tune, play together, follow the director. Playing at home is wonderful, and helps you to get a lot better, but ultimately music is a cooperative endeavor. There is nothing like the feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself, contributing to the creation of beautiful music with people that you appreciate and care for. This shared experience is why I think of musicians all over the world, despite our differences, as part of one big family.

Music Lesson Anxiety

When I talk to adults who are interested in taking music lessons, I frequently hear some variation on the following story: “My parents made me take lessons as a child and I hated it. The teacher was very strict and critical, I hated practicing, and I quit as soon as my parents let me”. I call this phenomenon “Music Lesson Anxiety”, and it can easily lead to the dreaded “Music Lesson Trauma”, which renders the victim unable to pick up an instrument for life. It is a sad situation, because these people often love music, and may even have some musical talent, but their childhood experiences have convinced them that learning music is a tedious, stressful chore.

However there is good news. Music Lesson Anxiety can be cured! The cure is to make learning music fun, the way it should be. Many who suffer from this syndrome had to endure an older, classically-inspired approach that emphasized perfectionism, discipline, and intense criticism. This approach can work for some, very dedicated students, but for most people it is a disaster. Let’s face it, most people are not going to become professional musicians. These people want to play music because it is a fun, social activity. Subjecting these people to strict discipline is likely to turn them off to playing music forever.

I like to combat Music Lesson Anxiety with a few simple methods. First, I like to start with music the student already knows and appreciates. If a student can learn to play a song she likes after only a couple of lessons, that’s exciting! There’s no reason to force someone to play Beethoven if they don’t want to.

Second, I don’t set strict rules on practicing. While you can’t get better without practicing, you also can’t get better by feeling guilty about not practicing. I encourage students to set realistic goals about how often and how long they practice. Perhaps three times a week for half and hour. The fact is, you get better every time you play, even if it’s just for twenty minutes. In addition, you should have fun when you play, not just spend the whole time playing scales.

Third, I try to favor encouragement over criticism during lessons. I focus on what the student is doing right, and then make gentle suggestions for improvement. Once a student is more advanced, he may benefit from a more critical approach, but for beginners and adults who are starting over it is important to focus on the positive.

If you suffer from Music Lesson Anxiety or Music Lesson Trauma from childhood, there is hope! If your child is interested in music lessons, there are ways to teach them so that they will never experience these problems. Music shouldn’t cause anxiety or trauma. Music is fun. Music is beautiful.

The Sandwich Method of Teaching and Practicing

I am grateful to my friend Savannah Mayfield Roberson for introducing me to the sandwich method. Originally, she recommended it as a way to break bad news to somebody. You start by saying something positive, then you put the bad news in the middle, then you finish by saying something positive again. The good news is the bread, the bad news is the filling.

I’ve learned that I can apply the sandwich method to a lot of situations in life. For example, when I teach a music lesson. We start by doing something fun, like playing through the songs the student has been working on, trying out some new songs, exploring a new technique or interesting problem, and answering questions that came up from practice. Then comes the work part – some music theory, some scales or exercises, specific critiques of technical aspects of playing. Then we go back to the fun, specifically showing how the topics we covered in the work section can be applied to making real music, something more interesting.

Similarly, when I practice at home I like to start off by having some fun – improvising freely, focusing on the sound of the instrument, trying some new ideas. Then when I’m warmed up I work on memorizing melodies, learning new tunes, playing in keys that give me trouble, or refining some aspect of my sound. Then I have some more fun at the end – soloing on some of the tunes I’ve learned, trying to put it all together.

I recommend that my students use the sandwich method in their own practice. When we don’t have any fun, we get sick of things and lose our motivation. If we do nothing but have fun, it’s hard to get any better. So the key is to combine the two. By having some fun first, we get excited to learn and improve. By having some fun at the end, we leave practice with a good feeling, looking forward to the next time.

As I said, the sandwich method is useful for many aspects of life. From our social interactions to our personal projects, it is good to ease into the difficult part and then try to end on a positive note. Give it a try!