A Radical Approach to Beginning Band
by Robert A. Duke and James L. Byo
The Habits of Musicianship is an introductory method book for the first year of instrumental class instruction. Appropriate for use in middle school beginning band classes and in college instrumental techniques classes, the book embodies an approach to music learning that is in many ways unique. We are distributing the method free of charge through this web site; and although we retain the copyrights to the materials, teachers have blanket permission to make unlimited copies for themselves and for their own students.
An Introduction to Our Rationale
We’re still kind of ambivalent about calling this thing a radical approach…. Is teaching young musicians to think about music-making from the first days of instruction really that radical? After all, most teachers would argue that their ultimate goal is to develop musicianship in all of their students. Ours is the same. So what’s so radical about this?
It has to do with timing. And as every comedian knows, timing is everything. It’s often not what you do that matters most, it’s when you do it. If your ultimate goal is to think and behave like a real musician, then when you start practicing that way of thinking and behaving has everything to do with how successful you’ll be.
After watching instrumental music teaching in our professional lives over the past 30 years, we’ve come to the conclusion that many teachers’ approaches to instrumental music instruction go something like this: Get students to make a sound, any sound, on their instruments; then teach them to play 7 or 8 notes; teach them to start notes with the tongue; teach them to play a few different rhythms in common time; teach them to play softly when there’s a p and loudly when there’s an f; tap their feet to the beat of the music (or some approximation of the beat); count rhythms using some syllabic coding system; clap rhythms as they count; follow the conductor; breathe only at phrase endings; match one or two pitches to an electronic tuner. Are all these good goals? Sure they are. Anything missing? Lots. Music’s missing. And expression. And beauty of sound. And melodic intonation.
We believe that you’ll find our approach to teaching beginners quite different than the one just described, in that it conveys a singular focus on developing fundamental ways of thinking and behaving that we call the habits of musicianship. We want young musicians to build these constructive habits, not only by the time they reach the end of their first year of study, but from their first days in music class.
Teachers who are new to this approach might ask, How can you guys address habits of musicianship so early, before even the most rudimentary skills have been established? Our answer—the same answer given by all of the great artist-teachers in music—is that everything is about musicianship, and habit formation begins on Day 1.
Our priorities are beauty and expressiveness. And students must come to believe that a melody isn’t learned until it’s played beautifully and expressively. Making the notes and rhythms come out at the right times is still a far cry from music making, of course. We help teachers get this idea across to students by providing many, many melodies that are stylistically varied, but that comprise a limited number of notes and rhythms (just like in real life). But it’s up to you as the teacher to consistently promote the idea that beautiful playing is the goal. Playing the notes and rhythms is nice, but it’s only the beginning. A bad sounding note is a wrong note, just like a note played with an incorrect fingering or a wrong partial. An out-of-tune note is a wrong note. An uninflected note is a wrong note. Developing this kind of thinking in beginners is difficult, we realize, but the habits that develop as a result of it are remarkable and create a beginner with a more musician-like attitude and a more mature way of thinking than often develops among young learners.
So what’s radical about our approach? Well, we think it’s radical both because it’s cool and because it’s quite a departure from the typical instruction that’s outlined in most beginning methods. We’ll leave the decision about what’s cool to you. In the Introductory Text for Teachers, we go into some detail explaining what's different.
You may download pdf files containing the Introductory Text for Teachers, the List and Descriptions of Melodies, and the Score and Parts by clicking on the Free Music Downloads link in the right margin of this page. It's important that you read the Introductory Text before looking through the melodies. The melodies aren't the approach, of course, although you'll find that the order of presentation is unusual for a beginning class. The melodies are merely the stuff your students will play as you implement the approach. The approach has everything to do with how you teach.
Have a great year.
Jim Byo and Bob Duke