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The Beginner Band Student

by Robert F. Wall

The MOST important part of any band program is the beginners. I think all band directors will agree with that statement. Agreement with that statement and implementation are sometimes miles apart. For a band program to reach the highest level, major emphasis must be placed on the first year of instruction. Again, we band directors agree. However, what must the focus be for the first year. With all the differences of opinion regarding this “focus”, let me throw out my own opinions.

All students must learn the proper playing essentials for their specific instrument: embouchure, hand position, posture, and breath support. Once these CORRECT habits have been established, then, and only then, should music reading and performing be attempted. You can incorporate music reading into the teaching of the “basics”, but never let the music take away from learning the playing skills the student will need to become a “performer.”

Since each instrument has it’s own specific requirements for embouchure and hand position, I will not attempt to describe each one individually. I will ask that you think about each instrument differently in your teaching . You really cannot teach clarinet and saxophone embouchure alike because each embouchure is different to some extent. Yes, there are similarities; but trumpet and tuba embouchure are similar also – – but not the same! If you are a new teacher, I urge you to find a competent teacher for each instrument and have them instruct you in correct embouchure formation. This will give your beginners the best chance to succeed. With that said, let me make some general statements about embouchures.

Most woodwind embouchures require a formation that centers the muscles of the mouth into a circular formation forming a “syllable” similar to the word “you”. The variations for each instrument is what determines that instruments characteristic sound. The “you” formation is basically for producing the correct chin formation (an unbunched chin). The amount of inward pressure of the muscles around the mouth creates the different embouchures for different instruments. This is where the instruction from the “pros” comes in. You, as the teacher, must learn each instrument’s embouchure formation and try to have each beginner learn that formation, also. For brass playing, I would offer one point.

Try to teach brass embouchures with a “no pressure” approach. Let the “buzz” be created by the air stream and not by lip pressure. Let me explain. Try to create a natural “buzz” by forming the embouchure with the lips close together but not quite touching in the middle. Blow air through the lips, then touch the mouthpiece lightly to the embouchure. A natural “buzz” should occur The amount of pressure needed to create a buzz is not nearly as much as most beginning players think. Once the buzz is started naturally, then embouchure development can begin. The most important (and frequently neglected) aspect of all wind playing is correct breath support. I say neglected for beginners because there is SO MUCH that has to be taught that first year. If the students are taught to breath correctly for wind playing, all the other playing skills are much more easily mastered.

Let’s look at how to breathe for wind players. We have all been taught about diaphragmatic breathing and all the mechanics thereof. But how do we teach that to fifth or sixth grade kiddos? I struggled with that question for years until I figured out that it is THROAT FORMATION that determines the way the breath is taken into the body. There are three throat formations that we can use to breath – – and two are bad! If we use an “EE” syllable to breath, we restrict the air to the extreme upper body. If we use an “AA” or “AH” syllable, we move the air to the mid-body region. However, if we form an “OO” syllable in the throat to breath, the air automatically goes to the lower chest cavity or “diaphragm”.

All that is needed to teach correct breath support is the correct throat formation. The real problem with teaching breath support is the reinforcement of the information to the students until it becomes second nature to them. Always remind beginners to breathe correctly! They have done it wrong for so long they will revert to the old way of breathing unless reminded. If you can teach only one thing to the beginners – – make it breath support! I will always remember watching Anthony Gigliotti teach a clarinet master class with three masters degree students.

All three students played their pieces for Mr. Gigliotti and played well. His only comment to all of them concerned breath support. After he worked with them on breathing, they all sounded much better. If masters degree students sound better with correct breathing, just imagine what your beginners will sound like. My other concern with beginners is equipment.

Try to get the very best instrument the students can afford. Even more important, get the very best mouthpiece that you can find for your students. I would rather play my professional mouthpiece on a beginner clarinet than my LeBlanc Concerto models with a stock “beginner” mouthpiece. I am sorry to say that most beginner instruments do not come with an adequate mouthpiece. There are many mouthpiece makers who have a “student” line which performs much better than most stock beginner mouthpieces.

Try to find those mouthpieces for your students. The problem seems to be more prevalent with clarinet and saxophone beginner instruments than with beginner brass instruments, although a professional brass mouthpiece makes a great difference, also.

I guess my main thrust for this article is: AS GOES YOUR BEGINNERS, SO GOES YOUR BAND PROGRAM. Keep your beginners on the right tract and your band program will flourish!

Robert Wall is the author of the wonderfully illustrated and detailed instructional guide, Clarinet Embouchure and Hand Position.