If there is one thing most brass players dread, it’s giving a lesson to a beginner. No, it's not because we don’t want to see the next generation enjoying music the way we do, but it's because we have NO CLUE how to fill 30 minutes of time for a student that may or may not have her horn correctly assembled. The first lesson I taught to a beginner was, let’s say, uncomfortable, (like, on the level of childbirth). Since those many years ago, I have come up with a few tricks to help both student and teacher get through those first few months without boring yourselves to death and in the meantime improve your student’s skills!
Care & Maintenance: With a brand new student, spend time in the first lesson on care and maintenance of their new horn. Why? Because Mom or Dad is probably sitting right beside Junior and they paid a lot of money for the instrument…but also because that student is so excited to be holding that horn, and they want to take it apart and put it back together. Let them be excited and touch it and take it apart because they are creating a bond with the instrument.
Reading Music: If your student already reads music, great! But if they do not, be prepared with index cards and some sharpies and make a flashcard each time you learn a new note in a lesson. Keep the flashcards clipped together so you can do a pop quiz occasionally.
Triple Effect: The joy and suffering of teaching at this level is that you have to come up with at least three different ways to teach the same concept. I like to break that down as ears, eyes, and fingers. Think about a way to teach a concept that focuses on three different sensory fields.
Game Time: Create games to make practicing new concepts fun at home. Let's say today's lesson goal is to memorize the Eb major scale. OK. Have your student stand at one end of the room. Take one step each time they play a note in the scale. (Take one step back if they play the wrong note.) Continue until you’ve crossed the room. So simple, but definitely more interesting than sitting in a chair playing the scale over and over again, right?
Note Jar: After you introduce a new note, add it to that student’s “note jar.” I used baby food jars for my students because I had billions of them around the house, but you can use whatever you like, a hat, an envelope, etc. Collect note name on small pieces of paper and store them in the jar. Ask the student to draw a card from the jar and play the note cold turkey. Do this until you’ve drawn all the cards. Then have the student play all the notes from first to last (because you lined the cards on your music stand as you drew them). It’s almost like they are composing. To continue with this activity, ask the student to rearrange the notes and play them again.
Back to Back: Let’s say you are working ear training. OK. Try standing back to back with your student. Give your student a set of boundaries like, I will only play notes with first valve fingerings and my patterns will be three beats long. Once you’ve established your game boundaries, play a short passage and have the student copy you. Then you can extend the passage or start adding more partials, more notes, more slide positions, etc. When the student is ready, switch roles and ask them to create the melody for you to echo. It’s fun! If you are doing this exercise in a like-instrument classroom setting, you can play it like a spelling bee with elimination rounds. (This is a great opportunity to introduce students to new notes without even realizing it.)
Theme and Variation: My final advice is to plan a variety of activities in young student’s lessons and always end with something musical. As you move through your lesson, do some exercises standing and some sitting to break up the activities. Try to be as encouraging as possible. In band these students are hearing their saxophone friends nailing Hot Cross Buns while the horn players still aren’t sure they began on the right partial. Always give a report of the lesson to the parent, highlighting what the student achieved that day, and remember- thirty minutes is a long time for a 10 year old, too!