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Thomas J. West Music

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The Importance of Role-Modeling in Musical Instruction

Posted on May 11, 2010 at 10:25 PM

As an ensemble music director at the secondary level, one often takes for granted the importance and power of having a good role model for student musicians to emulate. Most high school programs with full-sized (or at least decent-sized) ensembles have at least one player in each section who serves as a role model to the rest in terms of technique, tone, style, and even work ethic. As directors, we rely on these students to carry the weight of getting their part heard, but many directors do not realize the great teachers that these strong players become - whether they are aware of it or not.

In my first teaching job, I had a band program in a small district that was 7th through 12th grade all in one band. While it is not too difficult to imagine the difficulties that such a wide age range would pose, one thing we definitely had going for us was built-in role modeling. The upperclassmen sitting in the same section with junior high students gave the emerging players a solid section leader to listen to and emulate.

I didn't appreciate how influential those upperclassmen were on the overall capabilities of my band until I moved on to the next teaching assignment I had - teaching a concert band of 85 students, all in seventh grade. Without that role model in each section, music learning, tonal production, and even rhythmic integrity took a much longer period to develop. I certainly had some strong individuals in that grade (I just caught up with one of the french horn players as a senior at the PMEA All-State Orchestra Festival), but even with their above-average technical abilities, their level of experience performing in an ensemble setting was still underdeveloped.

Why Role Models Are Important

A good role model presents the student with a target to aim for. Role models can provide the following goals for students to aspire to:

  • Characteristic tone quality of the instrument (arguably the most important benefit, as most students have not been exposed to quality sounds on their instrument)
  • Technical facility
  • Rhythmic integrity
  • Intonation awareness
  • Ensemble balance and blend
  • Advanced techniques (vibrato, double-tonguing, shifting, altissimo)
  • Proper posture/carriage
  • Focus and work ethic
  • Expressive phrasing
  • Improvisation
  • Rehearsal/practice techniques

Possible Sources of Role Models for Students

If you have a situation like the one I described earlier, where there were few, if any, student section leaders to serve as role models, there are several possible sources for providing students a viable role model:

  • Model Recordings: Many music teachers, both ensemble and private, would agree that having access to recordings of professional artists on each instrument is a valuable tool. I have an entire category on my website dedicated to providing model recordings for students of any major orchestral or wind band instrument. With Web 2.0, it is easier than ever to find quality performances for just about any instrument on YouTube, Grooveshark, Pandora, Playlist dot com, and other sources. Even just a 2 or 3 minute sample of a master performer is a benefit to students. Vocal teachers can also find artists or choral ensembles that emulate the proper style and tonal placement you desire. One of my favorites in the choral world is the University of Utah Singers. Model recordings are absolutely essential for jazz performers - you really can't perform the artform properly without listening and emulating.
  • Students from other buildings: If you are a middle school or elementary school ensemble director, get the students from your high school program to spend some time with your students. Have them sit in at a rehearsal, or even bring future music educators down to teach a lessong group or two. It's a win-win situation for the older kids and younger kids.
  • Guest Artists: There is nothing better than having a guest artist or guest ensemble perform at your school, especially if they are able to interact with your students in a master class or clinic setting. Not only is it inspirational for the students, but it shows them that awesome performers on their instruments are people just like them.
  • Skype in an Expert: It is EXTREMELY easy to use Skype to bring an expert right into your classroom, and in many cases, it is absolutely free! An expert can perform for the class, or the ensemble can perform for the expert. Check out the amazing things that Dr. Joseph Pisano and Travis J. Weller have done at Mercer High School (PA) with skyping composers in to interact with the concert band. [link]

The Most Important Role-Model Your Students Will Ever Have

With all of these role-model possibilities, there is one role model that has more impact on the students than any other, and that, quite simply, is their teacher. Students will aspire to the level of excellence and quality that we expect of them, and if you give them the opportunity to feel successful musically (even if that success is a small step forward), they will follow you to greater destinations.

When there have been no other role models for my students to emulate musically, I have always become the students' musical role model. I never teach a lesson group without having either that instrument or my own primary instrument (clarinet) in my hand. I have taken the time in my 12 years of teaching to develop my proficiency on every major band and orchestral instrument (well, I'm not exactly proficient at the oboe, bassoon, and string bass, but when I have more students on those instruments, I will be). I consider myself proficient enough on them all to play toe-to-toe with any of my underclassmen and many of my upperclassmen students.

Don't have time to learn all those instruments, you say? I didn't either. I did it by picking up an instrument and learning along with my students when they came for lessons. My newest acquisition: violin and viola. I started playing 16 months ago, and I am able to match my underclassmen.

Instrument pedagogy is all about understanding music first and instrument mechanics second.

Once you understand the basics of how an instrument produces its tone and the technical challenges of each instrument, it is a simple matter of repetition before an experienced musician will develop facility on any musical instrument. Granted, there are some instruments that have a longer "incubation period" than others because of the fine motor skills involved in their performance. It takes longer to develop the muscular control to accurately produce pitches on the French horn, for example, because the tessitura of the instrument is so high in its overtone series that the partials are millimeters away from each other.

The more fine motor skills involved, and the more minute the motions required to produce accurate pitch are, the longer it will take the performer to develop facility on the instrument. This is the very reason why string programs in many school districts start at least a full year before the band instruments do. It is the reason that most pianists end up memorizing their pieces - the sheer amount of repetition needed just to perform the piece accurately basically precludes muscle memorization. Just the ability to perform a simple rock beat with appropriate fills can easily take six to twelve months of repetition for the average performer learning to play a drum set.

Becoming proficient on instruments that your students play better enables you as a teacher to understand the mechanical and musical challenges they face when participating in your program. Developing your own facility on the instrument also provides yet another source of quality tone production on the instrument.

The Teacher As Performer

When was the last time your students actually heard you perform? Whether you're a band, orchestra, choral director, a private studio teacher, or a college professor, you can really light a fire in your students if they see you performing.

In my first teaching position, I started a chamber music program and had a unique chamber music concert every April. Students chose their own repertoire in January, rehearsed it themselves in class once a week, and performed it at the April concert. The end product was entirely theirs (with guidance from me, of course). At the conclusion of that concert, I would always perform a movement from a clarinet sonata or concerto with an adult pianist to accompany me. Performing for my students and parents completely validated me as a teacher, a musician, and as a role model. I'll never forget one of the parents coming up to me after one of the chamber music concerts and saying, "Wow! I knew you were a good teacher, but I didn't know you could actually PLAY!"

Even performing on a secondary instrument as part of an ensemble can be a great experience. I have had two student teachers in my career, and in both cases, I sat in with the band during the concert on the pieces that the student teacher conducted. I have played duets with students in concert, covered a part in a brass quintet, and have even played "2nd fiddle" to my strings students the past two years.

Role models are an indispensible part of any music performance instruction. Having good role models, from students, to guests, to the teacher himself, is one of the most powerful tools for instruction in any kind of music learning scenario.

This article (c) 2010 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License - please contact the author before publishing on or offline.

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Categories: Music Education, Teacher Tips, Private Teaching

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