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6 Steps for First Year Players


6 Steps for First Year Players!

Ed Dumas

When I first began teaching in 1984 (yikes!), I quickly became worried that the students that I was seeing coming to me were increasingly less able to sing on pitch. Now, one could debate the idea of whether they ever could, but I was already beginning to see a trend that most experienced music teachers today would say is true. That is, there has been an ever-increasing drop in music skills in our students upon reaching the age of the beginning band.

Keep in mind that the trend that I saw back then was not something found in EVERY student. Yet overall, it seemed that more students each year had trouble with finding a pitch. In any case, with an ever-lowering commitment to elementary general music education in BC, the drop in skills was inevitable. Though our elementary music education teachers have tried valiantly, they have been fighting an uphill battle for decades with little time and fewer resources.

When I worried about a loss of the ability to sing on pitch, I had no idea how far this trend would go. Today, it seems I was so naïve to be worried about an ability to sing on the pitch when later we faced so many more even bigger issues.


Soon afterwards, I noticed students generally could no longer read in bass clef before entering the band. Later, students could not read half notes and quarter notes, though they still seemed to generally be able to identify treble pitches on a staff. Still, soon pitch names in treble clef were gone.


Later near the end of my career in 2018, I thought I had reached the bottom of the drop when most students seemed to have significant trouble clapping back a basic rhythm presented to them. Little did I know that the next drop was a sense of time. Then it seemed that a majority of students were unable to just keep a steady sense of time by clapping a regular pulse together with the teacher. I am now utterly unsure if we have yet reached the bottom of the musical skill drop.


While this steady drop in basic skills seemed so distressing in so many ways, it did provide me with an insight into priorities in students’ music learning. That is, the last skill lost was also the most basic to learning, and therefore the most critical to teach first when building skills back up in your band students!


Now, over the years that I was distressing about how students’ skills in music were being lost, I was also seeing another problem that I thought was unrelated. The problem, as I saw it, was that many students did not have an understanding of how to solve a musical challenge when they were trying to learn a new piece of music. I would often see students start playing the new piece of music at the beginning, and when they reached the hard part and realized that they “messed up,” the students would just stop. They would then return to the beginning and attempt the passage once again but did nothing to address the actual technical challenge in the piece of music.


I often found myself watching kind of dumbfounded when students would try this tactic multiple times with no change in strategy as to how to correct the actual error. My usual response would be something along the lines of “When you go back to the beginning and start again, what is it that you are actually ‘practicing?’” The answer for experienced musicians of course would be “The Beginning!”

So, when students showed me that they do not have a strategy to tackle the hard parts, I became concerned that I was going to have to create for students a strategy to fall back on at home, particularly in the first year.


The first-year students are truly wonderful to teach in many ways. They are usually so excited about playing the band instruments that they would be practice diligently at home every day. Every improvement found in a beginning student would also be met with great excitement by that same student. That is a true blessing!


The trouble is, those beginning band students usually do not know HOW to practice yet, and therefore a lot of that time at home was not very productive. So, with those competing issues in my head, over the years, I formulated a plan which has been very successful in giving the new band students some strategies in learning new music (and their instrument) at home, the place where I had the least control. I called this system the “Six Steps To Success!”


Step 1 Clap and Count

Use the music in question and clap and count the rhythm using the following rules:

  • Rule 1 – Put your hands together in a clap at the beginning of every note.
  • Rule 2 – Keep your hands together and ‘pulse’ the hands up and down in time on notes that are longer than one count. ie a whole note would be ‘clap – pulse – pulse – pulse’
  • Rule 3 – You MUST speak all of the counts, regardless if you are clapping or if you are silently pulsing with hands together.
  • Rule 4 – Say the &’s only when there are eighth notes (for now). 
  • Rule 5 – You MUST count out loud for everyone else to hear.

Here are a few learning suggestions for you. In the beginning, new band students will struggle to do all of those things at once on the first try, so break it up for them at first! Have them do the clapping alone, and then the counting alone, and then put it back together. Make sure they speak it out loud, as this is very important before you go on! Students that just mouth along with everyone else doing it are opting out, and that is unacceptable.

Step 2 – Name The Notes

Have the band do this in three sections, grouped by their transposition key. Clarinets, trumpets, tenor saxes, and euphonium treble clef players all in the key of Bb would go together. Flutes, trombones, euphonium bass clef, tuba, and percussion in the key of C would name notes together. The last group is the alto and baritone saxes in the key of Eb.

Make sure that all the students are doing this out loud before you go on. If they are just “lip-syncing” to others naming the notes, they will not yet have success with the next steps!

Step 3 – Move the fingers

Here you would have the students put their instrument up in playing position, and “air band” the keys/valves while you play. In the first-year group of players, you could probably memorize on your instrument their little 8 measure passage and play it for them while you watch their fingers. You will quickly get an idea of who knows where the fingers go. Again, make sure they are doing it in a way that shows YOU they know what they are doing.

Step 4 – Name the notes and move the fingers together

This is an important step, as it locks into the brain that a “C” on their instrument is played “this way,” while a “G” is played “this way.” I have seen students who could name the notes but could not identify what the fingers were to play the notes. This helps solve that problem.

A good strategy is again for the teacher to play on their wind instrument while the students name the notes and move the fingers together. By doing this, you keep everyone in the same place, as they are forced to follow the time lengths of the given notes such as half notes, whole notes, etc. You can play and follow along either by transposition key or in a whole group for an extra challenge.

Step 5 – Sing it

This is an important step as it kind of puts the song back into the students’ heads after tearing it all apart. You can use a common syllable such as “La” or “Da”, and also teach the students the words too. Singing it ahead of time also teaches the students about phrasing and duration of note values which you have not even talked about!

Step 6 – Play it!

By now, if your students have done all of the previous steps, they should be able to play it almost flawlessly on the first go. Students would sometimes suggest to me that we need not go through all of the steps and that we should just “play it straight through.” The obvious response which students might not understand is that by not using the steps, you are encouraging students to get lost and frustrated when a piece of music or a passage is beyond their skill. On the other hand, by going through the steps, new band students are learning success on a band instrument and excitement in playing due to that success, while they also learn a strategy for mastering the difficult passages! Which way would you rather have it?

Now, I would not use these steps on every piece of music that we learned in a first-year band class. That is certainly excessive. But anytime that we would come across something that needed to be worked out within the first few months of playing, this was a quick way to solve the problems.

Trombone Extra Steps

Here are three extra steps just for trombone players, who also have their own particular set of problems with the slide. Place these steps just for trombones between steps 4 and 5 in the Six-Step plan.

Step 4A – Trombones Name the Slide Positions

Trombone players are the only players that can speak the slide position numbers that they play on their instrument. In the first year, trombone players often get themselves lost even if they have memorized the note names. Usually, it is because they have not memorized the slide position numbers. So, have them speak these out loud, and you can join in to help them along. Do it enough times that they are comfortable with these positions before going on.

Step 4B – Trombones Move the Slide Positions

Have your trombone players move their trombone slide into positions as you play the piece of music on your instrument. Make sure that each player is participating, and do it enough times to give them practice at it. If some are lost while doing this, go back to step 4A and review it again.

While they are doing this exercise, watch for the trombone right-hand position so that they are not playing with a full fist on the slide brace. This causes the bicep to flex, the wrist to lock, and the slide to slow down. Instead, make sure they grip the slide brace with a thumb and two fingers ONLY so that their wrist will bend and they will develop some speed. (This also tells you who has a lubed slide!)

Step 4C – Trombones Say Slide Positions & Move Slides Together

By now you probably can see the pattern and how this works. This step locks together moving the slide into position and the slide numbers in the students’ minds in a way that makes it impossible to come apart. When trombone players are using this strategy, make sure they are speaking the slide numbers out loud so that they are not just faking it. 


One more thought in the Six Steps Plan. You can integrate the trombone extra steps one at a time by breaking them up, and inserting them after steps 2, 3, & 4. In effect then, steps 4A, 4B, & 4C become steps 2A, 3A, & 4A. Either way is good, but breaking them up sometimes is a little less onerous on the trombone players if they are feeling a little uncomfortable about being singled out.


A Final 6 Steps Teaching Strategy

It is a really good idea for students to not just know how to play their musical instrument, but to know how to teach themselves how to play their musical instrument. In other words, I wanted my first-year students to know how to solve the frustrating problem of learning to read and play music at home when I am not there to solve their problems for them.

Therefore, I would have my first-year students memorize the Six Steps to Success. They would together have to say out loud to me several times each class this order, “Clap & Count, Name The Notes, Move the Fingers, Name the Notes & Move the Fingers Together, Sing It, Play It!” If they could say that order and memorize it, they could solve some of the frustrating parts of home practicing and feel good about themselves. (You can provide a written copy of the Six Steps too, by putting it on their practice record!)

I have seen students who have floundered in the band getting nowhere for months in their first year. After taking them aside (again!) and finally convincing them to use the Six Steps For Success at home for two weeks, they would suddenly flourish and come back all excited to play.

Some students need to understand that the Six Steps is not “For Always and For Life” but rather “For whenever you need it, but heavily for the next two weeks.” By getting them to commit to a short time frame with it, they would then begin to see the results and were able to break the deadlock. Then, you would win again, because they still had learned that strategy that they could fall back on at any time in the future if a passage became a problem.

Despite all of that prep, there will still be days when beginning band students are so frustrated they feel like pitching the flute through the window! They need to know that they should not do this, as it is not good for flutes, and it is not good for windows! A good strategy at that point is to put the instrument down, even pack it away, and leave it alone for a while. Go have a snack, read something, watch a show, and then come back to it later when you are not feeling stressed anymore.

THEN, try it once again SLOWLY, using the Six Steps To Success! Having a strategy like this for home practice can save a fair number of students from dropping out when it starts getting harder. Without a doubt, flute player stress in the first year is well above everyone else. That is because they are having to learn all that everyone else is learning, plus they have to do it with 9 digits (fingers) at once! Everyone else is maxed at three digits, and trombones even have only 1 hand in use in the beginning.

Giving them all an organized strategy to turn stress into success, can save a lot of flute tears, and a lot of windows. Once they have solved some issues on their own at home, they will be hooked, and will be yours forever!


Ed Dumas, B.Ed., M.A.Ed.


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