Oatmeal and 6th Graders

Wow. I haven't written a post in such a long time. Isn't it funny how quickly time goes? One minute you're with a bunch of sleepy-eyed high schoolers marching at 7am in September, and then you blink: it's November, marching band is over, and All Region work is wrapping up. 

Over my evening bowl of oatmeal tonight, I decided to get a post going since the blog has been left so long. Day in, day out - life ticks by very quickly if you don't watch out. 


It is a very good thing to have points of pause throughout the day/week. You can catch up with the world around you. This moment now is a nice pause for me (mm, oatmeal). Earlier today I had another good moment of pause.

I returned a call to a band director who left me a message last week about a 6th grader. We chatted about the kid, and I found myself describing to the director my process for 6th grade horn teaching. 

This is my fourth year of teaching private lessons full time. Those first three years I was coming into band programs and teaching kids who had already been playing for at least a couple of years. Some had private lesson instruction, some did not. Some had a good first year of instruction, some did not. Regardless, I had to work with what I got. 

I realized this afternoon during my phone conversation why I highly value my 6th grade lessons: I get to start those 6th graders myself. For three years I have worked with maybe 50 different kids and witnessed the type of challenges they have with the French Horn. I started some of them and watched them graduate into the 7th and 8th grades, and they would still have troubles on the horn. Now in my fourth year, I am attempting to teach the beginners how to deal with those troubles since I have a better idea of what will be problems later on.

So here is a bit of my process. 


I believe what won me the job at Lake Highlands was that I told them I was nerd for scales. It's true. You could blame it on my upbringing in band (scales every day for at least 50% of class time), but I personally believe that if you can play your scales you can play anything. 

I start my beginners on the penta-scale (C D E F G) instead of the octave. I used to give my kids octave scales from day one, but I would quickly run into range problems. It takes some beginners 1-2 months to be able to get above the second line G. Shoot, it takes most 6th graders 2-4 weeks to figure out how to go 'up' on the horn. With a penta-scale, they have a goal closer in distance and they can still take their baby steps (baby steps are so important in music). 


I really wanted a way to teach kids how to play 'jumps' or 'skips' in music as early as possible since that is a big challenge later on. What I've settled with these days is having my beginners practice the three note arpeggio (C E G). In how I've laid out my penta-scales, all the corresponding three-note arpeggios can be covered with one fingering, so we play the arpeggio both with the one fingering (à la playing the harmonic series) and with the 'regular' fingerings. I love having students do this because both arpeggio methods (same and different fingerings) have challenges in the execution.

Ear Training

There is one big problem/challenge with playing the French Horn that I believe is sorely misunderstood or overlooked: EAR TRAINING. Most band programs test the wee hornist-to-be by having him/her sing a matched pitch with the director. This is great, but the ear training seems to stop there. 

I have a strong personal conviction for one aspect of horn-playing, and it was confirmed recently when I read a passage on horn in an orchestration book. From The Techniques of Orchestra by Kennan and Grantham (Fifth Edition, Pg 124):

 The horn is not by nature a particularly agile instrument. Very fast running passages and quick leaps are simply not in its province except, with limitations, in virtuoso solo work. And because the player must 'hear' each note in the mind's ear before playing it, the melodic lines written for the instrument should be as smooth as possible and should avoid awkward leaps.

When I read that passage, something very big and previously elusive crystalized in my mind. No wonder so many of my kids had so many woes in band. Many could not function with other instruments playing simultaneously with them. Only a few, it seemed, would understand how octaves are two notes in different places that sound the same. However, I noticed that many kids would understand when scales 'go wrong' (aka when they miss a flat or sharp or even a natural!).

The secret is the ear. What are my horn students hearing? Many, I believe, either hear nothing before they play or hear wrong things. With this piece of conviction fueling me in my pedagogy, I now teach in these early years that some things always sound the same - scales, arpeggios, 'concert F', etc. I want my students to know how to hear musically and to trust the information their ears give them. In my opinion, the ear never lies, and you can train it to be just as right and reliable as a perfect-pitched ear.

It's quite remarkable how kids don't know how to properly listen. Sometimes it seems that many of my students don't even know the ear is a usable thing. It's like being taught how to breathe for a wind instrument: we don't go around gasping deep breaths (natural breathing goes mostly unnoticed), but we must learn how to breathe deeply and blow strongly in order to play our brass instruments well. Many young musicians are unaware of the power the ear possesses. I aim to show them and train them to use it.

Figuring It Out

This will be the point with which some will find disagreement, so get ready. My bottom line: I cannot play the instrument for my student. This covers so many things in my teaching perspective, but most particularly the physical aspect. I cannot physically play for my students, so they must learn to play for themselves. This leads me to give a lot of space for 'trial and error'. In the beginning I try to instruct as minimally as possible. I place the mouthpiece in the best possible position, make sure posture and hand placement are correct, and then basically just tell my kids to 'BLOW!'

I believe the best embouchure is the one that is naturally formed. I've spent these past years trying to describe how to make an embouchure. Either I ended up not explaining it well enough or the student attempted to do what I was describing by making strange faces. These days, I set the mouthpiece in the best place and watch my beginner slowly form their embouchure over a couple of weeks. 

Obviously, not all embouchures form correctly right away (most don't, I've experienced), therefore I step in here and there and guide the beginners to the right path. However, these days I'm of the belief that one can experience the right way and wrong way to get the horn to work. You'll find that horn playing is usually very right or very wrong. Part of my job is to point out when the horn is worked well and when it is worked poorly or inefficiently. After that, hopefully I can teach the student to be able to discover these things when I'm not around to help. 

I could continue, but as it's going on 1am (yikes) I figure I'll leave it here. I'm happy I get to share my horn thoughts with the world.

Hopefully coming soon will be a post on the Bands of American competition I went to this weekend. What an amazing experience...