The Calming Effects of Routine
There is always an element of predictability to at least part of my fundamentals time. There is something innately calming about routine. Parents of small children often have a set bedtime routine that occurs each night. Perhaps the child gets a drink of water, brushes his or her teeth, and then snuggles next to mom or dad for a story, song, and goodnight kisses before turning on the nightlight and being tucked in. The element of predictability helps the child feel calm and relaxed.
When we spend the first few minutes of our band class in a predictable manner, this has a similar effect on our young musicians. Students are able to put the hustle and bustle of the passing period behind them and settle into a sense of calm, which then sets the tone for the rehearsal ahead.
Often the first thing that I ask students to do is a short breathing routine. We accompany the breathing with hand motions that mimic the direction of the air stream. In the photo above, students are demonstrating the starting position with their hands all the way out. When they breathe in, they’ll move their hands in towards their bodies.
These motions allow me to visually monitor the students’ timing of the breath. This exercise is more about focusing the students’ minds and working on timing than it is on developing breath capacity, although that can be a secondary benefit.
Since my goal is to focus and calm the students, I tend to avoid asking students to fill their lungs to capacity in this exercise because of the tension that it creates in the body. When you try this in your own classroom, work to get students taking a full, relaxed and expansive breath on the inhale, while making sure that the exhale is focused and directional.
Breathing Routine for Focus and Timing
This chart, and the following bullet points, illustrate our breathing routine. You can see what the hand positions look like in my classroom in the photo above.
- Sip: Take a sip of air to release the note (your hand moves toward you)
- Out: Exhale the stale air (your hand moves away)
- In: Take a full, relaxed, two-count breath (your hand moves toward you)
- Out: Exhale a focused and directed stream of air for four beats (your hand moves away)
Following two or three minutes of breathing, I move into fundamentals-based exercises. Students begin with a concert F whole note, followed by a whole rest in a repeating pattern.
This exercise is beautifully simplistic. It can be performed by the youngest musicians (on mouthpieces/small instruments) to the most proficient, while allowing focus on all three parts of the note: beginning, middle, and end.
Throughout the exercise, center feedback on helping the students to perform with a resonant, vibrant tone that matches that of their neighbors. As a result, students will hear lots of information concerning breath support, air speed, posture, embouchure, and vowel shape.
The whole rest provides a perfect opportunity for me to give a few words of feedback which the students can then immediately apply, making the feedback loop as short as possible. Once I am happy with the quality of the sound, my focus turns to the clarity of entrances and releases.
Again, feedback is quick, continuous, and the students apply it immediately. We only stop the exercise if an extended explanation is needed, or if I want the students to respond to questions about what they hear.
Once clarity of entrances and releases are established, I move to exercises that focus on articulation consistency and accuracy. Exercises which keep students on a single pitch, such as Concert F, are preferable because they allow isolation of skill. If we try to tackle too many things at once, our work will be less effective.
Exercises such as the one above can be modified to work on a variety of articulations and styles. Simply substitute in staccato, accent or any other style to change the focus.
Exercises for Changing Notes
Only after clarity of tone and articulation are established, and I am certain that students are focused, listening, and engaged in the fundamentals process, will I move into exercises where students change notes. These could include Remington exercises, scale patterns, chordal patterns, or chorales. Use these exercises to focus on changing notes with precision or improving intonation.
Note that it is extremely important to stop periodically throughout the fundamental set to pose higher-level questions to your students. As your students become more experienced listeners and musicians, your questions should become more in-depth.
- What did you hear? (This question gives student flexibility in how they answer and is safe because there really are no wrong answers!)
- What did you think of the tone quality of the clarinet section?
- Which section of the band do you hear sticking out of the ensemble texture?
- Describe the articulation you are hearing from the trumpet section. What would you tell the trumpets to do to improve their articulation on this exercise?
- What adjustments need to be made to tuning (or balance) in this chord in order to achieve our best sound?
As you structure your own “warm-up,” try developing a fundamentals-based routine that focuses on mastery of breathing, embouchure, vowel shape, articulations, and releases. Because these skills drive nearly every other aspect of playing, they must be practiced with a goal of excellence, rather than mere proficiency.
When fundamentals become automatic for your students, their minds will increase their capacity to carry out more complex musical tasks, while still performing the fundamentals with precision and clarity. As a result, everything your students play will improve!