Giving Lessons

Steve Goodson

Beginner’s Corner—Part 5

Giving Lessons
by Paul R. Coats & Richard Booth

Note from Paul:  I know this is not exactly for beginners, but instead is intended more for private instructors.  I felt it would be good for students to read this, and perhaps gain an understanding of what they should expect from a private teacher.

I asked fellow saxophonist Richard “Bootman” Booth to offer additional comments.  Bootman and I “tag team” pretty well, I think.

Andrew asked:

Hey Paul!  I am thinking about starting a job in teaching music lessons.  However, I don’t know how to approach a student who has never picked up the horn or even read music before. I know that I should obviously teach the student the basics, that is, bass and treble clef.  However, how much of the basics should I cover before allowing the student to finally pick up the horn?

Paul answered:  Andrew:  ALWAYS have your horn out for a lesson.  The student needs to hear you play, and see that YOU also prepared for the lesson.

Richard “Bootman” Booth comments:  It is best to have you horn ready to go. They do indeed learn from hearing you play.  It is a good way to inspire them to further their playing.  Playing silly little ditties from popular TV shows, cartoons, or pop tunes often can be helpful when demonstrating to kids.

Paul:  Prepare a notebook for yourself, with a section for each of your students, where you will make notes of your assignments for that student, his progress, etc.  As you proceed through the lesson, make notes, and mention to the student, “For next week, I want you to work on X.”

Write his assignments in your notebook on that student’s page.  At the end of the lesson, copy the assignments for his next lesson on a piece if paper, an “assignment sheet.”  Perhaps give him some priorities… “Each day, work on X for 10 minutes, then Y for 10 minutes, and then practice Z for 15 minutes.”  A student needs guidance on how to best utilize his time.

When you make assignments, explain to him the purpose of each exercise, and play an example to demonstrate how this technique is used in music.  He must understand that finger-busting exercises are not assigned to make his life difficult, but to give him the skills he needs to play music on his instrument.  We do NOT assign “busy work”, we teach students to play the saxophone!

Richard:  I have found that sometimes it is best to let the students play the exercise first.  If I demonstrate each lesson before hand every time, the students start to copy what I was playing from memory rather than reading the music and understanding it for themselves. I let them go through it once or twice first before I demonstrate it. Always give them songs or studies that are within their ability to play, a small challenge is good but too much challenge and you have lost the student.

Paul:  At the beginning, for the first two weeks, do not let him play the sax.  Have him work only on the mouthpiece blowing.  It is NOT important that he freeze a tuner’s needle exactly on A (for alto sax).  A simple pitch pipe is sufficient as a pitch reference.  Have him work to get a clear, strong, steady mouthpiece pitch.

If he cannot get a clear, strong tone on the mouthpiece, he is not playing correctly… some facet needs improvement… perhaps tighter, looser, more or less mouthpiece insertion, etc.  But if all these conditions are met, and a good tone produced, then, if he plays the sax the same way, he will get a fine tone.

In that first lesson, you will need to test play the student’s instrument.  Explain to the parents, and write down exactly what needs to be done… what materials need to be obtained.  Make it simple for the parents… cork grease OR ordinary Chapstick!!!  Yes, Mom can pick it up at the grocery store!  Key oil OR ordinary Singer Sewing Machine Oil (but never 3-in-1 brand oil… it gums up).  Mom probably has or can get a Gerber Baby Bottle Nipple Brush… the plastic shank prevents scratching the tip rail… it makes a perfect mouthpiece brush.  Have a prepared list for the student and parents, check off the items he has.

The instrument… if YOU cannot play the student’s saxophone and produce a good tone, how can the student?  “Good enough to learn on”… that should be abolished… only saxesgood enough to play well on are suitable.  And as you know, I am not a high priced horn snob… but a sax must seal well, have good adjustment, etc.

Of course, for health reasons, when playing a student’s instrument, use your own mouthpiece, or sterilize the student’s mouthpiece before and after you play it.

Richard:  The student’s sax must be in good working order.  If not, it must be fixed up so that he can continue to learn on the instrument.  It is unacceptable for a student to have an instrument in poor working condition.

Paul:  Perhaps the student cannot afford a Selmer S80 or Vandoren mouthpiece.  But he can afford a good student mouthpiece (Bundy, Conn Precision, Rico Graftonite A3, Runyon 22, etc), for maybe $25… be practical.  A good, affordable item is better than the world’s best that will sit in the store forever due to price.  A Rico reed is just fine, #2 (or if he has difficulty, a #1 ½) to start.

The parent needs to sit in on the first few lessons.  For later lessons, have a place in another room where the parent can relax, read a magazine, watch TV, etc.

Richard:  This is particularly good with young students. They seem to feel more assured with their parents in the room.

Paul:  Always use positive reinforcement, never negative.  Acknowledge difficulties, but advise that they can be overcome.  Use phrases such as, “Yes… that IS a very common problem.  “X” is the cause of this problem.  There are several solutions, but this is what I feel is the best solution.  As you become more experienced, and practice these assignments, you will soon improve.”

Richard:  Experience is the best teacher of the teacher. As you progress you will tend to recognize the same type of problem and then be able to offer a range of ways to fix the problem.  Remember, what works for one student doesn’t necessarily work for the next student. There is more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak.

Paul:  Give the first lesson free of charge.  For young students, 10-11 year olds, lessons should be no longer than 35-40 minutes… they get tired and their mind wanders.  For older students, you can use a full hour.  For adults, I usually teach 1 1/2 hrs.

Richard:  I work on half hour lessons for younger students, one hour lessons for adults.  I am always generous with the time so as they feel that they are getting value for money from their lessons.

Paul:  In those first two lessons, teach basics of assembly, instrument care, etc.  But DO NOT LET HIM PLAY THE SAX.  Make this clear to the parent.  Tell the student he will not get to play the sax until he can blow the mouthpiece efficiently.  For the third lesson, if he can produce a clear, resonant tone with the mouthpiece, let him play the sax.

Richard:  I have them playing a song in the first lesson.  If they can play a song, then they are more likely to practice their instrument.  Normally I choose Hot Cross Buns, as it is a simple song that they will know and will be able to play it from memory easily.  I concentrate on embouchure things much later after I have got them playing their sax for a little bit.  I don’t use the mouthpiece only method of instruction as it tends to be more efficient to get them playing.  I work on the diaphragm support from the beginning, getting them to do diaphragm exercises.  Raising a book with their stomach as they lay on their back on the floor and holding it there for 20 seconds is a very effective exercise. The benefits of concentrating on the air support from the very start become apparent over time, as the student progresses.

A lot of this is due to different cultural expectations. You must do what is right according to your background. There is no hard and fast rule.

(Richard and I differ here, but do what you think is best for you and your student.)

Paul:  You should play his sax, with his mouthpiece.  Find the mouthpiece placement on the cork where the sax plays in tune.  Use a good tuner.  Mark the cork with a Sharpie permanent marker.  Tell the student to put the mouthpiece onto the cork up to that mark when assembling the sax and practicing.  Later, he can fine tune from that point.

Richard:  I worry about this much later.  I am more concerned with them being able to produce a sound.  I normally place the mouthpiece in the approximate tuning position on their saxophone myself.

Paul:  Make sure he CAN place the mouthpiece to that mark… many new saxes have neck corks that are much too large.  If necessary, YOU should sand the cork for him, fitting it to his mouthpiece.  Put tape on the neck (black electrical tape is good) to protect the neck from being scratched by the sand paper.  Make sure he can get the mouthpiece on to the mark without excessive force.  Show him how to use cork grease, and tell him he should use it every time.

Richard:  Show them how to use cork grease, even more important with beginner clarinet students.

Paul:  Tell the student he does not necessarily assemble the sax straight.  Instead, he must sit straight, with erect posture, etc, adjust his neck strap, and adjust the saxophone’s neck and mouthpiece angle to fit him.  Show him how to do this.  A good, easy to adjust neck strap is a necessity.  Emphasize to the student, “Make the instrument fit you, do not bend YOU to fit the instrument.”

Richard:  Correct posture is critical for being able to play.  Make certain that the neck strap is adjusted correctly so that the student isn’t bending his neck forward or down to play the instrument. This constricts the air passages, and conversely, makes it harder for them to blow a note on the saxophone.

Paul:  For a young child, the alto is ALWAYS held on the side.  For larger students and adults, on the side or in front, both are correct.  For tenor and baritone sax, while sitting, always play on the side, regardless of age, size of student or adult, always on the side.  Otherwise the right hand position will be poor.

Richard:  I play tenor in the center, between my legs when seated. The reasoning behind this has to do with air support.  If I sit with the tenor draped to the side I am bending my body slightly to counter for the weight of the instrument.  This in turn makes the left hand side of my diaphragm constrict which means that I have less air to play the saxophone.  Air support is critical on all saxes, but is most noticeable on tenor.  If I have an adult student starting on tenor, I get them to sit on the front of the chair, feet planted firmly on the ground.  This allows for good posture on the back, good air support, and thus makes it easier for them to produce a good tone from the beginning.

Paul:  Consider using the Standard Of Excellence book, by Bruce Pearson… a fine beginning band book.  Examination of this beginning band series will show you why I make this recommendation.  But feel free to use whichever method book(s) you feel is best.

Richard:  These are good books.  Accent On Achievement is another good one.  I use these when I am teaching kids from a band program.  One of the best private tutor books I have ever found is A Tune a Day by C.P. Herfurth.  It is a very old method book but I have yet to find one which betters it in getting students going quickly.

Paul:  Now you can introduce him to the treble clef.  It is not necessary to confuse him with bass clef at this time, as all of the music he will play for the next few years will be written for him in the treble clef.  When you introduce him to the other clefs, show him the grand staff, and that the bass clef is merely an extension of the upper clef.  But this can come somewhat later.

Richard:  Bass clef isn’t necessary for a beginning sax player until much, much later.  Teach them the notes by using simple rules.  Introduce the theory as they need it with what is happening in their next lesson or as they require it for the next song in the tutor book. Continually test them from week to week to make certain that they have retained their knowledge of the theory.

Paul:  In each lesson you should explain a little music theory to him.  If possible, the theory lesson should be related to the music he is playing.  For example, as he is introduced to scales, also teach him the major scale structure, minor scale structure.  When he begins to learn arpeggios, relate these notes to chords.  Play these chords on a keyboard so that he can hear how the notes harmonize to form the chord.

You should not be alone with a student… always have an open door, other people around (wife and kids, etc).  Do not allow a parent to drop off a student at your home and not stay there, at least in the next room with an open door.  In this day and age, you need no possibility of accusations… you know what I mean.  If at a music store, in a lesson room… the door stays open, and people walking by should be able to see all in plain view.  Sit with your backs toward the door to minimize distractions.  You must protect yourself.  This is not music, I know… but it is a shame that we even need to consider such things, but that is how it is.

Richard:  This is critical.  An accusation can cause you to a lot of damage, even if you are innocent. I teach with the door open and others around. It isn’t foolproof, but it the best way to protect yourself that I know of.  Group lessons are also good with young students as a protective measure for the teacher.  Here in Australia you have to pass a police check before you are allowed anywhere near children as a music teacher, sporting coach, scout master, etc.

Paul:  Well, if you have any other questions, please feel free to write.


Paul Coats & Richard Booth

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