Advice · Education

1st things 1st…

A new school term is just starting, with thousands of children picking up a trumpet for the first time this month. The purpose of this article is to look at how we as teachers approach these crucial first few weeks, what our priorities are to ensure sustained enthusiasm and a solid technical and musical grounding… and also any tips and tricks that we have learnt that help to achieve this.

I will start with my tuppence-worth, and then welcome my fellow trumpet teachers to share their thoughts here too. Any top tips that any of you may have will be received with interest and gratitude!

The first priority has to be continuation – no child can get the educational, personal and emotional benefits that we all know learning an instrument can bring, if they are desperate to quit after a handful of lessons. For me, most of the activities are centred on materials and music that is already familiar to the new-starter: very simple (sometimes one-note) arrangements of pop songs, lots of full-on singing and ear activities including improvising with backing tracks from lesson 1. I have found this to be a really brilliant way of building confidence and enthusiasm from the start – there is no such thing as a wrong note after all!

As far as a technical grounding goes, I tend to concentrate on 2 main aspects: Breathing and Tongue Level. I will also do a bit of mouthpiece work and buzzing with them to get them used to the feel of it, without worrying about it sounding rubbish!

The purpose of the controlled breathing is hopefully obvious. I have spoken to a number of teachers who do not start to talk about tongue level until months or sometimes years in. I have found that getting students to think about and sing melodies using aaah, eeeh etc gets most kids comfortably with a workable range of a 5th or an octave within 2-3 weeks. The sooner they can play some ‘proper’ tunes, the better! I cringe when I hear (often very experienced) brass teachers telling their students to ‘blow harder’ or ‘squeeze’ to get up to that 2nd space G.

There are loads of fantastic all-in-one tutor books around. I tend to use mostly my own materials for the first 5 or six weeks until half term, and then ask the parents to get their wallets out for a good book.

I have spoken to a number of colleagues with some great technical tips. One was to ask the student to grip a thin drinks straw (the type that comes with a Capri-Sun) to form nice centred and relaxed embouchure. Then put the mouthpiece over the top of the straw, and then finally remove the straw, leaving the mouthpiece perfectly centred. Repeating this at the start of each practice or lesson gets the student used to exactly where it should go. I used this myself for a while, and it worked very well with most students. However, I found that in these early days, especially if you have an excited younger student, you do not want to be doing anything that tempers and gets in the way of their enthusiasm and love of what they have just started. As with any of these things, it is a balancing act.

What are the priorities for you as you set another student off on their adventure? What are the things that have worked well and perhaps not so well? Have your priorities (or indeed the students) changed over the years? Please do comment here…

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