Pedagogy: Tips for Tuba-The Freelance Lesson Instructor by Angelo Kortyka
I would find it hard to believe that any tuba or euphonium player has gone their entire career without teaching lessons at some level or another. As a working musician who has had the pleasures of being a graduate student preparing for auditions, making ends meet by simultaneously slinging coffee, playing polka, playing random small ensemble gigs, and giving private lessons, to full-time band director, and even some college teaching, I can empathize with the headaches of teaching private lessons to the common student. The high school and middle school students I taught were not always a pleasure to see or work with. Too often they did not have their money, did not practice what I asked them to if they practiced anything at all, and did not obtain the materials I asked them to procure. While this was enervating at first, I learned many lessons about teaching lessons. Now that I am a band director and a huge proponent of private lessons for ALL of my students, I value the expertise of a lesson instructor, someone who can tackle certain issues and be a resource for me to talk to about their specialty. The basic premises I am operating under are that 1: private instruction is good for every student and 2: more work for musicians is a good thing.
Private instructors are an invaluable asset to a music program, and most directors would welcome someone to their school to teach. Sometimes finding a school to teach lessons at is a challenge because many schools that have large programs already have instructors, and others don’t think they can afford them. The most success I’ve had in finding private students was by sending letters to all the high schools and middle schools in the area, addressed to the band directors, followed up by e-mails to every one of those same folks. In the letters, I was sure to include a few of my accomplishments as a performer and teacher, my contact information, rates, and if I had been authorized to work in the school district I was contacting. Where I currently work, students are not allowed to work with adults who have not had a background check. When someone has already been fingerprinted, that is a huge plus! Many times I offered to go to a school for a free lesson or master class, or asked the band director to pay a flat fee for me to teach all the low brass students in small group or individual abbreviated lessons. This gave the students an opportunity to meet me and exchange contact info. Always ask for the parents contact information, never the students’ without the parents’ permission. Once you get invited to come to a school, be early and bring your horn. Students will want to see what you can do. No need to play Czardas, but be an example for them. Warm up before lesson time, and be ready to play for them. A nice big tone will open some eyes.
As a band director, I barely can keep up with my grade book, budget, and rehearsal planning. I wish I had time to give all of my students one on one instruction. Many private lesson instructors expect me to organize, schedule, and collect money for them. A private instructor that can call parents, schedule days and times to meet students (I prefer during rehearsal time, or immediately before or after it so I can be present) and manage collecting money in a timely fashion is not only helping my students get better, but costing me no extra time or effort. Many times people miss out on work because they are unwilling to do the clerical parts of the job. I also like to chat with private instructors that come to the school to catch up on different students’ progress, questions I may have about the instrument, literature, etc. Being a resource of information on the instrument is an important part of the job.
It is much easier for students to have lessons at the school, and it is preferable to do that for safety and liability reasons as well. You will find and keep more students if you keep records, call or email them the day before their lessons, and handle scheduling and money yourself. I cannot over stress the importance of being there every week, for every student. Even if Johnny forgets his money every other week, you still need to be there to teach that lesson or you will lose him as a student. Come up with a system to remind and get students to bring their payment, whether it’s paying a week or two in advance, monthly, etc.
While we’d like to all teach well organized students who work hard on their assignments and aspire to be professional musicians, that simply is not reality. That’s a good thing! The world has enough fantastic tuba and euphonium players. Reasons for lessons might range from “I want to learn to play Smoke on the Water,” “My mom is making me,” to “I would like to make it into all-state.” Ask your students why they are taking lessons. Whatever their reason for lessons is, listen closely to what they say. This is your opportunity to motivate them. Some goals are more attainable than others, and another part of the job is helping students define achievable goals.
Anyone who has taught private lessons has had the student that is never prepared, doesn’t practice, and doesn’t seem to care. Much of the time, parents or directors are forcing them to take lessons, or they are doing it to get out of something else. Instead of dismissing them or getting frustrated, I started to approach these students in a different way. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they simply don’t know how to practice, nor do they have the motivation to do so! Your job then becomes very simple-practice for this student! Pick out some of their band music that they cannot play well, or some scales they do not know, and play with them. Practice the way you’d practice. By playing with the student, you are keeping them on task. If they cannot do something, break it down into smaller chunks so they can succeed. Your primary function at this point is to practice FOR this student for the time you are together. You are essentially getting paid to practice-albeit something you may not want to or need to-you are getting paid to practice! Hopefully along the way, your student will see the rewards of practicing, how to do it, and maybe even develop a desire to do so on their own. I know a few of my students have benefited from this approach. This is always something I fall back on with “trouble” students and occasionally even with upper level students.
Sometimes we are lucky enough to have a talented, hardworking young student who is professionally minded and music school bound. Teaching these students can be the hardest thing we do because we must keep them challenged! Calling upon your own personal experience is valuable, but just because you played Air and Bourree in 11th grade, the Beversdorf in the 12th grade, and started working on orchestral excerpts before college, that does not mean your students are ready or need to do the same. Think about your experience and use it to help your students. Find other literature that is on the same level, maybe even works you’ve always wanted to explore yourself. One of my high school teachers told me something I will never forget, and have come to realize is invaluable advice-“Keep as many irons in the fire as you can until you have to take some out.” I wish I had followed it a little better at age 18. If you have a student who is interested in composing, history, a second instrument, or instrument repair, help them cultivate those interests. Refer them to others who can help them once you’ve taken them as far as you can.
Between the unprepared and the future professional, you have everyone else. Most of these students genuinely like to play and practice a little bit, but basketball or video games may be their true passion. There will be some days you will need to practice for these students, but most of your lessons will be helping them to achieve specific goals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with helping a student learn their ensemble parts in lessons-this may be preferred because that is what they are being graded on, and where the band (or orchestra) director will see the impact of your work the easiest. If practice makes permanent, and perfect practice makes perfect, when students play their band parts repeatedly throughout the week, taking time to make sure they have them correct and sounding good before they play them over and over is ensuring that they get that “perfect practice” that makes perfect playing. It is absolutely worth your time to make sure they can play their parts if they do not have assigned work ready, and often assigning band parts can keep students motivated.
Make sure that whatever you play for students is as good as it can be. This is a lesson I learned while teaching sixth grade brass: playing four quarter notes is not as easy as it seems! I held my students to a high standard, but found it to be quite difficult to demonstrate what I expected without some concentration. There’s a lot of detail in beginning band books and band music. Be sure to make every whole note last four full beats, and breathe where marked. Play exactly what’s on the page, and expect students to do the same.
Finally, always be a good example, and be an ambassador for your craft. No matter what level of student you have, show those students how a professional musician should behave. To me this would include being on time, prepared, and polite. Don’t insult other musicians, don’t berate students, and most importantly, be a good player. By paying attention to the details at every level and modeling through exemplary performance, you will help your students build a solid foundation.
As musicians, we are the creators of a temporal and therefore perishable art. Whether or not we like to teach, it is our duty to do so to pass on what we love. In my brushes with great tuba players and musicians, I cannot think of a single one who ever treated me like I wasn’t good enough to be taught, despite having been woefully unprepared on some occasions. I can even think of a few times where I thought the lesson was over because nothing else could be done without me hitting the practice room first, only to spend another hour with a talented individual who surely had something better to do than spend time with me! The greatest players tend to also be some of the greatest teachers. Let their love of teaching be your inspiration next time you have a difficult day, and remember that you will have an impact on those students you teach, for better or worse.
Angelo Kortyka currently holds the positions of Band Director at Central High School (Harrison, TN) and Adjunct Professor of Tuba at Lee University (Cleveland, TN). Mr. Kortyka earned the degrees of Bachelor of Music-Music Education from Tennessee Technological University, Master of Music-Tuba Performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and most recently earned the distinction of National Board Certification for professional teaching standards. Past positions include Assistant Band Director at Woodward High School (Cincinnati, OH), Assistant Band Director at Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD (Pecos, TX), Adjunct professor of music at Xavier University (Cincinnati, OH) and Sul Ross State University (Alpine, TX). Currently Mr. Kortyka performs with the Jericho Brass Band, the Moccasin Brass Quintet (Chattanooga, TN), and the Chattanooga Tuba-Euphonium Quartet. He studied with R. Winston Morris, Timothy Northcut, Tucker Jolley, and Anthony Kniffen. Mr. Kortyka is originally from the Cleveland, Ohio area.