Tips for Tuba, Volume IX B
By David Porter
Impressionistic music making
We see someone—we judge them. We make a decision right away about them and changing that perception is only done by actions, not words. Labels are even stickier on people than on cans. Does this sound like a religious or motivational speech? While I often combine life habits and religion, I am specifically talking about first impressions. Students, ensemble directors, private teachers, and parents all carry on a relationship that is intertwined from day one. Speaking as someone who wants students to take private lessons continually, I try very hard to make a good first impression. This is not to say I am only concerned about impressions—far from it. My goal that still drives me today is developing a relationship with students, parents, and ensemble directors that encourage the students to enjoy music by becoming the best tuba player they can be and exposing them to as many different styles and genres as possible. The definitive goal is to make every student good enough by high school graduation so that they are able to play in any college or community program worldwide. Students who are music majors do not need to be searched for; they appear all by themselves (they get extra training if that is their direction). It is the general tuba population that needs attention for longevity and commitment. This all starts with a first meeting.
Beyond general pleasantness and courtesy there might be several things to consider for a young student’s needs. Why are they taking lessons? Is this their first time? Are their parents familiar with private lessons? What does everyone hope to gain from private lessons? The following are thoughts and suggestions specifically about young tuba students.
Why are they taking lessons? First, figure this out with a short parental conversation. Reasons we might hear could be any of the following.
1. The director told us to.
2. Our child needs some help to keep up.
3. We want our child to get better.
>4. Our child wants to get better.
Even though I have often called students whose names were given by directors, it is the personal request of a director to a student or parent that will often do the trick.
Students who are struggling to keep up with their music need extra help. Most times a student who needs extra help truly enjoys music. A key ingredient is to remember what the student needs help in—making a good grade. That means finding out what will help the student make an A in music. That may mean temporarily foregoing typical private lesson ventures as study books, solos, and working on ensemble music and ensemble tests week after week. The good news is that along with this approach, tips about breathing, embouchure, style, articulation, and musicianship can be worked in but on a slower scale.
Sometimes parents want the best for their children and realize that most music students will need some private one on one tutoring to reach their ultimate potential. Student’s may or may not want it themselves, but usually if parents and directors are for it the students are either for it or amiable to it.
Sometimes the student may actually state that they want to get better with private lessons. This is most excellent because everyone else will usually be on board with the student’s desires to do anything that will help themselves be better. This is also grand because these students will usually be motivated to practice and eager to soak up improvement suggestions. One of my favorite students was a young middle school student who would come in to each lesson pounding me with questions. This student often stated that whatever needed to be done about music and tuba had to be done, because life was all about how to play the tuba better. Now, that is cool.
Is this their first time? Are their parents familiar with private lessons? These are very important questions to answer. My question to first-time parents is usually two fold. “Is this your child’s first time taking lessons and are you familiar with how lessons work?” For the parents that are already familiar with lessons, the conversation is quick and easy. How much, how often, requirements (study books, recitals, etc.), location, and instrument needs usually sum up the exchange. For parents who are not familiar with lessons, a combination of the same information mixed with a pep talk about how their child will benefit from the lessons. Most of all, parents need to feel their child’s needs will be of paramount importance to the teacher and that they, the parents, will be listened to attentively and thoughtfully. We are establishing a relationship right then with the parents. They are the best ones for transferring the best of intentions to their child.
What does everyone hope to gain from private lessons? Some of the answers to this question have already been said, but let’s explore the maximum gains for lessons. The student usually wants to get an A in their ensemble and is willing to go through tutoring to get it. The parents usually want their child to get an A, and they want their child to enjoy what they are doing—therefore they are willing to pay for tutoring for their child. The ensemble director wants the students to achieve their greatest potential. Since many students move at different speeds, tutoring helps even out the level of all students at the highest. Put all these together and add just the right amount of passion about making the student a better musician and usually a wonderful experience with private lessons can be achieved.
Having said all of this, where does that leave us with first impressions? Let me restate something from paragraph four. Most of all, parents need to feel their child’s needs will be of paramount importance to the teacher and that they, the parents, will be listened to attentively and thoughtfully. We are establishing a relationship right then with the parents. They are the best ones for transferring the best of intentions to their child. Parents and their children feed off of each other about people they meet.
My suggestions are as follows.
1. Be very warm, friendly and courteous to the student and parents, using Mr. or Ms. for the parents and first names for the students. Knowing parents on a first name basis usually takes a couple of years to feel comfortable.
2. Watch facial expressions and reactions to introductions of requirements. Listen to voice tone of student and parent. Find ways to be upbeat and see the glass “half full” during the initial lessons.
3. Invite and encourage the parents to sit in on the lessons. This is vital to the comfort level of the parents that their child is safe, their money is being well used in the instruction, and they can begin to understand what their child will be going through with lessons. Do not tell the parents to quit coming to lessons! Most will stop coming in time as they see consistency in the lessons and get to know you. Occasionally, some may still sit in because of logistics of waiting areas or the weather is too cold to sit in the car. If you ever have a new student in a school situation where the parent is not present, go out of your way to accompany the student after the lesson and meet the parents.
4. Update the parents on the material covered in the lesson in front of the student. This is not to instill fear in the student but more to keep parents feeling informed and also helps the student hear again what is expected of them.
5. Do not touch a student (new or old) during a lesson for any reason. Not a good practice these days and progress can be made just fine with visuals on you that the students can copy.
6. Give the student plenty of space around the tuba and music stand. Sit approximately four feet away. If you have to see their music with them, stand well to the side or well back. Don’t hover over them.
7. If possible, try to be pleasant smelling and looking—especially for tubas. Also, if the first lessons are at your home, try to have the lesson area clean and neat.
8. When the lesson is over, use the word “thanks” a lot, find ways to point out the good things about the student and help parents and students leave having had a lesson that is almost equivalent to a neighborly visit.
One last thing—give parents your home and cell phone numbers. Present yourself as someone that is available to talk at any time. Being able to reach you is important to their comfort about having lessons. First lessons almost always include breathing as a primary item to cover. So, it does not take long before I find myself telling them, “don’t forget to breathe!”
serves as Principal Tuba with The McLean Orchestra and performs as a member of the Camerata Brass Quintet. He is also faculty on The Masterworks Festival and Director of Youth and Youth Music at Fairlington United Methodist Church.