Thank a Band Teacher Teaching Orchestra!

An interview with Andrew Brown for NSPTO Month 2023!

Today, we will be talking with Andrew Brown, a band teacher from Markham, Ontario in Canada, who recently started an orchestra program at his junior high and high school.

Andrew on his primary instrument, the piano.

What was your musical training in university, Andrew?

I did music education with a piano emphasis at Andrews University in Southwest Michigan.  I also recently finished my Masters in Music Education in 2021.

At Andrews University, what instrumental education courses were you able to take?

As a piano major I took piano pedagogy.  I also took the methods courses and those included one semester each of string methods, wind methods, brass methods and percussion methods.  We learned things about each of the instruments and what to look for when you’re teaching it. 

We were actually able to have hands-on experience on those instruments, and so those were the fun classes and the ones I looked forward to.

So, you only had one semester of strings?  You didn’t get a chance to play all the instruments then?

No, you couldn’t go through all the instruments.  So they asked us to pick one instrument and I picked the viola.  I thought it would be more comfortable for someone who is tall like me.  And I liked the sound of it.  We technically did try all the instruments, but we really only learned to play one.

How much did you get out of that?

It was enough for me to understand the string family, the instrument families, and to be able to understand the transpositions.  The basic stuff, right?  But it didn’t really give me a full spectrum for all of the instruments, you know?  These method courses were just enough to get a music teacher started for conducting an ensemble that already knows how to play.

If I wanted to really dive in and teach the kids from the beginning, I knew that after my undergrad I would have to do something more.

Andrew on the viola.

Did they prepare you better for band than they did for strings?

Oh yes, definitely. I actually was in the band mostly in my university.  I played percussion because of my keyboarding skills. 

The band director there, he was the music education advisor as well, so I was able to get more experience from the band side definitely than from the string side.

I did do a little bit of double bass lessons in university to play in the orchestra because there was an opening for more double basses.

What classes do you normally teach at your school?

So I’m a band director. I teach concert band, grades 5 to 8, junior high level, at College Park Elementary School. Next door I teach high school band at Kingsway College. And then of course, you know, music teachers sometimes have to take on other classes, so I teach geography and other types of courses like that.

And then this year I was able to, fortunately, finally start a string course at the high school level and so that’s been going pretty well so far.

So what possessed you to start a string program at your school, not being a string player?

Well, I always wanted to start a string ensemble. I’m very much for instrumental music. I learned a lot from choir in high school, but I really like instruments. That’s just my thing.  I loved orchestra.

But what really drove me to do a class at the school was because I had string players and string students in our school community that didn’t have an ensemble at the school level. The previous band director put some of the string players into the band and it just didn’t work out having the violins playing oboe and flute parts.  It wasn’t challenging them. I wanted to create something separate for them.

And so, because there were students taking string lessons in the community, that just gave me a much bigger need and drive to start something like this. If there weren’t any students in the community doing strings, then I probably wouldn’t be as motivated to start strings, but there were quite a few students in the community taking strings who unfortunately didn’t have an ensemble to play in.

That’s so  great of you to take this on! Do most of the students in the program already play?

So I wanted to start some beginners as well. So based on what I learned from your class that I took last summer I wanted to start a beginner ensemble to get new students coming. But I already had some very, very advanced violins who are like level RCM grade 10 and some intermediate cello students.

So on Mondays and Tuesdays I see the beginners.  On Wednesdays and Thursdays I see the advanced and intermediates.  Some weeks I see one of the classes for three days. I have a pretty flexible schedule with them.

And how big are the classes?

So, from beginners to advanced I have 26.  About half and half in each class.

That’s pretty good for the first year! What would your advice be to other non-string players who want to start a string programme?

First of all, you have to see if there’s a need in the community and your school area, and talk to the students first. See if they would like to have a string class offered at their school.  Maybe start with your music program first and say, “What if we were to offer a string ensemble, would some of you guys be interested?”  Maybe do a survey and if there’s enough interest, talk to the parents as well.

If you have a good relationship with the school and the parents and if you get enough interest, then that will help.  I had good support, but it still took a few years to get it started because of scheduling and other logistics. And once you start it, it will help motivate you to want to build your skills and learn how to teach it right.

Andrew took on the cello during Teaching Strings Made Easy!

What was the route you took to prepare yourself to teach strings?

There are a couple things. Obviously the string method class in undergrad was a good starter.  But what I did was I looked online for some courses to take on teaching strings.

So I found your course and took your class last summer.  And right now I am also taking private lessons as an adult on the viola, something to help me be more proficient at least on one string instrument. I think those two things have been helping a lot so far right now.

That’s great.  Have you found anything else that you would be interested in taking as well?

I haven’t really looked yet since your class.  But I would like to do something to go beyond what I’ve learned from your class….

Yes, level two is coming soon!

Yeah, like a level 2. Exactly. I’ve been learning more shifting and bowing techniques in my private lessons.  It would be nice refresh on that and see what it looks like on other instruments in the string family and know how to address it with the whole class.

And how do you feel you’re doing after taking my course?

You know I feel a lot better; very good and confident in teaching the beginners for sure. And even being able to remind some of my advanced students of things they need to do; sometimes they slouch, you know, or they tighten their bow too much. Even though they can play Sarasate and all these fancy pieces and everything, even the advanced students build bad habits over time.

What helped me a lot is being thrown into the fire and just learning on the spot. Like, sometimes I have to go back to your class videos and notes and just review a couple things because sometimes you forget things over time.  It’s so it’s great that we have access to the videos for the year and teachers can go back and review.

So you do find having the class recordings useful?  I always wonder how much you all make use of them. 

Yes, of course.  And making us write the journal was helpful too, even though it was a drag to do!

Last words of advice for any band teachers wanting to start a string program?

If you find a desire to do it, always start with the kids first. Kids matter the most.  Get the interest from them and then really try to sell the program to the parents and try to show them the benefits of having a string class in the community.

And to promote playing music for music’s sake and finding enjoyment in the arts, not just to build your math scores, even though  a lot of people want to use that, you know, as their motivator.

Do that and then of course take your class which I’m always going to recommend for sure. If you are looking to start beginners especially.

And, and if you have some money on the side find a private teacher in the community and take lessons.  I find that to be very helpful too.

Thanks so much for being willing to share your experience with other band teachers, Andrew!

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