Every year, our beginners get their first taste of orchestra and band at their schools. For some, this can be a fun experience, but for others, there's a lot of stress, worry, and unrealistic expectations. When we begin our new instruments in September, we are working hard to learn all the notes & rhythms we need for band/orchestra music before that first rehearsal in February. And without fail, every year, I have an wave of students telling me they are "the only one who doesn't know what they're doing", that they "don't know any of the notes" and my favorite: "my teacher is really mad at me."*
Invariably, every year I not only hear these things, but the kids cry in their lessons and tell me they are quitting, they won't pick up their instruments and if I point to a note on the page and ask them to play it, they tell me they can't, they won't, and it's too hard.
It's because of moments like this that I realize why all teachers are required to take psychology and classroom management classes in college as part of our degrees. These kinds of behaviors are normal, predictable and manageable. But it really does take a village to raise these young musicians, so between myself, their band director at school, and you, the parents, we should be able to help the kids get through this rough patch.**
The most striking part of the kids' complaints is that they "don't know the notes" in the new music. This statement is unequivocally false: they do know the notes. In fact, by winter break, all my cello students can play G and D scales in first position, all woodwinds can play F, G and Bb scales, and all students can play whole notes, half notes, dotted half notes, dotted quarter notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes. They are, every year, the most advanced kids joining the beginning band at their schools.
24 years ago, when I started teaching, I didn't quite know how to handle this behavior with the kids. I pleaded with them to concentrate, to practice, to stop complaining, everything I could to get them to stay on task. I, too, was frustrated and actually considered not teaching beginners just to avoid this strange period in every beginner's career. Luckily, I had good teacher-mentors who had literally seen it all, and when I described the kids' attitude change, they knew exactly what to tell me.
It turns out, some of the kids don't equate the notes they learned in their lesson music with the notes they see in their new band music. Somehow, the notes are "different" because they are printed on a different sheet of paper, or because they are in a different order, or because they are playing in a different room! I know this sounds strange, but it's often what the kids are feeling. I tested this theory long ago by pointing to a note in a clarinet student's lesson book. Without hesitation, they told me it was a G. Great! Now, I pointed to the exact same G in their band music. "What note is this?" and they got teary eyed and said they didn't know! Not so shocking, 1996-2017 tests have yielded consistent results.
It seems odd that just because they are used to reading music on the yellow pages of my old book, they feel they can't read notes on the stark white xeroxed paper used in band, but it's true. One step further, they often get comfortable playing one piece of band music, and then when their conductor hands out a new song, they think they have to relearn all the same notes again! So, I ask them, "can you read words no matter what book you open?" Or "Can you read the same words if you mom writes them or if I write them?" "Do you have to relearn how to read every time you open a new website?" As long as they answer thoughtfully, then we can have a conversation about how music notes are no different the paper they are printed on.
It can be as simple as the music type is larger in the band music (it usually is) or that the rests & notes look a little different (flute & oboe students play a lot of French music, and the notation is slightly different from American type). Sometimes the kids see a note that normally has a stem going down (a Bb for example) yet in the band music there might be a Bb beamed to an A therefore the stem goes up, and they don't see it as the same note:
Kids are very sensitive to change at this early stage in their musical development, so it's important that I reassure them that they aren't alone, there are plenty of other kids in the band who are feeling as uneasy as they are. It's scary playing your instrument in front of a room full of people! But after a while, they can become comfortable with it and just enjoy the community experience.
It's this kind of behavior that keeps us teachers on our toes, but that also requires a lot of support from the parents. I can't be at your house helping your child practice, and you can't always sit in on their lessons, so take the time to check in on them and no matter if you "understand" their concerns, bring your questions to me and see if I have a strange explanation like this one!!
Together, we can make our new musicians feel more comfortable and confident, and hopefully give them the desire to continue on in band through high school. Music is one of those amazing things that unites people around the world. You don't have to be a professional musician to someday play in a community band or orchestra. You don't even all have to speak the same language (I often play in an orchestra led by a Korean conductor who runs the rehearsal in Korean; though I know nothing of the language, I can participate and understand everything going on)! All that's required is a love of making music with other people.
* teachers are never mad at their students!
**not all kids go through this. Don't expect your child to feel this way, just be aware that this does happen, and if they are seeming out-of-character as soon as band starts, this could be what's going on.