Part 2: "Hands On" with Instrument Fittings
Submitted by Josh Langston,
Millennium Middle School
Seminole County Public Schools
The physical process of instrument evaluations can be stressful for directors and students. However, this stress can be mitigated by streamlining your process to make it easier for the director to manage and less intimidating for the student to perform.
Some basic instruction can make the students more likely to have a positive experience. Establish prior knowledge on which to build by:
Identifying what is being observed
Demystify the evaluation process by explaining that, as the teacher, you are looking for two main things:
- affinity - a natural predisposition, for a particular instrument or type of instrument
- teachability - how quickly a student can be taught how to make the desired sound. The speed with which a student can "make the face", produce the buzz, or cover all of the holes can be an indicator of a student's success on that instrument.
Teaching the Posture
Demonstrate and practice how the students should sit or stand when playing an instrument. Relate this to a sports "stance" or other posture necessary for activities with which they may be familiar. Some quick tips on teaching posture include:
- "Feet flat, edge of chair, tall back, head up!" Turn this into a call & response by saying part of the phrase and having students "fill in the blanks"
- "From where you are sitting, can you stand straight up without changing the position of your feet?" Emphasize that the position of your feet affects the use your abdominal muscles. Also, have students "stand up without their bottoms leaving the chair." This will produce an upright, active posture.
- "Is your back 12 inches from the back of the chair?" The visual of using a ruler to define the space behind a student does wonders for quickly addressing slouching.
Teaching the fundamental embouchures
Use the students' fingers to demonstrate the following fundamental embouchure shapes:
- Flute- have students hold the right index finger as if it were a flute head joint to teach the desired position
- Double reeds- have students use a pinky to demonstrate the tucked in nature of the lip position
- Clarinet & saxophone- use the thumb to imitate a mouthpiece and simulate the placing of the two front teeth on top, the folding of the bottom lip over the bottom teeth, breathing through the sides of the mouth, firming up the corners of the mouth, and the flattening of the chin
- Brass- have students hold an index finger as if they were "shushing" someone; have students inhale and exhale in a relaxed fashion to produce the various buzzes needed for the various size of mouthpiece
Teaching how to breathe
Using the correct posture, identify for students the characteristics of correct breathing for musical performance:
- Inhalation- silently through the mouth, relaxed and deep, "breathe down" to fill up/expand the mid-section, keep head and shoulders still
- Exhalation- through the mouth, focused (laser beam vs. shotgun), no puckering, no puffed cheeks
With these behaviors in place, it is much easier to then put an instrument in a student's hands and coach them in making a tone.
It is not always necessary to have students be evaluated on a completely assembled instrument. In many cases, it is preferable to observe students make a sound on a portion of the instrument to observe their ability to create the desired embouchure for each instrument. Also teaching hand position at this point can rapidly increase the amount of time it takes to complete evaluations. Fittings for each instrument can be accomplished with the following:
- Flute- use just the head joint and cover the open end; have students produce low and high tones; listen for clarity of tone
- Oboe- use the entire instrument, but hold the instrument for the student; have them balance the weight by holding the oboe "away from the silver"; produce a steady crow/tone
- Bassoon- use the reed and bocal to observe embouchure shape and tone; produce a steady crow/tone
- Clarinet- use the entire instrument, but hold the instrument for the student; have them balance the weight by holding the clarinet "away from the silver"; reverse the clarinet so that you can perform simple note changes standing in front of the student; listen for tone in various ranges
- Saxophone- use just the mouthpiece, reed, ligature, and neck to observe embouchure and steadiness of pitch
- Brass- use the entire instrument, but use simplified hand positions; listen for steadiness of tone and ability to hit different partials
- Percussion- have students imitate a variety of rhythms by either clapping or echoing on an instrument (snare drum or mallets); perform a coordination test (clapping off-beats, marching in place and clapping, marching backwards and clapping the off-beats, etc.); listen for study beat, ability to echo rhythms
Creating a consistent system of notating a student’s success on each instrument. Example might include a numerical scale (for example 1-5, 1-10) or a series of checkboxes identifying essential skill components.
Instrument evaluations are the appropriate time to observe any physical characteristics that might contribute to the success or frustration of the student. Some general physical characteristics to be on the look out for include:
- Size and shape of hands (presence of all fingers)
- Arm length
- Dental irregularities and/or hardware; extreme overbites; uneven two-front teeth
- Lip shape (tear-drop upper lip)
- Overall size/height
Many teachers also use a variety of other factors that help indicate a student's potential success on an instrument. Uses of some of these factors is debatable, but are used nonetheless.
- Financial status- An economically disadvantaged student may benefit from playing a school-owned instrument OR be steered away from instruments that are costly or require private lessons.
- Standardized test scores- Can be used to identify those who might be up to the challenge of performing a traditionally difficult instrument (oboe, bassoon, French horn).
- Transportation- Walkers may have difficulty carrying an instrument to and from school. Students on crowded busses might be prevented from bringing larger instruments onto the bus.
The final article of this series will be, "Ways to Build a Balanced Instrumentation" after instrument fittings.