What to Teach a Beginning Woodwind Student
“For School Teachers”
Part 2

Most usually I put these ezines out every couple of months or so, however with school starting soon, I thought it might good to offer you the teacher, and the parent a few more ideas. You can always contact me at www.MikeVaccaro.Com should you have any questions or desire me to come visit with your students and parents during or after school.

Teacher Dilemma
Unless you can play the student's instrument and mouthpiece/headjoint/reed set-up in some sort of sanitary way you cannot know what the student is feeling. Feeling is so much of the tactile method of success of any instrument.  

Student Expectations
You have had your first week with the new students and this is your second meeting with them. It is important for you to let them know that they will be tested on a regular basis in front of the other students on the assignment from the previous week. Peer acknowledgement becomes very important with this type of expected learning compliance. Teachers can teach, parents can monitor, but in my experience only peers in the beginning are an influence in having any student come in prepared.

Students just do not want to be embarrassed.

The first week you gave each student a note to learn. Go from student to student and ask them to play the first note they learned and recite the name of the note. If you have decided to use a band method have them recite and play the first line in the book you gave them in addition to the note. This is a good time to check some important basic elements.

Add a second note:
After you have gone through the group for each to play introduce a 2nd note of the chromatic scale. Again let the students know you expect them to be able to play the note, recite the name of the note, and show it to you on a piece of music where the note is. You are 1/6 towards giving the students and octave of the alphabet of music, the chromatic scale. The faster the students learn this scale the more the will be able to concentrate on counting. It only takes 12 weeks to learn one octave one week at a time and is well worth the time in addition to any band method you are using.


As each student plays:
For clarinet and sax: Make sure their reed is on the mouthpiece correctly and that the reed does not look like it has been chewed on. Remind them that they need at least 5 reeds in their case ready to play. They should be playing on a 1.5 or 2 reed at this point unless they have a very open or closed mouthpiece. They need to build face muscles (embouchure) gradually.

Having a fairly new reed well placed on a fairly good mouthpiece will save you, the teacher an immense amount of time, as this is one of the basics that will squash any chance of vibrant tone, so the student will be fighting the instrument and that is not fun.

Notice how much mouthpiece they take and what their embouchure is trying to do to create a tone. The most important thing you can do in this process is to get the students to play the same volume. There will be a lot of variance in how much each student thinks they need to blow and how much mouthpiece they need to take. Remember that the more mouthpiece they take the harder the reed becomes.  Keep reminding them to blow the air towards the bell of the instrument. Urge the ones that are holding back to blow harder and the ones that are blasting to control the sound a little.

It is a lot easier in the long run to fix a students concept that blows too loud into getting a good sound as opposed to those children that are holding back.

This is also a good time to remind the students to sit up with their head in a normal facing forward position. If a student is looking down, raise the music stand so they have to look up to see the note.

For the flute: I want to explain to you how the sound and octaves are actually produced. There are many misconceptions about creating a flute sound.

Think of a circular target (like an archery target) on the wall. If we hold a water hose and point it at the target and turn on the hose enough that the water hits the center of the target we can consider this the basic correct sound (but not technique, so more on that soon). If we lower the water pressure the stream goes below the center of the target (pitch goes flat) and if we raise the pressure the water goes above the target (sharp). 

If we keep the pressure the same and walk closer to the target we get more splash back (2nd ocatave or rolled in at the blow hole) and if we walk farther away from the target the stream goes below the target (which means the only chance of getting the second octave is to blow much harder). Though farther down the teaching line it is important to remember the way to get the 2nd octave is to get the pressure closer to the target with the lips coming forward. Rolling the flute in will give us the second octave by bringing the lips closer to the back wall of the blow hole and will give us the flat sound and lack of volume that is not desirable. Blowing harder will also create the 2nd octave as it is the same as getting the lips closer to the back of the blow hole but will likely be sharp.

Another variable to sound on the flute is the size of the air stream. Some students will have a very big embouchure hole (less air pressure) and some a smaller one (more pressure). The smaller one is desired.

Make sure the jaw is open and loose so the student is not blowing through their teeth.

The target/water stream is a description of how the air works. Despite the hypothetical ideas I gave above on how the air (water) stream works it is important to know that correct concept for the flute sound in the beginning is to have about half of the blow hole covered and blow down much like a glass pop bottle. The flute is held with the chin, the middle of the first finger of the left hand on the body of the flute, the right thumb and the little finger on the Eb key. This should create balance points.

The flute should be put together so when looking down the keywork from the top that the center of the blow hole is aligned with the center of the keys on the flute and the foot joint is aligned with the keys a little to the outside (or away) from the center of the main key section.

As an exception to all other woodwinds that go in the mouth the flute must be balanced and the finger position (as on all instruments really) is of utmost importance. In general the flute should be parallel to the floor and at a 90 degree angle with the body.

A good thing for a flute player to do is to take the headjoint off and blow directly into the blowhole, rocking it back and forth until the most comfortable sound comes out. Then trying to just to hold a sound with the good feeling of a “sweet spot” on the headjoint. Now add the headjoint to the flute and they will notice its easier to get a sound.

Now the oboe and bassoon! If you absolutely cannot get the parent to provide a private teacher make sure the student is starting with a soft reed. Learning the fingering is the same as any instrument however the embouchure development is much like weight lifting.  It is important that the student by putting minimum pressure on the reed can get a sound. Students should practice for a minute or two at a time at first and gradually increase in time and the strength of the reed over many years. If air is coming out of the side of the mouth there is an embouchure problem or the student is fatigued. In the beginning fatigue comes quickly.

Tonguing and stopping the air for sax, clarinet, oboe and bassoon: The tongue should start the air by thinking the syllable tu and touching the tip of the tongue to an area just under the tip of the reed. The farther down the reed, the harsher the tonguing sounds. This is because more cane must be moved. The tongue should not attack the reed but rather approach the reed as if they were going touch a hot plate with the tongue. This encourages the tongue to retreat quickly. Under no circumstances should the tongue be used between the mouthpiece and the reed. To stop the air simply stop blowing without letting the embouchure loosen. When the tongue is not in use it should be lying tacitly in the bottom of the mouth.

Tonguing on the flute: The flutist should simply silently imitate the syllable tu in the normal place they would say it. Many flutists tongue in the front of their mouth and you will be able to see the tongue trying to start the tone there. This is to be discouraged. Stopping the tone is by just stopping blowing or taking a breath without letting the embouchure loosen at the same time. When the tongue is not in use it should by lying tacitly in the bottom of the mouth.

In the case of all woodwinds a tongue that is raised anywhere while playing a long note indicates that the support is too high, most likely in the solar-plexis or the neck and throat.

Practice Habits: I have always been an afternoon and evening person so my practice generally comes between 3-7 PM in the late afternoon. Other people are morning people and get up at 5:30 ready to get at it. What I am suggesting here is that based on students very busy schedules and body clock that practice takes place at the same approximate time every day. Again, it is not as much about how much time they practice, especially in the beginning, but how regular the practice is. It is the HABIT of practice the must be cultivated. Students should split their practice time between the material that a private instructor gives them and what the band director expects from them, and if needed you should insist upon it. Most usually the students that study privately will be far ahead of the regular music class, and may only require a refresher day to come in prepared compared to the average level of student.

Learning to read music: In the beginning there are hurdles to be overcome to enable the student to actually look at the music. There is a lot going on in your room and the kids are paying attention to anything and everything. This makes it hard to look at a note or anything on a page. The student may also be an “ear” player (which is very good) but needs to be constantly reminded to watch the notes and rhythms. Or, it just may not occur to them to look at music on a music stand and not at a desk.
This is another reason to emphasize the learning of an octave or octave and a half of the chromatic scale (the alphabet of music),  over several weeks. If the student can play and recite the name of the notes in the chromatic scale it takes the hurdle of note recognition away and they can concentrate on rhythm. In addition once they learn a tune it their band method (say Mary Had A Little Lamb) you can ask them to try and use their ear and play it up a full step.

The combination of ear training and eye training at a young age is something most of us did not get. It was either one or the other. This is a big gift to a musician especially at a young age.

Mouthpiece set-up: I had planned to talk about the subject in this ezine however after consideration it is almost a book. You can go to my You Tube videos a put in Mike Vaccaro and several instructional video’s about mouthpiece’s, reeds, and ligatures can be found there. If you have a music store near you that specializes in woodwinds or has a specialist for woodwinds ask that person to look at your instrument and mouthpiece set-up and advise you. This is just too  big of a subject to generalize about though ultimately it is one of the most important.

Just think if someone handed your student a perfect playing set up that they had to change very little over the years what an advantage they would have. The idea of the instrument and all the extra things that go with it like reeds and ligatures are the things that can make music fun or a nightmare. For your sake I want it to be EASY. Invested parents in their child’s music education should be cultivated and this subject should be discussed freely in you conversations.

FINE: I hope this helps you in the initial stages of teaching woodwind instrumentalists. If I get enough questions I will continue the blogs on this subject. Otherwise I will go back to the more general dilemmas of musicians.


Some Quotes From My Diary

Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress:
Working hard for something we love is called passion

……Simon Sinela


The meaning of life is to find your gift.
The purpose of life is to give it away.

……….Pablo Picasso


If you want to be happy you have to be happy on purpose.
When you wake up you can’t wait to see what kind of day you will have.
You have to decide what kind of day you will have.
…….Joel Osteen


Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
Be kind……..Always!

……Ron Colvard





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