First Lessons: Tips for Teachers (Part 1)

So your student has arrived at a lesson, trumpet in hand. For the purposes of this series, we’ll assume that s/he has been playing less than a month. She may have had coaching in some other form: a week-long band camp for beginners, say, or a relative who has demonstrated a thing or two. In other cases, your lesson will be the first time that he ever attempts to make a sound (those are my favorites). What do you do?

The following guidelines represent some general principles that I strive to remember when I find myself in this situation:

1) Allow extra time. Even if the parents have signed up for weekly half-hour lessons, I tell them to budget forty-five minutes for the first one. I have never charged for overtime, so the extra commitment is on me. You can make your own policies in this regard.

2) The student wants to play the trumpet. S/he does not want to do breathing exercises, buzz the mouthpiece, or learn about the way in which we notate music. Unfortunately, all of these things will need to happen in order for the student to be successful. Your challenge is to maintain the student’s interest while still reinforcing great habits. You can’t afford to skip the preliminaries, but remember: the student wants to play the trumpet.

3) Assume that your student knows nothing. If my student has been playing for less than a month, I start from the very beginning regardless of what other experiences he may have had with the trumpet. Often, these students have been in large classes of beginners, and they may have picked up some bad habits without attracting the instructor’s attention, or become confused without wanting to admit to it. I’ll tell them that some of what we’re about to cover might be review, but that we’re going to review it anyway because I want to make sure that we’re on the same page.

4) At some point, you will probably have to “oil a valve.” In my mind, oiling represents any of the numerous interruptions that can and usually do happen in an initial lesson. Chances are, you will have a lesson plan, and it will be interrupted for any of the following reasons:

  • Your student’s valve (or one of the slides) is stuck.
  • You’re ready to start playing, but your student doesn’t know how to hold the trumpet (or has hands that are too small to fit comfortably around the casings).
  • You’re ready to start buzzing, but your student isn’t using enough air.
  • You have to talk about posture.

Be prepared for these interruptions. Some teachers choose to be very methodical about posture, hand position, and breathing and teach all of these concepts before the student plays a single note. This approach is probably the best way to ensure that your student develops great habits, but you are also taking the risk that the student may lose interest in your lesson during all of these preliminaries. Remember: the student wants to play the trumpet. You want to teach him to be disciplined, but you must always stay on the lookout for the right balance.

5) The student must understand how to make a buzz. Anyone who has visited an “instrument petting zoo” has seen the six-year-old who picks up the trumpet and simply blows, with no sign of an aperture or an embouchure. For this reason, I teach my students to buzz their lips without the mouthpiece before involving any of their equipment. Depending on the situation, you can also pick up the mouthpiece and expand this step into siren buzzing, simple tunes if you have a student who seems to be a natural, pitch matching, etc.

6) Celebrate what the student can do. You will have to be very, very picky in a first lesson, because you are establishing the habits that your student will use from that point forward. But you will need to conceal this nitpicking in a lot of praise, so that your student doesn’t get discouraged. You can celebrate the fact that the low C is getting louder, fuller, steadier, longer, and more confident without losing sight of the fact that your student is supposed to be learning to hit a second-line G. And if it seems that the second-line G is absolutely out of the question for that day, reassure the student that it will be there very soon and then turn your attention to something that affirms what s/he does well.

In the next several posts, we’ll begin to explore the specific ways in which you might choose to address the actual content of the lesson.

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