and Reaching at the Middle School Level
by Mike Fraley
Even under the best circumstances, middle school students can present
special challenges. Below are some techniques and tips that I have
found valuable when working with this unique group between the ages
of 10 and 14.
Sincerity - Middle school students do not care how much
you know until they know how much you care. They can be very good
at judging sincerity and character. If you're going to teach at this
level, it's mandatory that you enjoy it! Strive to maintain a positive,
sincere rapport with all students and their family members.
Make it fun! Yes, students will have to learn rudiments
and practice things that are sometimes boring and repetitious. Find
ways to make it fun and challenging. Remember that you are working
with an age group that is bombarded with endless, fast-paced, high-energy
computer games, television, movies and entertainment. Believe it or
not, you are competing with the other activities in a child's life.
Make lessons at your studio or participation in your band program
exciting and rewarding, and you'll be a success.
Social tendency - Middle school students are very social and
can be sensitive about what their peers think of them. It may sound
obvious, but make sure that your studio or band program reflects positively
on them as members!
Curriculum - Have a sound curriculum and make sure you
identify reasonable goals. Set high standards while building solid
foundations and fundamental skills. A lack of foundation and fundamental
skill is the biggest weakness I see in young percussionists, and this
is what ultimately will be a burden to their future musical progress.
Some private studios give lessons that are of the "cookie cutter"
variety, offering the same program for everyone. Have a focus and
an objective. What are the essentials that every student should know?
What does the student want to learn? Middle school students in grades
6, 7 and 8 are uniquely different with distinct needs and abilities.
As a result, you need to tailor your teaching style and expectations
accordingly. Finally, middle school students can have a tremendous
appetite for new material and ideas. Be prepared to supply it.
Organization and routine - Middle school students are
infamous for being disorganized and lacking focus. I use the following
with my students: "By failing to plan and organize yourself, you are
planning to fail." I require each percussion student to buy and maintain
a stick bag with appropriate sticks and mallets. The new Vic Firth
EP1 and EP2 are outstanding. Ensure that all students get off to a
good solid start with proper equipment.
Anticipate lost or forgotten books, sticks, mallets and notebooks.
Don't get mad or upset. Instead, keep an extra supply of everything
to loan. In a busy studio or school program, take something for collateral
such as a shoe, book bag or money to ensure your materials will be
Establish sound guidelines on practice routines and
lesson schedules. Where, when and for how long should students practice?
Students need to practice, and at the same time they need to be considerate
of other family members and neighbors. What are the alternatives to
practicing on acoustic instruments? As educators, we need to help
assess each situation and suggest creative solutions to help them
achieve their goals.
Keep them busy! I don't know a middle school teacher
who, at one time or another, hasn't had a problem with the percussion
section. This dilemma is more prevalent in middle school because not
all middle schools have marching bands and/or jazz ensembles for the
percussionists to focus their energy on. As a result, performance
outlets are limited to the school concert band or garage band. If
you teach from a private studio, perhaps volunteer to do a percussion
ensemble or masterclass - a great recruiting vehicle. If you are a
director, encourage older high school students to come back to help
at the middle school.
Encourage solos and small ensembles. They are excellent
opportunities for young percussionists to stay involved. Consider
having all percussion students select and perform a solo for a festival
or recital. There is an abundance of rudimental solos with piano accompaniment
that are fun to play and are excellent teaching pieces. Don't forget
the mallet, timpani and multi percussion solos. Set kids up for success,
know the literature and know what works. If you can guide them towards
appropriate pieces in a positive manner, you and your program will
be a winner! Form a rudiment club. With a simple wall chart you can
turn rudiments into a fun contest, seeing who can check off on the
most rudiments first. Middle school students love fun, fair competition.
In closing, I hope I have laid out some ideas that you may find beneficial
in your particular teaching situation. Middle school is a unique experience
and offers a rare chance to ignite kids and turn them on to the incredible
power of music. Good luck and have fun!