Asbestos

Two weeks ago I was away teaching the bassoon students of a private French high school in Saint- Jacques, at the school's annual band retreat. The retreat takes place at the Abestos Music Camp, which is not a thing I would have ever guessed existed in Asbestos (yes, Asbestos: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/as-asbestos-industry-collapses-a-towns-fibre-is-torn/article4560402/") However, air quality issues aside, it's a very nice site, although the "camp" atmosphere was diminished slightly by the fact that there were a few too many feet of snow for, say, marshmallow roasting. I was there for two camp session, the first being Secondaire 1 and 2 (equivalent to grades 7 and 8) and the second being secondaire 5 (equivalent to grade 11, the last year of high school in Quebec before CEGEP.) Sec 3 and 4 also had a camp, which was the very first camp which I wasn't teaching at. At both of the camps I only had one student, as bassoon tends to not be a very popular instrument for high schoolers. It doesn't take a huge amount of thought to figure out why. Even in high schools with a large music program, there aren't often very many actual instruments, which means that whatever kid chooses to play the bassoon probably won't be able to play in a section with their best friend, unlike the "let's play clarinet together!" kids. The bassoon looks large and intimidating and, frankly, uncool. Band teachers generally know more about the more common band instruments (as they should!) so the bassoon doesn't get as much attention as the others.

My sec 1 student was an example of an excellent instrument assignment decision on the part of her teacher (a McGill grad that I worked on oprettas in the McGill Savoy Society with!) She was tall and looked natural holding the instrument, and at her first lesson gave me a long list of instruments that she had played before the bassoon. She had picked up the bassoon because she wanted a challenge, and wanted to prove herself equal to this "next level" instrument. She had only been playing the bassoon for eight months but was playing in both the sec 1 and sec 2 bands. The first lesson I introduced her to the concept of flicking, and the next morning in band rehearsal, although she hadn't quite absorbed which key was for which note, I saw her thumb moving around with definite intent to flick! No matter what she sounded like-- probably worse than before, since she was distracted with trying to integrate a new concept into her playing-- the fact that she immediately starts working on integrating a new habit into her playing, even if it makes things harder at first, makes me believe that she will have an excellent prospects with any instrument-- and indeed any pursuit of any kind-- that she wants to get good at.

All of the teachers at the camp said that sec 5 is generally more difficult to teach than sec 1, which makes sense. Beginners have no established habits and will try new ways of doing things, and are enjoying the rewarding learning curve that comes from the first year of playing an instrument. It's thrilling to go from not being able to make a sound to being able to play music together with other people, and the sec 1 players are still in the middle of that exhilarating feeling. By sec 5 they've discovered that music takes just as much work to get good at as anything else, and are getting ready to move on to CEGEP so it may not be foremost in their minds any more. My sec 5 student had been playing for 5 years, since sec 1, which I realized was only a year less than I've been playing. The first lesson was more or less the same in that I introduced her to flicking. "Yeah," she said, "someone told me about that before, but I've been doing it this way for a long time so I didn't change it." I couldn't really blame her. If I had been playing an instrument for five years and was suddenly told that there was a whole other category of keys on my instrument that I had to start using on notes I thought I already knew how to play (even if they usually weren't in the right octave)-- I wouldn't want to change, either! Over the course of the sec 5 session I got used to reminding her to flick whenever she was struggling to put her tenor notes in the right octave, and to her credit she did seem to be trying. However, the music she was playing in band was quite demanding, so there were a lot of things for her to be thinking about at once.

Her rhythm also seemed to be a little off-- not surprising since she seemed quite confused about the purpose and function of a metronome when I took mine out-- so at one point I asked her to simply clap her rhythm with the metronome. After several unsuccessful attempts, I put the metronome on 60 to the quarter note and asked her to simply clap eighth notes. She couldn't do it. The division of the beat simply refused to settle in. The next day, I asked her to sing her line. "Oh, I can't sing." she pronounced decisively. "Sure you can," I said, "Let's just find that first F." I played the F, sang it, and asked her to sing it too. But even when I tried to direct her to it -- "a little higher! Not quite that high!" she couldn't find it, and seemed to have no idea when she was even getting closer.

So, I had been spending my time trying to adjust her embouchure, increase her air support, improve her tuning and bothering her about flicking all when she basically had no concept of rhythm or pitch! It simply hadn't occurred to me at first that these elements might be missing, but thinking about it it makes sense. This student had an excellent band teacher who set the kids up very well and concentrated on scales, good rhythm and tuning in class. However, I think it has to do with the nature of teaching the bassoon in these settings that she had been left behind on essential elements of musicianship. I'm sure simple rhythms were drilled a lot when she was in sec 1, however, it seems like once she was given a bassoon to try to figure out, the sheer mechanical challenge and confusion of the instrument pushed all other thoughts out of her mind. Rhythm became someone else's problem, and pitch was a toss-up determined by whether she happened to put down the right fingers or not.

I felt sorry for her, because I can't imagine she was having very much fun in band class. For me, at least, it would be incredibly stressful to be trying to play complex music, and being surrounded by people who seem to know what they're doing, while lacking the fundamental skills to even really understand what's going on rhythmically, melodically or harmonically, and having to just follow along blindly and hope it works out. I believe that all humans are fundamentally capable of learning music, and I think if she had been placed on another instrument maybe she would have fared better. However, of course I also think it's wonderful that the school is teaching bassoon in the first place! I would never want a school to stop teaching bassoon just because it's difficult for band students to learn.

So, I think what I learned about teaching bassoon is this:

1. Potential bassoonists need a strong base of general musicianship skills before picking up the bassoon-- probably stronger than would be needed for other woodwind instruments, where the initial technical demands on the student would be reasonable enough for them to be able to keep filling in the gaps in their skills while learning the instrument. In my case, I had played violin for ten years as a kid, and had experimented with plenty of other instruments before settling on the bassoon. Obviously that's not the path that every new band student will be coming from, but spending a lot of time listening too classical music, singing, clapping rhythms and using methods such as Orff and Kodaly before touching a bassoon would make sure that the fundamentals are set down. Another alternative in a band context would be to simply assign future bassoonists to a different instrument for a year or two. (Flute seems like a good option since it would teach them good breathing habits without giving them any preconceived notions of reed embouchure.)

2. Bassoonists need private teachers. All players do better with private teachers, of course, but with most other woodwinds it's easy for the band teacher to notice how they're doing and direct them appropriately. Bassoonists tend to get ignored, firstly because the teacher probably isn't as knowledgeable about the instrument and also because the teacher doesn't want to put too much pressure on a kid who's taken on a complicated challenge. This particular school actually has private teachers for the rest of the instruments who visit the school every so often to give lessons, which is probably part of the reasons their bands are so good! However unfortunately they're the only school in that area that teaches bassoon, and since the school is quite remote they've been having trouble finding a bassoon teacher able to drive out there.

I think this can be applied in private teaching, as well. Of course, it doesn't make sense to turn away a student who wants to learn bassoon just because they don't have another instrument under their belt already. However, a heightened focus on listening, singing and speaking/tapping rhythm could be useful to set students up on the instrument. Of course, this isn't as exciting for the students themselves-- they want to play! But hey-- I started in Suzuki and spent my first lessons on the violin playing on a souped-up cereal box. (It's a good idea: http://teachsuzuki.blogspot.ca/2011/04/why-use-box-violin.html) They can handle it.