Guiding Principles

What should we teach?

What do we teach if we don’t use notation for the first few weeks? What are the big ideas? What do you want them to leave you (possibly never doing anything musically again) having knowing and having done and understanding?

Music is an aural art. The sound must precede the symbol. The deep feelings I have when making music at an Irish session is what I want my students to someday feel. I don’t care nearly as much about their ability to read notation. That will come with time.

What do we teach first if we don’t use a method book? What guides our curriculum?

What should we be teaching young people who have had no interaction with anything musical in their lives (as many of my students have)? The concepts of  traditional Irish music are a great example. Irish folk music exists as much a part of their culture as Guinness does (and in fact usually go hand-in-hand!). The form of entertainment after a day of working on the farm is to pick up an instrument, or sing, or dance, with others in your neighborhood.

The music itself is typically in the same few keys (major and relative minor) to accommodate guitar, fiddles, whistles, and pipes. The musicianship at a seisiún is high; the word “musician” is not an elitist term reserved for a selected few. If you’re sitting at the table playing an instrument, you’re a musician. The musicians at seisiúns are playing folk songs they’ve learned aurally over many years and are ornamenting and improvising it based on who they are playing with (talking to); a tune is never played the same way twice.

The seisiún is not a performance. It is a social event that happens in homes and in pubs. There is NO music notation. There is no performance assessment. The way most people “practice” is by simply going to seisiúns and continuing to pick up the tunes. As I am being indoctrinated into that world, I find that I practice more and more at home just to offer something better to the music. Isn’t that what we all want from our students?

I’ve been fortunate to get to know and play with many of the Boston-area Irish musicians and play regularly at seisiúns in Boston and Quincy. As an example of the music-making taking place, this is a video of my friend Sean hosting a seisiún at his house a few months back:

I could live in that moment forever. That’s the kind of feeling I want to instill in my students.

Back to Beliefs

  • The purpose of the first year (of band) is to make it to the second year.
  • Kids are only limited by what you think they cannot do.
  • All kids are good kids, regardless of their actions or words.

As you move forward, keep in mind the following points:

Gordon’s Music Learning Theory

Music, like language, is learned in sequential order:

  1. Hearing/Listening. Just like we hear our native language for years before we can speak it. Beginning band students need to hear their instruments and music, especially simple music moving between tonic and dominant chords, duple and triple meters, major and minor tonalities.
  2. Singing & Chanting. Starts with tonal and rhythmic “babble” like an infant babbles and attempts to reproduce what she hears her parents say and sing. This is the experimentation phase – students should feel free to experiment making different sounds on their instruments or copying their teacher’s tonal or rhythm patterns.
  3. Improvisation. A toddler begins forming her own sentences and word combinations after years of  the first two steps. Students can begin making their own patterns with structure after the same.
  4. Reading. Children learn to read words they have already been saying and understand the meaning of. Band students should learn music notation reading the same way
  5. Writing. (composition)

Edward Lisk’s Alternative Rehearsal Techniques

Uses ABC notation as a precursor to music notation. Students learn to recite the musical alphabet (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) forwards and backwards. More on that below.

“If you can sing it, you can play it”

This has become my battlecry in beginning band world. Students find much more success much quicker when they learn to sing a piece of music first (obviously). This is also used to encourage kids to figure out any song they want to play by ear.  I tell them to put their favorite song on their iPod, sing it, then figure out how to play it. A lot of kids love to do this, and I let them play it for the whole class. There is CONSTANT encouragement to go learn their favorite songs on their own. Kids come in knowing Happy Birthday, Katy Perry, and songs from Frozen. GREAT! They are playing their instruments at home, using their ears, keeping interest up, having fun, and finding success… all things that will make them continue after the first year.


Every concept is introduced aurally first (usually in the large band rehearsal) long before we see it visually. It is then improvised with by me and the students.

It won’t go very smoothly at first… it will be uncomfortable, but kids will start to pick it up. Applaud mistakes as cool things. If a student makes a weird squawking sound… cool! Let’s try to copy that sound (then fix their embouchure/hand position in lessons).

Practical Applications