My Experience Learning to Be a Teacher
By Nicole Sasser
They say teaching isn’t for everyone and I always thought it wasn’t for me. That is, until I started to teach. Since graduating from college, I’ve created my own studio with twelve students. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that, to my surprise, I’ve become very attached to my students! True, I would rather perform than teach. After all, there is an amazing rush of adrenaline when I’m on stage in front of an audience. But with teaching, I’ve discovered that there’s great joy in watching a student grow as a musician. I love the challenge of motivating my students to be better trumpet players. In this last year, my skill as their teacher has developed along with their skill as musicians.
When I first went to Indiana University I wavered between classical and jazz performing, but one thing was always certain: I wanted to be a performer not a teacher. Naturally, I worked toward and earned my degree in performance. My friends tried to convince me that, with an education degree, I would always have teaching to fall back on. However, an education degree had different requirements that would limit my time and opportunities for practicing and performing so that option was out. My performance degree did require one pedagogy class that I took towards the end of my college career. In that class I learned how to set a studio policy and guidelines for teaching and I started to get excited about it. When I moved to Florida I decided to establish my own trumpet studio. Now, half of my living is earned performing while the other half comes from teaching private lessons. Who would have guessed?
My first rule for teaching is to have a solid studio policy, which I give to both my students and their parents in writing from the beginning to prevent any issues. One thing I have learned about studio policies is that once I set them, I need to stick to them, but doing that can be a challenge. For example, I offer a discount to students who pay for the month of lessons in advance. Most of my students do this, but it can be difficult to get that check once a month. When the time comes for a lesson and you haven’t been paid for it yet you face a difficult decision. Having the lesson means you might get paid for it later, but you might not. At the same time, skipping the lesson all together means that you definitely won’t get paid and the student misses out. Even though my rules say that the lesson won’t be held, I usually give in and teach the lesson, hoping to see a check the following week. If I don’t, I then skip the next lesson. Of course, all of the rules are given to my students in writing to prevent any problems if this happens. I also make sure that if I have to cancel or switch days, I give the students a printed note for their parents. You have to remember, kids forget.
When I start teaching new students, I tell them and their parents my expectations and goals for them at the start. I highlight my attendance policy and make it clear just how important regularly scheduled lessons are. I also request that every student buys a metronome and a notebook. The metronome is a must have, especially when the players are young and just starting out. The notebook is for me to write their assignments in. That way they can take it home with them and there is no confusion as to what they are supposed to practice all week. It’s very important for students to know what’s expected of them and what they want to accomplish. I ask them to write out their own goals as a player. I want my students to think about why they are practicing. They need to know that they aren’t practicing for me; they’re practicing for themselves. When they realize this, their practicing will be more focused. Even though they are taking private lessons and I can guide them along, their individual practicing at home is the key to the whole process. Students must understand that the lessons alone will not guarantee success. They must be dedicated, to the amount they practice, but also to the way they practice. I discovered that, although many students spend the right amount of time practicing, they don’t always spend the time wisely. The best thing I can teach my students is how to be their own teacher when practicing. To help them out, I wrote the handout How to Practice Properly consisting of 10 guidelines for them to follow. I thought, if they just focused their practicing in the appropriate manner, they would become much better players overall. I give the handout to my students and go over the guidelines with them. After a few lessons, I highlight the top three items that pertain directly to each student. This way they know what they’re good at and what they need to spend more time on.
After a student plays an etude or excerpt for me, I like to ask him/her questions. I ask if the student was happy with the way he/she played. What does he/she think could be done better? It’s interesting how many times students play without even really listening to themselves and instead just go through the motions. So I will ask them to play it again and then tell me what they think. I’m not just going to give them all of the answers. I want to guide them to finding out how to become a better a player for themselves. Eventually, the student will point out a few things he/she did wrong and then I can elaborate on those issues. From there, I can give tips on how to improve these areas. I also point out what I liked. It’s just as important to tell the students what they have done right as what they have done wrong. This positive affirmation of their success will further motivate them to work harder and achieve more.
Not only does this approach motivate students to work harder, it also helps them to open to their minds to other areas that need improvement. One student of mine inspired me to write a short guide on sight reading. Since I encourage that self-inspection, he found that he was having trouble with sight reading and told me he wanted a way to get better. After working with him, I was able to put what he and I learned together down on paper so that it could help my other students as well.
As a new teacher, I am always learning just as much from my students as they are from me. The more I teach, the more tools I develop and the more I fine tune my technique. If you are a teacher, I hope you find these handouts useful and pass them on to your students. If you are a student, I hope they help you to further your playing. I’m a firm believer that, no matter how long we have been doing something, we all have more to learn. I know that I learn something new everyday that I continue to teach. And, while this is good for my students, it is great for me, too.
How To Practice Properly
- Write down goals. Do you want to learn all of your scales, or improve your range, double tonguing, triple tonguing, jazz improvisation, etc…? Write a practice schedule and what you will do to achieve these goals.
- Realize that you are your own teacher. Analyze your playing. What do and don’t you like about it? How can you make it better?
- Isolate tricky sections. Play them tongued if they are supposed to be slurred, and slurred if they are to be tongued. Play them down an octave. This will help you hear the sections rather than focusing on hitting the high notes.
- Play slowly. You will accomplish your goals much faster if you learn to play a piece slowly and then speed up. Playing too fast will result in sloppy play and it will take you much longer to perfect.
- Use your ear. Listen carefully. Did you pay attention to what you played or did you just play through it without thinking or using your ear?
- Try working on one measure at a time and adding to it. Don’t continue until you can play without stopping and without making any mistakes. Yes, that means going back to the top each and every time you stop.
- Record yourself. Listen to your playing from a different perspective and take notes on what you like, don’t like, mistakes you can fix, and areas you can improve.
- Perform for your family. Get used to your nerves by having someone listen to you play a piece straight through from beginning to end.
- Get a recording of what you are playing and study it. Listen to it over and over until you have it memorized.
- Listen to various trumpet repertoires and players (classical, jazz, etc…). Each has his or her own unique sound. For example: Phil Smith, Bud Herseth, Sergei Nakariokov, Wynton Marsalis, Alison Balsom, Wayne Bergeron, Arturo Sandoval, Doc Severinsen, Allen Vizutti, Chet Baker, Freddy Hubbard, Louis Armstrong, Lee Morgan, Rafael Mendez, Harry James, Marcus Printup, Bobby Shew, Clark Terry, Maynard Ferguson, Miles Davis, Nicholas Payton, Donald Byrd, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chris Botti.
Sight Reading Guide
- Know all of your scales (major and minor), arpeggios, scales in thirds, and key signatures. Then you are prepared for anything. If you know the key of the music, you can essentially “skim” sections that are scalar.
- Always check the key signature and time signature before playing. (This is a familiar and simple rule that’s often forgotten. Even I do it at times.)
- Don’t take it too fast. You don’t want to play sloppily and you don’t want too many starts and stops. Pick a comfortable tempo that allows you to be consistent.
- Be prepared and know before you play. Look for key words like a tempo, allegro, and adagio so you know when to expect tempo changes. Find and identify all key changes as well.
- Be as musical as possible. Anyone can play notes on a page. A musician brings the music to life.
About the Author
Nicole Sasser graduated from Indiana University in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance. She is now a classical and jazz trumpeter as well as a jazz vocalist in the Orlando, FL area. Her professional experience includes being an adjunct trumpet teacher at the Osceola School for the Arts, a regular sub for the Brevard Symphony Orchestra and several different bands at Disneyworld, as well as performing as a trumpeter with Norwegian Cruise Lines. Prior to her professional career, Nicole made a name for herself with the Chicago Youth Symphony and by earning herself a place on the Honors All State Band (first chair) and Honors All State Orchestra (second chair) in Illinois. For more, visit www.nicolesasser.com.