Guest Star: On Teaching

Stitely saxaphonist Bill Overton explains how he teaches the young students in his music classes how to play their instruments.  For more on Bill and his class, check out our previous blog post!

When we start kids in band in 4th grade, most of the class is in band. Many quickly drop out, with the blessings of their parents, when they realize that we expect them to spend time at home with their instruments and come regularly to lessons and rehearsals. Some will stay on for a year or two without doing their homework, fall behind, and then quit with one of any number of excuses. Some of these are forced by their parents to stay, even though they are not made to do the required work. This is the worst scenario for all concerned, since the kid is ostracized by his peers for poor playing, but is made to stay to please his parents. Sometimes the kid becomes so desperate to quit that he lies to his parents to put the blame on his teachers, since his parents will not accept the truth from him. Very sad.

For those who are not “allergic to work”, as my old professor used to say, the journey begins. After the first year of playing, we pass out major scale sheets and every MWF morning we work on learning to play them. The sounds closely resemble a fire in a slaughterhouse for the first few weeks, but soon every 5th grader (now in Concert Band) is able to play through all twelve. From there it’s simple to alter the numbers to make all kinds of scales (blues, dorian, mixolydian, lydian dominant, bebop, and on and on). Playing a new riff (Iron Man, Smoke on the Water, etc.) each day though all twelve keys by putting scale degree numbers on the white board is also a regular practice. You might be surprised at how quickly they learn to do this. In fact, if they are taught with patience and clarity, there is literally nothing they cannot learn. They may be young, but kids are smarter than ever these days. Tone exercises, articulation and lots of sight-reading are also on the daily menu in addition to learning ensemble pieces and improvising solos and riffs.

Once in 6th grade, the classical pieces are more challenging, often a level 3, or high school level, and we continue to explore ear training and deeper levels of improvisation while continuing to work on fundamentals and sightreading through 7th and 8th grade. I should say, also, that this is a journey of learning and growth as much for me as it is for my students. To be able to grow with them and lead them to an experience such as Tuesday’s concert is, indeed, a blessing.

I always say that the stuff we teach in band is not just about band, it’s about life. I’m talking about things like setting your sights on a long-term goal and having the persistence to see it through, the discipline it takes to practice even though you may be tired, being assertive yet sensitive in a team effort, thinking on your feet, showing up prepared and on time, schlepping all the equipment over to the nursing home to brighten the day of people who really can use a little music from some young folks, the direct relationship between how much work you do and how much fun you have, etc., etc. I’ve been doing this long enough now to see students that started band in 4th grade grow up and take their places in the world. While there are some who go on to make music their life’s work, the others who become pediatricians, surgeons, biochemists and teachers were also formed at least partly by their experiences in band at Oak Grove. These are simply great people that I will be proud to know for the rest of my life. I’d like to think that I had a part in their growth not just as musicians, but as human beings, too.


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Delivering a mind-blowing musical performance at an event is an art and planning it is a science. Stitely Entertainment has mastered both by planning and executing thousands of events.

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