26 Years As a Band Director: What I Teach My Clarinet and Saxophone Students

with Rachel Maxwell

Date Posted: December 17, 2018

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Updated July 28, 2020

Where/what grade levels and subjects do you teach, and how long have you been teaching?

I currently serve as the Director of Bands at Traughber Junior High School and as the Junior High Band Coordinator for Oswego School District#308. This is my 24th year at Traughber JHS and 26th year teaching. I teach 6th-grade Beginning Band, 7th Grade Intermediate Band, 8th Grade Advanced Band, and Jazz Band.

What is your teaching philosophy/approach when teaching beginning band students 

Our number one goal with the beginners is to establish fundamentals; Tone, Control, Counting, Articulation, and Music Literacy. We don't worry about how far we get in the books or difficult literature but we strive for student demonstrated mastery at every step. The equipment set up and embouchure development is critical and we spend a lot of time on how to rotate reeds, care for the mouthpiece, body position, posture, and develop a strong embouchure. 


How does this change as they progress through middle school?

We start our students with daily band class in 6th grade at the middle school so we have a very smooth transition into 7th & 8th Grade. We continue to emphasize the fundamentals-every day we do tone, rhythm, articulation and technique exercises with every class. The only thing that changes is the level of literature difficulty and the level of sophistication with which the students are able to perform. 

"Evolution, not revolution. Make small changes. Building culture takes time." - Rachel Maxwell

What is the greatest challenge you face as a band director, and how do you confront that challenge?

Students are heavily scheduled. We work hard to make sure our demands of their time are reasonable and worthwhile. Students also spend a lot of time on their devices which has made a difference in their ability to communicate in person. We actually take time in band to work on basic problem-solving steps, non-verbal cues and how to communicate with adults and other students. We are very organized so it will help the kids be better organized and easily find any information they need. We take advantage of the technology they use and do most of our testing online, communicate through a text service and have them load several effective apps on their phones and iPads. 

What advice would you give to someone entering their first year as a band director?

Rehearse and program for the band in front of you. Teach the kids where they are, right now. Don't hand out the material you did in high school or college right away-it may not work. 

If you find yourself saying, "They should be able to..." in a moment of frustration, stop yourself. If they can't do it, you may have told them but they didn't learn it. 

Slow down. Everything. Reduce the tempo and break it down.

Be consistent, persistent and resilient. 

Get a good mentor or two. If your mentor is a complainer, get a new one. Watch, listen and take advice from the people who are successful. Isolation is hideous and exhausting. 

Evolution, not revolution. Make small changes. Building culture takes time. 


What reeds do you recommend for your students and why? 

We use the Vandoren Blue line. Our beginning clarinets and saxes start on 2 1/2 and have an ongoing 4 reed rotation. Once they have developed their embouchure at the end of 6th or during 7th we will move the student to a 3. We will sometimes keep the Bari Saxes and Bass Clarinets on 2 1/2 in 7th and 8th grade if they are getting a beautiful, characteristic sound and playing in tune. We try to fit the reed and mouthpiece to the needs of each student. It is definitely not one size fit all. We love these reeds because they are very consistent in quality and last longer than other reeds when we have them on rotation and dry them out every day. Students are able to achieve a characteristic and consistent sound.

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