From Performer to Pedagogue: Becoming the Teacher Your Students Deserve

by Paula Corley

Date Posted: June 17, 2019

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What skills do your students need to be successful? Does it seem as if you ‘start over’ at every lesson and spend your time chasing errors? Do your students practice regularly and deliberately? Let’s look at some strategies that may improve your teaching and make a difference for your students.

The first step in becoming a more effective teacher is to determine what type of student you are teaching. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s narrow our scope to the developing student: a student who is still working for mastery of the fundamentals. For this discussion, I have identified two student profiles:

1. The Test-Taker:

Test-Takers are students who take private lessons for the sole purpose of passing the test. Test-Takers are seeking a tutor.

Students expect the tutor to work only on the skills needed to pass the test or compete effectively. Sometimes it is the parents that are insisting on private instruction. As a result the Test Takers may or may not be motivated to prepare and may see lesson time as practice time.

2. The Apprentice:

The Apprentice is highly interested in participating in music activities, is motivated to practice, and wants to learn as much as possible about music.

The Apprentice may be highly competitive and interested in pursuing music at the university level. Another type of Apprentice is one who plays for the sheer joy of the experience. These students sometimes exhibit no performance anxiety because they see music as a wonderful ‘game’ that they love to play. They are often very natural performers.

The skill set needed for the Test-Taker will be different from the Apprentice. For the Test-Taker the goal and objective are identical: to pass the test on material that has been chosen for them. The lesson strategy for the Test-Taker will need to include practice materials that relate directly to this test.

The skill set for the Apprentice is much more long-term. The Apprentice understands the importance of systematically building skills, eventually eliminating the tedious one-measure-at-a-time approach. The lesson strategy should be one in which the student is given choices and input into their learning.

Sample Lesson Plans

The Test Taker

Goal: Pass the Test

Objective: Pass the Test


  • The test
  • Abbreviated exercise or scale that directly relates to the test


  • Listen to student play the test.
  • Choose at least one aspect to praise and one aspect to improve.
  • Show how abbreviated exercise or scale directly relates to the test. Have student play scale or exercise alternately with test material.
  • Correct errors. Repeat.

The Apprentice

Goal: Become a better player

Objective: (one example) Improve tone quality


  • Exercises to improve breath support, strengthen or correct embouchure, and create consistency in tone quality.
  • Solo (and/or etude) that requires good breath support, embouchure strength, and consistency in tone. Test materials (if required)


  • Listen to all material student has prepared. Select at least one aspect to praise and one aspect to improve.
  • Work to improve selected aspect in at least one section of each piece performed. Make learning relevant: show how concept studied applies throughout all materials.

Tips for Organizing an Effective Lesson

Take time to listen and assess carefully.

1. The most important job for the teacher is to listen. It is very important to allow the student to perform what they have prepared. Avoid stopping them after the first measure. Listen for consistency. Does the issue occur throughout the performance? Take notes. Assessment drives instruction.

2. Write at least one positive in addition to any problems with the student’s performance. Be as specific as you can: “no focus in the middle register throughout”; “slurred passages are uneven”; “articulated sound is harsh”; etc. Be specific and keep your scope narrow. After your list is complete, prioritize it.

3. If there is nothing positive about the student’s performance, say something pleasant: “I really appreciate getting to hear you today. I am looking forward to working with you. Today we should work on____________ ."

      Choose appropriate materials.

      1. Good teachers are good students as well, constantly searching and reviewing information applicable to their subject area. If you study, you will eventually develop a good “core” of knowledge from which to draw. You may not know the answer to every question you are asked, but you can learn where to look for the answer.

        For example: most will agree that without a focused and centered sound, everything thing else about playing clarinet will be compromised. Let’s assume the student with whom we are working has consistently poor tone quality in the middle register throughout his/her performance. Make your best guess about the cause:

        2. Start with the simplest material/concept you can think of to address the issue. What works for you in your studies may not be appropriate for developing players. Become familiar with pre-college materials. They do exist. Or, write your own.

        3. Explain. Demonstrate. Check for student understanding. Have the student demonstrate for you or explain the concept in his/her own words.

        Sequence instruction correctly to help develop knowledge.

        Music is a sequential skill. Establish basic skills first. Develop a priority list that is logical, one that allows your students to build skill in an order that makes sense!

        Sample Basic Priorities List

        Priority One: Good Tone Quality and Air Support

        • Breath and Airspeed
        • Embouchure
        • Oral Cavity (tongue position)
        • Hand Position
        • Equipment - particularly mouthpiece and reed combination.

        Priority Two: Technique

        • Note mastery/fingerings
        • Rhythm mastery - ability to perform all subdivisions in tempo
        • Articulation mastery - slur and tongue (legato, marcato, staccato).
        • Tempo mastery - accurate and steady; ability to estimate without a metronome (eventually).

        Priority Three: Musical Knowledge and Understanding

        • Phrasing - teach how to identify larger sections first, then individual phrases.
        • Dynamics - soft, medium, loud.
        • Phrase Shaping - dynamic shaping of the phrase is the first step towards creating musical communication.
        • Style - basic information about composer, time period, piece in general, as well as phrasing, dynamics, and articulation that define the style.
        • Basic Vocabulary - terms, definitions, and how they apply to music being studied.

        Learning new concepts depends upon prior knowledge. Here’s an example:

        • Problem: a student plays with poor breath support and cannot shape phrases. This student would need to identify phrases first before trying to attempt phrase shaping. An example of teaching material to improve breath support would be any long tone/register shift exercise done as slowly as possible, for a short amount of time. Gradually increase the length of the exercise until it matches the tempo and phrase length of the repertoire. Next, add shaping to the exercise first, then apply to the repertoire.

        Recently I met with Doreen Ketchens, the well-known “Clarinet Queen” of the French Quarter. At the end of our conversation, I asked if she would be willing to give me a lesson on improvisation. She responded with an emphatic “no” (almost immediately) and then quickly added “but let me tell you why.”

        Here is what she said:

        “Teaching is hard. You gotta’ be prepared and you gotta’ know what you’re doing.”

        Paula Circle

        About the Author

        Paula Corley is the Education Advisor for Buffet Crampon North America. She has 33+ years of teaching experience from middle school to university level. Most recently Paula served as the clarinet instructor at Texas Lutheran University where she hosted ‘clariNETWORKS’ – a very popular annual event for clarinetists of all ages and band directors. She is also a chamber music judge for Music for All's National Chamber Music Festival and served as the Pedagogy Chair for the International Clarinet Association from 2018-2020. Most know her as the ‘mayor’ of Clarinet City, a teaching website for all ages and stages of clarinet playing.

        Originally from Mississippi, Paula grew up without access to clarinet lessons which sparked a lifelong interest in research for developing players. She is a graduate of Mississippi State University (BME) where she was named Alumnus of the Year in 2012-13 and Southern Methodist University (MM) where she worked with the legendary Howard Dunn. Paula taught in Plano, Texas ISD for many years before moving to Asheville, NC where she served as principal clarinet in the Asheville Lyric Opera and on the faculty at Mars Hill University (NC).

        Author of So You Want to Play the Clarinet and The Break (Southern/Hal Leonard), Paula has performed and presented at music conferences throughout the US since 1998. She is a performing artist and clinician for Vandoren and for Buffet Crampon and her articles have appeared in THE CLARINET, Vandoren WAVE, The Texas Bandmasters Review, and The Instrumentalist. A new series of her arrangements for clarinet can be found at Hal Leonard. She also has two recorded works for clarinet: Unfamiliar Territory by Michael Markowski and Road Trip for clarinet quintet by Clifton Jones. Visit

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