From Performer to Pedagogue: Becoming the Teacher Your Students Deserve

by Paula Corley

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

  1. Breath and Airspeed
  2. Embouchure
  3. Oral Cavity (tongue position)
  4. Hand Position
  5. Equipment - particularly mouthpiece and reed combination.

Priority Two: Technique

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

Priority Three: Musical Knowledge and Understanding

  1. Phrasing - teach how to identify larger sections first, then individual phrases.
  2. Dynamics - soft, medium, loud. 
  3. Phrase Shaping - dynamic shaping of the phrase is the first step towards creating musical communication.
  4. Style - basic information about composer, time period, piece in general, as well as phrasing, dynamics, and articulation that define the style.
  5. 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 Corley

Paula Corley is a Texas music educator whose passion is the clarinet.  She is the ‘mayor’ of Clarinet City, a website for all things clarinet and is currently the pedagogy coordinator for the International Clarinet Association.  Paula is also the instructor of clarinet at Texas Lutheran University and the founder of ClariNETWORKS, an annual event for students and teachers of all ages and abilities that provides access to some of the clarinet world’s most successful clarinet teachers and performers.  Paula is a Vandoren and Buffet Crampon Artist.

Originally from Mississippi, Paula has an extensive teaching background in secondary schools and in higher education.  Two of her books – So You Want to Play the Clarinet and THE BREAK are published by Southern Music and distributed through Hal Leonard.  Her articles about clarinet pedagogy have appeared in The Instrumentalist, The Texas Bandmasters Review, The Clarinet and WAVE.  She has many conference presentations to her credit including The Midwest Clinic, ClarinetFest, Texas Music Educators Association, Texas Bandmasters Association, and similar events in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia.

Paula supports new music and has commissioned two original works – Unfamiliar Territory for clarinet and wind ensemble by Michael Markowski and Road Trip for clarinet quintet written by Clifton Jones.  Recordings of these works can be found on her site along with articles, videos and other helpful information that is free to download.

Paula is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and Mississippi State University where she was named Alumnus of the Year in Music in 2013.

So You Want To Play Clarinet

Great news for the clarinet community! 

Southern Music is now publishing Paula Corley's books and they will be distributed worldwide through Hal Leonard. 

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