Music fundamentals are the building blocks for all musicians and are important to work on every single day. Improving fundamentals on your instrument will make playing new music easier to learn. A music teacher friend once told me the story of how when he was 16, he couldn’t possibly understand why his new band director made them do fundamental drills every day…that is until they started earning first divisions at concert and sight reading the following spring. Now that he teaches middle school band, fundamentals are an important part of his daily lesson plans, and he chuckles when he remembers that story.
Join bass instructor Christopher Hernandez in learning a fun exercise that will help with bow dexterity. This video uses a French bow. You can find the same exercise on a German bow in the String Bass Level 1 course on MusicProfessor.
Where to start
Every musician has to start somewhere. By implementing fundamentals as a part of your daily routine, your students will start to see exponential growth as musicians. But scaffolding is an important step in building fundamentals. Even principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic, Chris Martin, was a beginner once upon a time, who needed to learn the fundamentals of playing music.
Once your students are able to read and understand pitch, meter, rhythm, dynamics, and tempo, you can help them start to master their skills and become better musicians by continuing to work on a daily routine and introducing new concepts. Create a list that will help shape what fundamentals you work on with your specific ensemble.
Fundamental exercises to implement in your rehearsal
When I taught high school band I would use this basic formula on a daily basis so that I covered fundamentals that I believed were important for my students:
- Long tones
- Scales and key signature work
Here’s a breakdown of what these different exercises look like:
- Breathing is a great fundamental to implement for all wind musicians, and it is a great way to start a focused rehearsal. Start with something as simple as breathe in for 4 counts and exhale for 4 counts. The Breathing Gym created by Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan has many exercises you can use to help your students use their air more efficiently when playing their instrument.
- Long tones are a great tool for all musicians, from beginner to pro. If you have your students do a four-count breathing exercise to start rehearsal, a perfect follow up to that is to have them play whole notes on concert F immediately after. This allows them to directly apply to the work they just did with their air and gets them thinking about starting and stopping together as an ensemble. Another great exercise to include in your long tones repertoire is to have students descend by half step in order to work on their lower register.
- Flexibility: Your brass players will benefit from working on flexibility daily. Start with a two-note lip slur, where students learn to change partials smoothly on quarter notes. Your woodwind and mallet students will be a huge help in creating stability during these exercises.
- Working on articulation is also a great way to focus on style and consistency. A great exercise to start is to paly 4 regular quarter notes followed by 4 quarter notes of a different style and encourage your students to be very specific in how they play! Try 4 connected quarter notes followed by 4 staccato quarter notes. Maybe try adding 4 accented quarter notes after that. Beginning sixth graders to your graduating seniors can benefit from focusing on a simple exercise like this.
- Scales and key signature work: Having my students learn all 12 major scales was a priority for me whether they were in 7th grade or 11th grade! My junior high students would learn all 12 keys in at least 1 octave, while my high school students would learn 2-3 octaves depending on their skill level and instrument. Try picking one scale to focus on each week, and by the middle of the semester your students will be playing all 12 keys in minutes. Try going through your scale of the week slowly on Monday, and working up the tempo each day the rest of the week. Remember to keep playing through the scales you’ve already worked on daily.
Each day I made sure I hit at least one thing from each of those key indicators on my list before moving on to the music we were preparing for concert or performance.
Finding the sweet spot
So how do you find the perfect amount of fundamentals time? How much is too much? How much is too little? Depending on what is coming up on your performance calendar, you might try spending anywhere from 10-25% of your rehearsal time on fundamentals.
If you have a clinician coming in for a single rehearsal, it might be best to get to your concert program as quickly as possible to get more feedback on what is being played. Keep in mind, there are some clinicians out there who are happy to help your group with fundamentals too! It’s best to speak with the clinician prior to the rehearsal so you can set a good expectation of what you would both like to work on.
If you are at the beginning of a semester or concert cycle, try devoting 20-25% of your rehearsal to fundamental playing techniques. If you have a four-hour music block at band camp, why not spend an hour working on basic exercises that will help improve the playing of your ensemble? You won’t regret it!
Here’s a breakdown of what fundamentals during a 45-minute band class could look like-
1 minute – Breathing – In 4 – Out 4 – repeat on a loop. Try to fill up in 4 counts and exhale everything out in 4 counts.
1 minute – Long tones – Play a concert F for 4 counts and then rest for 4 counts. Remember to keep a steady stream of air.
1 minute – Long tones – Remington exercise on half notes on concert F.
1 minute – Flexibility – Find a two-note lip slur that works best for the range of your students.
2 minutes – Articulation – Have your band play 4 legator quarters followed by 4 staccato quarters. Then try the same style but with 8 legato eighth notes followed by 8 staccato eighth notes.
2 minutes – Scale work – Pick a key of the week and play a one octave scale (up and down) in half notes, then quarter notes.
As you progress through your concert cycle, adapt your fundamentals time to meet your needs. Are your students struggling with articulation on a syncopated rhythm? Try incorporating that rhythm into your articulation time. Are your students struggling with a specific key area? Try improving their ears with drones and change your Remington exercise to start on the pitch they are struggling with. Don’t feel like you have to play exercises just to “get through it.” Make fundamentals work for you and your students.
Ways to shake it up
Occasionally, routine can find its way to becoming mundane, so here are a few ways to keep things fun and interesting as your progress through your fundamentals.
Back tracks – Try using back tracks with different grooves rather than a metronome. You can use tools like Bandlab or Soundtrack to create your own and specify tempo, etc. Have your students create their own back tracks and have the class vote on their favorite one.
Musical variation dice – Grab a spare tissue box and cover it with white paper. Make each side a different exercise and add some pictures. With 6 sides to the “dice” you’ll have lots of options when it comes to types of fundamental exercises. Try making one for each type of fundamental exercise you want to work on. Have students roll the dice so they get to feel ownership in their rehearsal.
Stay standing – While this idea will probably not fit into your 8-10 minute routine, it can create excitement when used occasionally. Once your students have mastered all 12 major scales, hold a mini contest. Have your students stand and play through scales together. When someone makes a mistake they sit down to show that they are out. Each round take the tempos faster and faster until you only have a few students standing.
Let your students pick – Once you have a set routine, let your students pick what they will play. Give them parameters from exercises your students already know and see what they choose. This will empower them and keep them engaged throughout the first part of your rehearsal.