Band mentorship program: young musicians learn from older ones—and vice versa

by Nancy Shohet West

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Eighth grader Connor Lofdahl (right) works on trombone technique with fourth grader Sasha Brown
(photo by Nancy Shohet West)

It takes Carlisle Public Schools band director Kevin Maier just two words to best summarize the mentorship program he oversees: bunny ears.

“A fourth grader was having trouble positioning her fingers on her flute properly. Her eighth-grade mentor taught her to do something [the older student] called “bunny ears” with her fingers. I’d never heard that trick before myself, but it worked for both of them!” Maier recalled.

Maier founded the mentorship program when he arrived at the Carlisle Public Schools in the fall of 2009. As he saw it, Carlisle was a perfect testing ground for an experiment he’d long wanted to try: unlike communities in which he’d taught previously, the grade range on the campus makes it possible for younger students and older students to get together.

It’s an opt-in program by which interested students in the fourth-grade band program are matched with middle schoolers who play the same instrument. For the most part, the numbers work out for one-to-one matches, Maier said; occasionally younger students double up with a single mentor. “The idea was that the older students could help the younger ones because it’s not long ago that they learned these same skills themselves,” Maier said. “I’ve been teaching these instruments for a long time, and those techniques and concepts that I have come to view as crystal clear may in fact be confusing to a beginner. Another young person who learned the same skills just three or four years ago has a different perspective.”

This year’s numbers are fairly typical, Maier said, with about eight to ten pairs of mentors and mentees meeting together each week. Regular fourth-grade band practice takes place on Wednesdays for the hour before elementary school classes begin; students participating in the mentorship program arrive a half-hour earlier, at the nearly pre-dawn hour of 7:15 a.m., which may deter some participation but also underscores the commitment of those who do show up every week.

Not only does mentoring help beginners learn their instruments faster, said Maier; it also kindles an auspicious relationship between two students, and over the past three years he has witnessed many times the extent to which both the younger and the older member of the pair benefit.

“It creates a comfortable atmosphere around band practice,” Maier said. That atmosphere ideally sets a precedent as the fourth graders advance through the school’s music program, which gives them the opportunity starting in fifth grade to audition for more advanced groups including symphonic band, concert band and jazz band.

During their weekly 30-minute meeting, at which Maier tries to stay in the background and let the students find their own style of collaboration, each pair generally begins by running through the band assignments for that week. Beyond that, the mentors are welcome to set their own curriculum, and many of them bring in pieces that they enjoyed learning as beginners. “One mentor brought his mentee the Star Wars score,” said Maier. “I encourage that. We do music because we love it, and they should share the pieces that they love.”

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Percussionists Steve Li (left) and Tanner Buckelew practice together. (photo by Nancy Shohet West) Fourth grader Katie Faber (left) learns the finer points of saxophone phrasing from her mentor, sixth grader Isabel Parker.(photo by Nancy Shohet West)

“My mentor has taught me a lot,” concurred fourth grader Katie Faber about her mentor, sixth-grade saxophone player Isabel Parker. “She’s helped me learn notes and understand tonguing and slurs. We play our instruments together and it’s really fun.”

Having started the program his first year here, Maier doesn’t have comparative data to prove it, but he strongly believes that it helps with retention in the band program. All fourth graders are encouraged to try an instrument and receive free group lessons; once they reach fifth grade and parents have to decide whether to pay for the lessons to continue, some typically drop out. Commitments to other extracurricular activities draw still more of them away in the ensuing years. But working with an older student makes them feel like part of a community of musicians from the beginning, said Maier.

During the June concert every year, he has the mentors join their fourth-grade mentees for part of the program, and he often suspects that moment is the high point of the concert for the younger students. “You can see them swell with pride when their mentors cross the stage and sit down next to them,” he said. “Meanwhile, it gives the mentors a greater sense of ownership in the music program, and it shows them how much we recognize their value as role models.”

And, not least, it gives the older students some perspective on the challenges he himself faces as band director. ”One of the eighth graders said to me, ‘Mr. Maier, my student doesn’t practice enough and he’s not going to improve if he doesn’t!’ I said, ‘I know, it’s frustrating, isn’t it?’ The older kids work better with me in their own ensemble groups once they’ve experienced both the positive and the more demanding aspects of teaching.”

Eighth-grade trombonist Connor Lofdahl is in his second year of mentoring.One of the two fourth graders he works with this year is Sasha Brown, who thinks Lofdahl is wonderful. “Connor helps me a lot, and sometimes he is funny, which makes it very fun for me,” said Brown.  “I look forward to him teaching me every Wednesday morning. He gives me good tips on how to play the trombone better.”

Lofdahl agrees with his young charge that it’s a worthwhile experience for both of them. “I think it’s a great opportunity for beginning musicians to see what they can be if they work hard enough and stick with their instrument,” he said. “It gives me a teaching opportunity: I’ve learned how to show the things that I know how to do to others. I’ve also formed bonds with other fellow trombonists. It creates a strong feeling of fellowship.”  ∆