One of the many great, but challenging parts about getting a degree in music education is that our certification is to teach K-12, band, choir, orchestra, and general music. As future educators we need to become proficient in all these areas so that we are able to teach our future students. Usually we each have an area of expertise, but it is vital that we are competent in all areas of music education. One area I feel most undergraduates struggle in is being proficient on their secondary instruments. This can especially be a challenge for non-instrumentalists. There is no way we are able to be an expert on every instrument, but it is possible to have a basic knowledge of the different instruments and be able to play them at a proficient level.

Why is learning secondary instruments important?

First of all, the more comfortable you are with your non-primary instruments the easier it is to teach them to the students. If you know how to play the instruments then you can play along with your students. This is especially helpful for elementary kids. Teaching technique, tone etc. is much easier when you can model for the students. Some band directors will play along with their students, but only on their primary instrument. I feel it is much more beneficial for students to hear their own instrument so they can hear what it should sound like. Many times telling students what to shoot for and what to sound like isn’t enough they have to hear it modeled for them

It is also very helpful to know the fingerings for all the instruments so that you can easily show them to your students. Knowing the fingerings is more beneficial than having to look them up and it takes less time. Unfortunately it is hard to learn every fingering for every instrument so it is a good idea to keep a fingering chart handy.

Being proficient on secondary instruments also helps you to become a better musician and teacher. Learning instruments sometimes is a frustrating process even for musicians. I believe that music teachers who learn to play their secondary instruments are better able to relate to their students when they struggle. For example I really struggled at learning to play the flute and now I feel that because I struggled I will be able to relate to my future beginning flute students better.

How and when to learn secondary instruments

I believe that all music education undergraduates should continually be learning secondary instruments. Yes I know we learn the instruments in our methods class, but many times that is during our first or second years as undergraduates. We should keep working on becoming proficient on them even outside of our methods classes.

One way to become proficient on secondary instruments is while you are teaching lessons. Two summers ago I was given the opportunity to teach summer lessons at my high school. Since I am a French horn player I felt comfortable playing the brass instruments, but I did not feel very comfortable with the woodwinds. I decided to use a school instrument and play along with the students. At first I wasn’t great, but as the weeks went on I became more and more comfortable. I was learning at the same time as the students.

Another way to become proficient is to practice secondary instruments over the summer. You can either borrow instruments from a friend, see if you can borrow one from your college over the summer, or buy a cheap instrument online. This summer it was my project to become more proficient in percussion, drums, flute, and clarinet. After spending just a few minutes a week on these instruments I definitely feel much more comfortable on these instruments than before the summer began.

Finally you can become more proficient on secondary instruments by playing them in your college ensembles or taking private lessons. This is especially a good way for voice majors to learn the different instruments. I know here at GCC many of the students will play a secondary instrument in ensembles  because they want to improve on it. Also taking lessons is a good option. This is especially good if there is one specific instrument you want to get good at. For me that instrument is piano so I have taken four semesters of piano lessons.

It is also vital that instrumentalists are comfortable using their singing voice. If you are not comfortable with this join your college choir, sing in your church choir, or take voice lessons. Choral ensembles both at the elementary and secondary levels need to hear what a good mature voice sounds like and it is the role of the teacher to model this. Also general music teachers need feel comfortable singing to their students. If the teacher is not comfortable singing then it will be very hard to get the students to want to sing.

What if I don’t have time?

Many educators and undergraduates use the excuse that they don’t have time to learn more instruments. We are all extremely busy, but taking a few minutes to learn secondary instruments is well worth it and both you and your students will reap the benefits eventually. You don’t have to practice constantly to become proficient on these instruments. Even a few minutes every now and then can help more than you can imagine. Taking the time as an undergraduate to learn secondary instruments will make you a better musician and teacher and be extremely beneficial to your students. Even though it doesn’t seem like it now one day you will be glad that you took that extra time and became proficient on your secondary instruments.