Teaching Concert Music or the Method Book

Concert Music or the Method Book

Do I teach concert music or the method book? It’s a conversation I have with colleagues all the time and it’s something I ask myself each day in the classroom. We have concerts coming up – a culminating performance experience that demonstrates what our students know and in many ways highlights the strengths of our program and of our teaching. But is teaching to the concert what’s best for our students? Your answer will naturally depend upon the structure of your program, your curriculum, and the instructional contact time you actually have. In the end, it comes down to what you prefer. 

Below are some scenarios for you to consider:

Teaching Concert Music: Pros, Cons, and Suggestions 

  • Pros: I make my selection of concert music based on what I want my students to know. If D Major and 6/8 time are the main goals, my concert music is selected based on that. By concert time, my students will not only understand these concepts, but they’ll sound great because we spent a great deal of time studying that repertoire. I also don’t have a lot of contact time with my students, so this is the perfect option. The concert and how we sound is everything.
  • Cons: Not all parts are equal in challenge level. Even if each section gets melodic features, interesting harmonies, have accidentals, etc., chances are one section gets exposure to something a lot more or less than another. After drilling the music for several months, students play it confidently and give a great performance, but it becomes boring rather quickly and the students (and me!) are itching for something else. 
  • Suggestions: I’ve been there…we all have. The important facts to take away from these pros and cons are: what my students need to know, time constraints, having successful concert experiences, equality among the instruments, and engagement. Unless your concert music is in unison (or as close as possible) or each section gets the same thing at some point, teaching just concert music teaches your students one thing: how to play the concert music. 

Consider this exercise: if you selected one of your concert pieces that your students know fluently, chose eight measures, and then mixed up the notes and rhythms in each measure so it didn’t sound the same and didn’t tell them, how would your kids do? 

Mixing it up is important, because not all concert pieces are written equally. If you plan on using concert music to teach your curriculum, try and aim to make sure the parts are balanced and that you have a way to measure their understanding. Did you select that piece to teach hooked bows? Perfect. Then any piece or exercise within their playing level using hooked bows should be accessible to them. If it’s not, then perhaps their exposure to it in the concert music wasn’t enough for them to fully understand it. 

My advice is to have some unison exercises printed on the back of each part that highlight your focus goals. You can warm up on these before rehearsing and they can be rhythmically or tonally centered (or both). You might even consider writing out the main melody (or all the melodies) for each part and have everyone learn them all.

For those of you that are more daring and have some extra time, rewrite each part for every section in the orchestra. This means your cellos can get a chance to play the first violin part, violas can play second violin, basses can play viola, first violins play bass, second violins play cello….it’s actually a lot of fun and will keep your kids on edge. You can do this as a fun challenge after they’ve mastered their concert music. 

Teaching the Method Book: Pros, Cons, and Suggestions 

  • Pros: I know exactly what my goals are for my students. If they can make it to page 27 exercise 83, I know exactly what concert music I can select to support that learning. Plus, I know they’re prepared for next year. Students are all learning the same skills, regardless of what instrument they play, and I can have mixed lesson groups and/or large group rehearsals where we can all focus on the exact same thing. 
  • Cons: I am losing valuable time having students learn short eight-measure exercises that aren’t particularly interesting, melodic, or fun. Some students get it quickly and move onto a new exercise while others are still stuck on the first few. I also haven’t found a method book I’m completely in love with that covers everything I need my students to know or that fits with my philosophy of instrumental instruction, so I end up supplementing with other materials. My students also can’t afford method books and I don’t have a budget to supply them. 
  • Suggestions: Once again…we’ve all been there. The important facts to take away from these pros and cons are: what my students need to know, leveling the playing field, letting go of concert music, quality method books, varying student levels, and money. These things aside, teaching straight from the method book teaches your kids one thing: how to play music out of context using specific skill sets. 

Consider this exercise: if you created a bunch of short playing pieces based on the page(s) and exercises you covered in your method book, how would your kids do? 

Once again, mixing it up is important, because not all method books are written equally. If you plan on using the method book as the sole method to deliver your curriculum, select a good one (or a mixture of your favorites). Did exercises 30 through 40 focus on reading the notes D, E, and F#? Perfect. Then any piece or exercise within their playing level using those notes should be accessible to them. If they’re still having trouble differentiating between Ds and F#s, then maybe they haven’t seen or played those notes enough. 

The method book approach or utilizing supplemental materials from a variety of books and resources helps build confident musicians and fluent readers that learn to produce a strong and nice tone on their instrument. This approach can be used in large ensemble settings as warm-ups that are tied into the students’ concert music and they can also be used in small lesson groups if your program has them. 

Selecting a Method Book

This is easier said than done, but selecting a quality method book is essential to unifying your instrumental program and to ensure your students are learning what they need to in order to be successful. Meet with your fellow colleagues and discuss what everyone likes to use. We all have our go-tos, so conversations like these can get pretty passionate amongst seasoned instrumental teachers. The important thing is to demonstrate what a chosen book brings to your students and to be open minded. 

Issues that educators often face when finding high-quality methodologies include: books introducing too many notes on one page; having letter names written in the noteheads; the print going from large to small too quickly; progression between different techniques moves too quickly; outdated pictures and exercises; boring or not colorful and exciting; too colorful with too much going on; not being tied to state standards; and not aligned with your current curriculum (if you have one). 

Another consideration is what supplemental resources each book might come with. Is the book available on online platforms like MakeMusic Cloud? Connecting your physical method book with online resources can help make practice more accessible to students and open opportunities for deeper learning.

Whichever way your department chooses to go, it’s important that all students are getting the same experience. If your district has ten elementary schools, it’s helpful knowing your colleagues across town are using the same book and that you can collaborate. As long as we meet all of our students at their individual levels, they will all move through the book sequentially which makes teaching easier. This is especially important for elementary school teachers since they are setting up the foundation of the instrumental program. Even if the book isn’t your dream book, use it when possible, stay aligned with your colleagues, and supplement when needed. 


Be sure when you choose a method book that it aligns with your district’s curriculum (if you utilize one). If it doesn’t align you may need to update the curriculum, which is fine since districts tend to do curriculum audits every five years or so. This is an opportunity to see how your program can be updated and how your chosen methodology complements and elevates it. We are the custodians of our instrumental programs and over time, the changes we implement make our programs stronger. 

In some districts, instrumental programs are extra/co-curricular and might not have a curriculum. This places teachers on a little island in their individual programs where their goal is to survive. But this doesn’t mean you don’t have to have some sort of guide. If the district uses a common method book, collaboration with your colleagues can break you from feeling isolated. You can then create common yearly goals, monthly pacing guides, assessments, and even concert pieces that all students should be exposed to. 


I am grateful that I have a yearly budget that will not only sustain my program but ensure that it grows. My students can afford good-quality rental instruments and buy books. 

If you don’t have a large budget (or any at all) or the district you teach in is in a lower socioeconomic class, purchasing books and instruments will be a challenge. Try doing the following: 

  • Reach out to area districts and see if they have old books they’d be willing to donate. Some vendors might donate older books to you if you ask, and you can even promote them by recommending them as a vendor. 
  • Join online social media groups for music educators and engage in a discussion on funds to support your program, free or cheap access to resources, grants, etc.
  • Build up enough funds so you can create a class set, even if that means you’re only buying one method book every few months. Some teachers with no budget even choose to purchase their own, but don’t break your personal piggy bank.
  • Many towns have online marketplaces where people can request gifts or offer items to others for free. Create a post and ask if anyone has old books (or even instruments and parts). You’d be surprised what you’ll get. 
  • Tag-sales are a great and cheap way to find some good deals. 
  • Some public libraries have bi or tri-annual book giveaways. Check to see if you can find any method books. 
  • Project your method book onto a screen in your classroom and have your students practice from there. 
  • Reach out to your method book’s publisher and ask permission to make educational photo-copy sets for your students. It never hurts to ask, but do this to avoid copyright infringement. 
  • Ask your principal if there are any funds left from the previous years’ order and if they’d be willing to order some books. 
  • Some PTAs offer teachers funds for school supplies. Check with them. 
  • Apply for grants. There are thousands of them – just do a search and see what comes up. If you get funds, make sure to write them a thank you letter. 
  • CREATE YOUR OWN BOOK: This is actually not as challenging as it sounds. If you have access to music writing softwares like Finale or Noteflight, make a series of exercises and songs that embody what you love most of the method books and the supplemental materials you use. If you have a personal teaching approach, your book can utilize it. And best of all: since it’s yours, you can copy and print as many as you’d like. 

Using Both 

By far, the approach that I prefer utilizes a mixture of what I have outlined above. I have my students purchase a book of solos and a method book. We practice concert music during our large orchestra rehearsals and use lessons to work on technique and solo repertoire. This doesn’t mean I’ll never work on concert music in lessons, but I’ll limit myself to eight measures and won’t start doing this until I get closer to concert time. The concert music I choose also correlates with the book. In other words, it’s not like I’m not working on the concert music: I’m giving the students the skills they need to play their concert music by using a text. Always remember: the concert music should complement your book!

But this is also dependent on the structure of your program (note: the term ‘lessons’ means small heterogeneous/homogeneous group lessons). Below are some examples of how public/private school instrumental programs are structured. Consider the following:

  • I only see my students for ensemble rehearsals: If you’re working with large groups of students at a time and with mixed instrumentation, a method book can save you since you can work on concepts together. Don’t just drill the book, but don’t just drill concert music: use both. 
  • I only see my students for lessons and then we have one or two ensemble rehearsals before the concert: Using a mixture of teaching both concert music and the method book can be useful here. Some method books have their own concert pieces built in, so if you work your students up to them, they can perform right out of the book. This can be especially useful for Concert Informances, where I have my beginning students perform some of their exercises to show parents the progression of learning.
  • I see my students for ensemble rehearsals and for one or two lessons a week: This is a great scenario, but time is always important. Ensemble rehearsals should be used for something that the group can do together. Align your concert repertoire with specific pages in the book(s) you’re using and try incorporating both. 
  • We use a block rotation and my time with students varies each week: It can be challenging if each week is a little different. Give yourself a goal (i.e. I’m going to get my students to this exercise by such time) and then prioritize concert music the next week. Don’t overshoot: concert repertoire shouldn’t be challenging. It should complement what the students already know how to do or are currently learning. This gives you the flexibility to not feel pressured to teach the method book or the concert music. 
  • Rehearsals and lessons are before-school: Regardless of where or when your program meets, you should still have specific goals in mind. Remember, there are some great lesson books that even have concert pieces, but you might only have time to do a few pages if you don’t meet very often. 
  • Lessons are homogeneous: Another great reason to use a method book, since everyone can be in unison and move together! Concert music is exciting because the students are putting together different parts for a performance, but each part is not written at the same challenge level. Consider what your flutes get to play versus the trombone section, or even the difference between first and second violin. If you’re using a method book, they can all do this. But why can’t you rewrite that challenging violin melody for your basses? Instead of just having them play their usual quarter note accompaniment, tell the entire orchestra that everyone will learn how to play the main melody, even if only the violins will perform it in the concert. 

In Conclusion 

It can be a bit challenging to let go of something that we’ve done for so long, especially since we all feel so strongly about our particular teaching approaches. The best advice I can give you is that you should use an approach that you personally enjoy but to try and incorporate some of what was suggested above. Make a solid attempt to use a method book, even if only as a warm-up or supplemental resource, and do so regularly to get your students into a routine. 

If possible, keep concert music on the back-burner and make sure that the exercises you’re teaching in the book are correlated to your concert music. A simple example of this is if you’re practicing some exercises on a page that focuses on reading the first four scale degrees. If you’re spending time on that and students are achieving mastery, then the concert music should support that. But if the majority of your concert music uses scale degrees five through seven, the two don’t really work well together. 

The more students read music out of context and in short achievable exercises, the more they will develop musical fluency. It’s similar to a child walking down the street and seeing a stop sign, reading the word stop out loud, and physically stopping. They are seeing the word “STOP” out of context, but it still has the same meaning and sound, so they are making that connection. When they read a full sentence that uses the word stop, they will understand it in context. 

Teach your students to develop their musical language skills by pairing method book exercises and/or solos with concert music. By doing so, you are ensuring that your students are well-rounded musicians who have the necessary foundational skills to perform anything you put in front of them.

Anthony Granata is an orchestra teacher and composer living in Fairfield County, Connecticut. After graduating from Western Connecticut State University, he began teaching and has taught at the high school, elementary, and middle school levels, including beginning band, chorus, elementary music and orchestra. Anthony began composing at the age of twelve, and after a brief hiatus from composition to focus on education and teaching, he resumed writing music to help teach challenging concepts to his young string players. He is currently pursuing a degree in school administration.

An advocate for public school music programs, Anthony Granata received his entire preliminary string education during his years in the Norwalk public school’s music program, and currently teaches middle school orchestra in Westport, Connecticut. He is an accomplished violist and still performs regularly.

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