Melisa Rutkelis, Department of Arts Education for Chicago public schools
- pBone worked well as a pre-band instrument for 4th and 5th graders
- The basic buzzing and breathing skills Melisa taught her students in a classroom setting was really valuable when they transitioned to brass instruments
- Lightweight nature of pBone useful in teaching students correct posture
Melisa works for the Department of Arts Education for Chicago public schools, and has around 8 years teaching experience. She previously taught at Mark Twain Elementary public school for five years, prior to which she also taught at an elementary school in Illinois.
The opportunity to use pBones at Mark Twain Elementary came about through the Little Kids Rock scheme when they were looking for pilot schools. Melisa wanted to allow modern band students the chance to play pBone, and was also considering transitioning from the use of recorder in pre-band to the use of pBone instead.
Melisa established pBones in her 4th and 5th grade classrooms whilst at Mark Twain. For 2 years, 120 kids played pBone as a pre-band instrument, leaning notation and being introduced to the trombone at the same time. Compared with the recorder, pBone gave the kids experience playing a ‘real’ band instrument. Over the course of two years at Mark Twain, half of the 5th grade kids were able to progress to playing instruments in concert band.
Teaching methods and resources
To get started teaching pBone, Melisa devised her own resource by adapting material from the Essential Elements flute book. She taught her students pBone in treble clef, which proved the easiest way to equip them with foundation skills they could transfer to other band instruments also.
In the first year, Melisa had her students studying music from different college marching bands in various states, sometimes simplified, but often she had 4th graders playing authentic trombone parts in class on pBones. For students who hadn’t played before, Melisa used a coloured notation system to help them learn the parts.
Successes and challenges
Melisa found that the ‘buzzing’ and breathing exercises she undertook with her students was key in helping the students to strengthen basic skills; those who were able to consistently buzz in a classroom setting found transferring those skills to brass instruments a lot easier.
One of the biggest challenges was the teaching time available. At a school of 1200 students from kindergarten to 8th grade, only those up to 5th grade had music lessons as part of their curriculum, and for just 1 hour a week with class sizes of over 30 kids. Beyond 5th grade, students would not have music classes unless they signed up for extracurricular programmes, which were a little longer at an hour and 20 minutes. Melisa’s big challenge was motivating the students to practice out of hours at home – and with so many students using the pBones, they couldn’t each take an instrument away.
The advantages of pBone
For Melisa, the fact that pBones are such lightweight instruments is a real bonus. It gives children as young as 4th grade the ability to hold the instrument with the correct posture and to breathe in the right way, without finding the trombone too heavy.
pBuzz appeals because it would be perfect for even younger kids, pre-pBone, and would introduce the possibility of great brass-playing students from 3rd grade! pBuzz provides opportunities for even younger kids to get buzzing and start to learn important skills. As a tool, is strengthens children as musicians but also positively impacts the band programme.
Melisa advised that it’s easy to incorporate pInstruments. In her experience, there can be a stigma about plastic instruments – but what is important is that this kind of accessibility gives more kids the chance to experience playing the trombone even if they don’t continue with it; it’s also vital to remember what’s best for students as musicians.