Music Fundamentals: The Real Heavyweights

“Just two more sets”, “Just one more set”, “six more reps and I’m done!” -- these are all thoughts that go through my head when I’m lifting weights. Every year, as part of my New Year’s resolution, I usually have some kind of fitness goal I’d like to achieve. This year, I decided, no fitness goals- no resolutions. And as Nike would tell me, “Just do it!” So... I did. Mid-January I found a weight-lifting app that allowed me to design my own exercises, sets and reps and joined my husband in our garage gym. My husband coached me through the beginning. I spent three weeks on five pound weights as I watched him pile on the weights and use mega dumbbells. I felt silly working out next to him, but he assured me I was doing the right thing by conditioning my body and preventing future injury.   

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I have worked my way up to lifting 15 pound dumbbells over the past few months, and I reflected during one of my workouts that I was doing what I had preached to my students when I was a choir teacher: “Slow and steady wins the race.”  “Progress not perfection.” In fact, I would often talk to them about how building their skill was like lifting weights and working out. You don’t just start lifting 100 pound weights, you start with small weights and work your way up. It’s funny how most of us are so good about giving this advice, but often have unreasonable expectations of ourselves when it comes to looking inward. 

As I have sat in on many of the Virtually INSPIRED visits with our conductors and musicians, I always see one common theme that has helped drive their success: spending a lot of time understanding and refining music fundamentals. Whether it be their posture, bow hold, embouchure or understanding music theory fundamentals, e.g. key signatures, these musicians have put in a tremendous amount of diligence and dedication into refining their craft. Listening to them during these visits has inspired me to rediscover music in a new way, to think about my own approach to the keyboard (piano is my instrument) and given me such joy in watching them inspire young people to strive for greatness while maintaining a structured approach to their own practice and musical education. 

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We take great care to design these visits so that they accommodate and compliment the teacher’s needs and classroom curriculum. The teachers I have worked with to personalize these visits have also had a common theme in their requests. Here are some I have received:

I would LOVE to have some performances that would align with learning the instrument families. Our curriculum looks very different this year and I would love to have them hear some live performances on different instruments. If time, I would also like for the musicians to talk to them about having a career in music. When did they start playing? How much do they practice, etc.”

“We have just finished talking about instrument families Percussion, Brass, Strings, and Woodwinds. We have also talked about how the instruments sit in the orchestra, but a good explanation of why the orchestra sits this way would be great. We have talked about John Williams as a conductor and composer of orchestral music. I would like to address a bit more about what a conductor’s role is in the orchestra. The students should be able to identify most instruments by sight and know what family they belong to. I was able to show them a few instruments in real life (flute, clarinet, violin, trumpet, trombone, tuba, cymbal, and a small xylophone and glockenspiel) but other instruments I could only show them video demonstrations of. They will enjoy anything you bring and are very fascinated by all instruments!”

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“I would love to have a wind musician to discuss performance basics, technique exercises, tone production, etc. to my high school musicians.”

“I'd like for the visitors to talk about the importance of practicing on your own, whether it be on exercises that develop their individual musical technique, or on practicing ensemble music. I'd also like for them to talk about how students can keep having music as a part of their life after graduation. Maybe we could allow some of the students to ask questions for our visitors about being professional musicians.”

“Anything that could motivate them to keep playing music, keep practicing on their own, and keep trying in the face of adversity would be great. These students are very busy, and trying to get Orchestra to have the same priority as their other classes/activities can be a struggle.”

“I would love to hear the musician talk about being a beginner on an instrument, persevering through learning the basics of reading music and playing your instrument, what it means to be part of an ensemble.”

These teachers are amazing musicians; they also recognize that a strong foundation in basics is what builds to advancement and success! You can clearly see the common thread in these requests- teachers are asking for help reinforcing the basic skills they are teaching with a STRONG emphasis on cultivating a culture of the ultimate goal:  independent musicianship. Members of the Orchestra have been wonderful in recognizing a need in our community and feeling passionate about contributing to these educational partnerships. Feedback from the teachers has been overwhelmingly positive and some have had us in the classroom on a weekly basis to reach as many of their students as possible! 

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The musicians and conducting staff of the ASO are truly heavyweights- they are the lifters of the 100+ pounds during their performances, but they didn’t start there, they recognized that the three, five, and eight pound weights needed to receive as much diligence and attention in order for them to be successful on their journey up the scale. And as part of ASO Education, we all recognize that building and reinforcing music fundamentals in our education programs is the key to long term success in the music classroom and beyond. 

As for me, I’ll be lifting 15 pound weights for a few more weeks and then try moving on up. If those 18 or 20 pound weights get too heavy, I’ll be back to 15, and then… I’ll try again, all while watching my husband conquer the big weights. The way I see it, it’s good to have someone I can look to when I get discouraged who has already walked the journey. Someone who keeps setting new goals to work towards, and who can help hold me accountable when I minimize the importance of fundamentals as crucial to reaching my goals.  

Check out our Explorer Episodes - Educational videos and accompanying lesson plans designed by the ASO

Virtually Inspired - Interested in a virtual classroom visit from an ASO conductor or musician? Sign up here!

Don't miss the ASO's all-new Spring Serenades virtual series, streaming now until June!

Are you a music educator in the state of Alabama that would like to share your experience? Inquire about being featured in our Education Blog by emailing Maria Wilson, ASO Education Initiatives Manager, at 

by Maria Wilson, Education Initiatives Manager, Alabama Symphony Orchestra