Category Archives: Concert Band

Incubation Period – Training Beginning Music Instrumental Students on Flute, Oboe, and High Brass

Thomas J. WestThroughout my career as an instrumental music teacher in American public schools, I have had the opportunity to start a lot of students on a new instrument. My approach to starting beginners is typical: I begin with mouthpiece and embouchure formation, basic playing position, and so on. Where I diverge from tradition is in my approach to teaching basic playing technique, which I will discuss in a future article.

In training these beginners, I typically find that there are a handful of wind instruments that require a longer period of time for most students to become proficient at basic tone production. Until a student can reliably produce the tone of the instrument, it is difficult to move forward into technique building or music reading. I call these instruments ones with longer “incubation periods”.

Tone Production on the Trumpet and French Horn

While most beginning students are fairly successful early on in buzzing the lips and producing their first sounds, all brass instruments, and particularly the high brass, require the students to work on embouchure building and flexibility with a great deal of consistency over the course of several months to be able to produce an octave’s worth of pitches.

To produce an air stream that is compressed enough to play mid-range pitches, players must build the musculature of the face to a point where the aperture (portion of the lips that actually vibrates) can vibrate freely while the muscles hold back the resulting internal air pressure. As I tell my students, it literally is “weight lifting for your face”.

The French horn has the additional challenge of having their typical tessitura in band literature written for the middle to upper part of the instrument’s playable range, requiring not only strength, but enough control to accurately find partials that are as close together as a whole step. Because of the strength and conditioning required, trumpet and French horn students must put in consistent practice time on a daily basis in order to develop this control.

Tone Production on Oboe

Oboe students typically do not have difficulty producing their initial tones on their instruments. Refining that tone and playing in extended ranges, however, can take consistent work that lasts at least a year, a fact that applies to bassoon as well. The initial sounds made by oboists are jarring and strident at best, and the quality and adjustments made to their reeds can be a major contributing factor.

If oboe or bassoon is not your primary instrument, dealing with double reeds may be a bit perplexing. If you have the luxury of having your double reed students study privately or work with a double reed clinician at your school, many of these issues can be addressed. If not, everyone, director and students alike, will have to exercise patience as the oboe students continue to work on improving the total quality and range of their instrument.

Tone Production on Flute

The instrument with the longest incubation period, perhaps, is the flute. There is little about producing the tone of the flute that is intuitive. It is quite literally a trial and error process, and because of the nature of the Hemoltz resonator effect being produced, students often find themselves in the early stages becoming light-headed from hyperventilation. Once the initial sounds become more consistently produced, they still remain breathy and unfocused.

Once tone can be produced reliably, the next challenge for flutists is developing control of the air stream to become capable of changing octaves reliably. I wrote at length about this topic, including some useful exercises, in this article. Even after gaining control of the low, middle, and lower portion of the high register, it will take more time and experience for the flutist’s tone quality to go from the breathy, intermediate stage to a purer, more rounded flute tone.

Tone Production Is Essential for All

Even for instruments that do not need extensive work to produce a good tone in the middle register, such as clarinet and saxophone, good tone quality must come before nearly every other aspect of performance. The saxophone embouchure is fairly forgiving, but players still need to apply the mouthpiece firmly against the top teeth and use the correct amount of reed tip opening to produce the correct pitch on the reed. Many sax players are producing the wrong pitch on the mouthpiece well into high school, leading to perpetual intonation problems and strident tone quality.

Clarinetists, because of the downward angle of the instrument, must have a firm lower lip, correct angle of pressure from the jaw, and must position the tongue correctly to direct the airflow to produce the correct pitch and tone in all registers. This is especially true at the intermediate level as they venture into the register above high C.

Low brass performers are under the same kind of regiment as their high brass counterparts; there is simply less need for muscular development at the earlier stages of learning. Breaking through the “high F ceiling” is a tough process for many intermediate players.

Little else can fall into place for a wind instrumentalist until they are using the correct embouchure formation with the right amount and quality of air stream. Good tone is a prerequisite for tuning, intonation, articulation, and even simply getting the instrument to respond in time for the downbeat. Many secondary level band directors are guilty of taking tone production for granted, not revisiting tone concepts enough to continue to help each section of the ensemble develop as individual performers. For the highest quality performance of the full ensemble, however, revisiting tone production needs to be a periodic checkpoint that is part of every ensemble’s routine.

Thank you  to Thomas J. West for letting us use his blog!
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Instrumental Music as Physical Education

TomWestMost public school music ensembles spend 95 percent of their classroom time preparing for public concerts. It takes many hours of repetition of the music in order to program the body to perform the music accurately. Band and orchestra directors basically run rehearsals for a living and become very good at  providing the repetitions necessary to program the physical movements required to perform the music accurately.

When I begin writing articles for my website, I focused on sharing music practice tips. The majority of these were strategies designed to help maximize practice routine efficiency, garnering more successful repetitions of the music. What I have only recently realized, however, is that the majority of time and effort spent practicing a musical instrument has more to do with  programming the mind to physically control the instrument accurately and reliably. There is more “physical education” involved in instrumental music making than actual “music education”.

In most traditional high school bands and orchestras, the vast majority of rehearsal time is spent drilling the music in order for ensemble members to develop some level of physical proficiency in performance. Teaching basic musicianship concepts like reading notation, audiating pitch, and so on is left to the elementary music teachers to handle. High school ensembles focus primarily on ensemble techniques such as pulse control, section and group intonation, balance and blend, and so on. Those concepts are touched upon and then drilled, drilled, drilled until the ensemble can perform them accurately.

The Marriage Between Physical And Aural

One of the amazing things about studying music performance is that it elides the physical skill of operating a musical instrument with the mental skill of perceiving and instantly processing and reacting to sound. Singers do this as well, but the need to physically train the body is quite different. Instrumentalists spend a great deal of time simply becoming proficient at manipulating the contraption that makes the musical sounds happen.

Students of music have to not only become proficient at the physical movements, they also have to use their aural skills to assess their own physical performance. The actual musical part of instrumental performace is all mental, and it requires training and skill building just like the physical training of operating the instrument.

Over-Programming The Physical Part Of Performance

Because it takes so much time and repetition to program the body, musicianship and listening skills often take a secondary role in many school performing ensemble classes. This is compounded by the fact that many high school band and orchestra directors choose repertoire that demands a high level of technical proficiency on the part of the performers. Technical wizardry (those fast sixteeth note runs, screaming high notes, rapid tonguing or bowing passages, and so on) are engaging and exciting to listen to, and many directors want their students to have the experience of performing exciting works with a lot of technical fireworks.

The trade-off, however, is that technically demanding repertoire often consumes the majority of available class time simply to get the ensemble performing proficiently. Even then, traditional band and orchestra programs lean on the students with the higher music aptitude and skill development to carry the weight while their peers hang on for dear life or fake their way through the difficult passages. Add to that fact the more important consequence – the students rarely have time to improve their musical skills in favor of improving their physical skills.

Audio Gym Teacher?

If ensemble directors, for whatever reason, continue to program technically demanding works that constantly stretch the boundaries of what the students are capable of, they are providing their students with more of an “audio physical education” than a “music education”. Technical ability is only part of what makes up an effective musical performance. It is far better, in my opinion, to choose repertoire with easier technical demand that can be mastered in a shorter amount of time, leaving room towards the end of the preparation period to work on ensemble playing techniques, expressive phrasing, and communicating the intent of the music to the audience.

Quite simply, if by concert time students are not able to look away from the sheet music for more than a brief glance at the baton in order to be able to perform the piece, the technical demand is probably too high.

There certainly is a need for repertoire that “pushes the envelope” and gets students to reach for a new level of technical ability, but I have seen too many band and orchestra programs that try to stretch the ensemble with every single piece they perform. Slaving away on demanding parts is enjoyable for only a minority of students – most are turned off by such hard work, especially if that level of demand is constantly upon them.

Physical training in the band and orchestra is a major component of instrumental performing music and is constantly being addressed. There needs to be a balance, however, between the physical aspects of instrumental performance and the mental aspects of listening, audiating, and understanding music as an art form.

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.

Choosing the Right Music for Your Orchestra

Bob Phillips

As a string teacher for many years, I always enjoy looking at new music.  It’s a bit like opening a present!  As an editor at Alfred, I see the music about a year before it is released. Right now we have just released the new 2013 music and have much of the music for 2014 selected.

Things have changed from the days when we all spent a lovely summer day in an air-conditioned music store looking for just the right pieces to play that year. Now we depend on the Internet and all the great websites to browse the new music or look for great classics.  A classic can be a piece that just works so well that teachers play it year after year.  It can also mean enduring music.  This month we are featuring several types of classic music – great rock and roll and timeless serious music. 

No matter what you are looking for, be sure it fits the skill level of your group. I would generally choose to play a slightly easier piece and play it with excellence than play a more difficult piece poorly.  Of course, there are times that a challenge is called for!  Keep your curriculum in mind as well and find tunes that provide the opportunity to teach the appropriate skills. Enjoy!

Finding Meaning in Your Teaching Career

George Megaw
By George Megaw
Belwin/Pop Concert Band Editor

I’m reminded of two former students that brought meaning to my teaching career. Beth was an outstanding clarinet player and contributed to the high school band program above and beyond. She pursued music as her passion and career; she eventually earned her doctorate and is now teaching at the university level. It’s always gratifying to see a former student of this caliber share our passion and succeed, or even surpass their teacher.

Conversely, Ron was a good trumpet player who had lost his father at a young age and was brought up as the only child of a single mother. One weekend, I chose to take him flying with me to give his mom a break from being both parents. The afternoon had nothing to do with music or band. Fast forward about 20 years to when I was reading the newspaper while waiting for an early commercial business flight, when I became aware of a uniformed flight crew member looking at me from across the waiting area. As he approached me, I was sure I was going to end up on a no-fly list or something… but it was Ron…the Captain on my flight. That Saturday flight in a little airplane so long ago inspired his career choice as a commercial airline pilot.

I can’t tell you which former student I’m most proud of, and there are many more. (The first-class upgrade was certainly a nice treat though!) Every teaching day we have a critical impact on our students’ lives. Sometimes it just takes years to learn about them.

In our role at Alfred, we’re here to help you make those gratifying teaching opportunities more frequent and easily available. Thanks for considering the Belwin concert band catalog for your teaching and programming needs.

We Do It All for the Students…

Richard Meyer
By Richard Meyer
Highland/Etling String Editor

When asked in an interview recently to give advice to new teachers, I remarked: “Remember that you are teaching people, not music.” As teachers, we are so lucky. Every day we are given the opportunity to influence our students’ lives for the better and we have at our disposal the greatest vehicle for change known to humankind: music. Of all the subjects in the entire school curriculum, I am convinced that it is music that best teaches our students the most important life skills.

As every school year begins, we meet new students who are anxious to learn to play an instrument. They sign up for our classes because they know that they want music to be a part of their lives. What these eager beginners don’t know, however, is that once they start playing music, their lives will never be the same. They don’t know of the real life lessons that lie ahead or how music will change who they are. They don’t know.

But we know. Oh, how we know! We see them change daily and, with music, we help them develop skills they will carry with them for the rest of their lives—self-discipline, cooperation, teamwork, determination, goal setting, and leadership. The list goes on and so does our passion for teaching, renewed each year by a fresh batch of students who look to us for guidance. As year unfolds, we celebrate the musical progress our students make. Primitive, unrefined sounds slowly become recognizable tunes. Recognizable tunes eventually become basic ensemble pieces and, if we are all very diligent, ensemble pieces gradually turn into music.

As you celebrate the musical growth of your students, please don’t forget to celebrate those other ways in which they are progressing: the person they are becoming and the progress that each of them is making as a human being, as a leader, and as a caring citizen in a world that desperately needs caring citizens. Celebrate what you, with music, are doing to enrich all aspects of your students’ lives.

Recently, one of my beginning cellists was packing up after only her second lesson. She paused for a moment and said, in all seriousness, “I think I’m going to play the cello my whole life.” I hope she does. But even if she doesn’t, I am proud to know that music will have made her a better person.

Students That Keep Us Teachers Going

Robert Sheldon
By Robert Sheldon
Alfred Concert Band Editor

Jeremy was a very shy high school junior when I met him. Although he had no musical experience, he was aware of the band activities of some of his friends and really wanted to join the band. He chose tenor sax and signed up for marching band. The marching part came easily enough but he did not know how to read music. Once he learned a handful of notes, I wrote him his own part of half notes and whole notes which he played with great enthusiasm! By the following year he had improved enough that he was able to play the “real” music. It was always a joy to see how much he loved playing his sax and being part of the band family.

“Doctor” Jeremy is now a veterinarian and president of his twin daughter’s band booster organization. Music has no greater supporter. It’s students like Jeremy that keep us teachers going, and that’s why we know you do everything you can for your students – and that is why we are here to help!

Thanks for considering Alfred for the next concert band performance!

Listening Sideways (or the Art of Playing Together)

Jonathan Glawe
By Vince Gassi

Listening sideways is the second of three essential steps toward developing a more musical ensemble. As music educators, we attempt to teach our students how to practice properly so that 1) they are constantly improving their technique. The more control they begin to have over the instrument, the more they can 2) direct awareness outward and listen to what is happening around them. This leads to 3) the stage where your ensemble is ready to work on expressiveness.

Here is a simple but essential exercise to help develop the ability of your young musicians to “listen sideways.”

1. Have your ensemble play a concert Bb scale (or insert key of your choice). They can play four quarter notes (all tenuto) on each pitch of the scale (ex. 4 Bbs, 4 Cs, etc.). Play the final note of the scale as a whole note.

2. Encourage all players to listen to each other. Actually use the phrase “listen sideways.” It will be your unique code for them to understand what you are expecting of them. This may be challenging but stick with it.

3. Now have only the first chair players from each section play. Direct them
to play the same scale together in quarter notes as before. Players must
listen to each other and match volume, tuning, note length, style, etc.

4. When the section leaders can do this, have the rest of the ensemble join in. The section players must “listen sideways” in an attempt to match their section leader exactly. If they cannot hear their leader, then they, or others, are playing too loudly and must adjust. This may take several attempts, so be patient.

5. Now have only section leaders play the same scale (or a different one if you choose) but this time, instruct them to play it in a staccato style; remember, 4 quarter notes on each pitch of the scale. Do this until the leaders can match each other. When playing staccato, students may often become impatient and start to rush ahead. Start over if you have to but keep them to the indicated tempo.

6. Now have the rest of the band join in with the instruction that they must once again listen to their leader and match them exactly. The goal is to have each section sound like one player.

7. And now for the real challenge. Have the whole band play the scale again, starting legato (4 Bbs, 4 Cs, etc.). Ask each section leader to switch at a time of his or her own choosing, from tenuto to staccato. Yes, you’ll have different sections playing different note lengths at the same time but, since this often occurs in your repertoire, it will be excellent practice. The section members may not switch at exactly the same point as their leader, but keep at it until they can. This is what the ensemble is working towards.

Keep at it each rehearsal until it happens, until the section players switch together with the leader. Even when they achieve this goal, keep doing this exercise at each rehearsal. It is a great way to reinforce this essential listening skill. This is the way athletes train. Baseball players work on the basics before each game of the season, taking ground balls, batting practice, etc., just to stay sharp. I’ve heard it said when the first player player makes a mistake, a well-trained section will make it with her.

8. Try having just one section do this. The other sections will learn much from hearing just the flutes or just the trumpets try this exercise a few times. They may be eager to prove that their section can do better. So let them!! A little healthy competition can be a good thing now and then.

Don’t give up after one or two attempts at this exercise. Keep at it until the ensemble really starts to hear what is going on. It will be at this point that you (and they) will start to notice how much cleaner the ensemble sounds.

You can also do this exercise using chorales. Through regular practice, your students will become conditioned to listen (and really hear) what’s going on around them. This is one definition of a good musician: someone who is aware of what is occurring musically and responds accordingly. Remember, your students don’t come to rehearsal to learn their part, they come to learn everyone else’s part. This is why developing awareness through directed listening is so important. If practiced regularly, you will notice your ensemble maturing as the weeks go by and expressive playing is the inevitable result.

Don’t forget – all this time, you, the conductor – need to be indicating style and tempo. Your students’ awareness should include responding to you as well. So try the same exercise but instruct them to change style when they see you indicate such. You are the ultimate section leader!

Listening sideways is an essential skill which, if practiced on a regular basis, will empower your musicians to mature. Eventually, your ensemble will begin to transform. Your students will become players who are aware of their musical surroundings and will respond appropriately. It is so much more fun for them when they play together. Similarly, it is so much more fun to conduct an ensemble that responds expressively in real time to each other, the hall, and, most importantly, you the conductor. Expressive performance is what all of our hard work is ultimately about. From this point on, the sky is the limit.

How Do I Tune Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Chris M. BernotasBy Chris M. Bernotas

Playing in tune is one of the most important concepts of ensemble performance. It is also one of the most challenging to teach and accomplish. There are many ways to tune as an individual performer and as an ensemble member. Tuning presents a challenge because there are many variables that affect the performance. Some of those variables include the level of development of the student, the quality of the instrument, types of reeds and mouthpieces, the temperature of the hall, and even the harmonic voicing of the music.

Awareness. I find that the most valuable tool in teaching students to play in tune is to simply make them aware of the concept. I rarely, if ever, tell a student if they are sharp or flat.  If I tell them, how will they ever be able to figure it out on their own?  Simply telling students, or better yet, asking them, “Does that sound in tune to you?” or phrasing it differently, “Does your pitch sound the same as….” I also like to use other descriptors when bringing a student’s attention to tuning, “Does this sound clear or pure to you?” Coming up with words to describe what sounding in tune means is helpful for students.

Tuner. The electronic/digital tuner is a wonderful tool. Directors are fortunate to have tuning aids available at their fingertips with many tuning apps. They are terrific for finding a reference pitch or for having students use with their individual practice to find out their particular instrument’s tuning tendencies. As terrific as they are, I encourage students to look away from the tuner while they are playing a note and then look only after establishing their natural pitch.  If students are staring at the tuner immediately as they play, they often adjust to the visual element and aren’t developing their aural analysis. Once a student establishes a quality, natural sound they can then look at the visual meter and make adjustments to center the pitch.  In an ensemble setting, beyond the reference pitch, I rarely use a tuner. Encourage students to listen, analyze and adjust. Encourage them to listen to pitch horizontally (as in a melodic/intervallic way) as well as vertically (harmonically).

How? Often we tell students to “adjust the tuning” or “fix that note” and many times that student will empty their water key, push and pull slides, or look at their instrument like there is something wrong with it. Part of learning to play in tune is learning what to do when you are out of tune. I like to give students a partial list of options: for example, a brass player may need to speed up the air, or slow it down. Maybe a clarinetist or other reed player needs to use more mouthpiece, or less, etc. I find that the tuning slide should be adjusted from time to time, but that is not always the first course of action.  Giving students several options will again encourage them to take an active role in their tuning. Encourage students to individually experiment with their tuning adjustments. Let them try to figure it out–they are either sharp, flat or in-tune.  Sometimes the right adjustment is no adjustment.

Reinforcement. Constant reinforcement of the concept that tuning is an ongoing process is important. I have found that by maintaining a consistent focus on in tune playing, there is much less need for having a student play a note and having the ensemble then match as with the familiar tuning procedure. Ways of reinforcing tuning would include spot-checking unison/octave pitches by sections and instrument families, checking chord tuning, passing notes from section to section. I also vary the timing of tuning reinforcement, if we only talk about tuning at the beginning of the rehearsal students may think that after that part of rehearsal tuning is over.

Student awareness of tuning concepts, understanding appropriate ways to use an electronic/digital tuner, sharing the knowledge of how to fix tuning issues, and consistent reinforcement that tuning is a never-ending process will help your students be active participants in your ensemble that is performing at its best.

Mark Williams Tribute

Mark Williams

Mark Williams was one of the premier composers for school bands and orchestras. Co-author of the Accent on Achievement band method, he had over 200 published works to his credit. As a clinician and guest conductor, he traveled to 34 states, 5 Canadian provinces, and Australia.

Mark was a warm, kind, generous, and brilliant human being and he will be greatly missed by all who knew him or experienced his great music.

Personally, I only met Mark Williams once at the Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic in 2007. With that short time, I saw a hard-working man with a great sense of humor. He even helped tear down our booth Friday evening and joined us for our tradition of deep dish pizza that night. He opted to walk back to the hotel afterwards, which surprised me because it was freezing cold and we weren’t what I would consider walking distance from the hotel. I had no idea that had been my only chance to get to know Mark, as he passed away on January 3, 2008.

As we are preparing for Midwest 2012, I couldn’t help but think back on that night, so I asked a couple of folks who knew him to write a few words about him…

Victoria Meador
Marketing Project Manager
Product Line Specialist: Concert Band, Marching Band, & Sound Innovations
Alfred Music Publishing

Mark Williams was more than a uniquely talented composer and teacher. After all, each of us aspire to be unique in our approach to teaching and composing. Rather, Mark created and thrived in his own league as a composer and teacher. His compositions helped every elementary and middle school level teacher to take their bands or orchestras to a higher level of performance and enjoyment. Every one of his clinics—and I attend ended many of them—inspired every band and orchestra director to discover the fun and educational value of letting their students play the music that they enjoyed playing, while learning important techniques that helped them to replicate the fun that they had playing his compositions and arrangements.

Mark rejoiced in the art of discovery! He had fun in discovering new ways to bring classical treasures to life. He truly enjoyed motivating experienced teachers to discover unique ways to energize their approach to teaching, and to truly enjoy that special feeling of discovery when their students really felt that they owned a new way of expressing their musicality.

I miss having the opportunity to experience Mark’s creative spirit on a regular basis. I rejoice in the many opportunities that I had to be a small part of his tremendous talents.

Danny Rocks
The Company Rocks

One of my proudest achievements during my 35 years as Alfred’s Editor-in-Chief was the discovery of Mark Williams. Mark’s first publication was “Greenwillow Portrait” which was an unsolicited manuscript just like the hundreds of others I received during those years. It was such a special piece, and I immediately picked up the phone to tell him we would publish it the following year. That was my first conversation with Mark and his enthusiasm and excitement about band music was immediately apparent.

From that day forward I always called Mark as soon as I received what was to become an amazing string of hits that made a major impact on the success of the Alfred Concert Band catalog. I was honored to have Mark as my co-author of Accent on Achievement. Some of my fondest memories are related to having Mark stay at my house for extended periods as we planned and ultimately wrote what we both felt was the most practical and creative band method ever written.

John O’Reilly
Co-Author of
Accent on Achievement

I was lucky to work with Mark Williams at Alfred for nearly 20 years. We attended many shows and enjoyed many laughs together. Mark was the closest thing to Mozart for school music that I could think of. He was such a genius at really understanding all the intricacies of each instrument and the challenges that beginners face. That’s why his music was so popular—he wrote it in a way that made every student successful when they performed with their band or orchestra. Luckily, we still have his body of music to share with the world for generations and generations. Mark was a kind, loving and generous human being and he will be deeply missed by all of us in the Alfred family.

Andrew Surmani
Senior Vice President
Managing Director, School & Church Publishing
Alfred Music Publishing

What Should Graduating Seniors In a Performing Arts Program Be Able to Do?

Thomas J. West
By the time a student who is actively involved in a band, chorus, or orchestra program graduates high school, what skills should they have? How are music education programs designed for these self-motivated, team player individuals? What should their “exit interview” sound like?

For me as a music educator finishing his 13th year in the profession, the answers to these questions have changed several times. Honestly, my goal when I started teaching was to build the highest quality concert and marching band performance program I could, focusing on bringing the ensemble members a broad and deep exposure to great musical literature in search of that ever elusive “summit” moment when an ensemble plays something so excellent, so moving, that everyone witnessing it is affected by it.

While these are admirable sentiments, and certainly do leave long-lasting impressions on the students who have those kind of experiences, I realized that those “summit” moments really weren’t for the students – they were for me. “How great of a music teacher am I that I can open their eyes to such an aesthetic experience?” I got into music teaching because I wanted to keep having those “summit” experiences, and being a teacher allowed me to share those experiences with young people so that they too could have their lives shaped by music performance.

Do I still want them to have those summit moments? Of course, but it’s no longer the solitary focus of my performing ensemble programs. The pursuit of performance excellence has been redefined and altered in proportion to make room for the pursuit of musical creativity. The “buzz” of a great performance is only one way to experience what music has to offer the individual.

Giving Students The Tools to Be Life-Long Musicians

My goals as a music educator are much broader and long-term than just giving them a great high school experience. By the time seniors leave my program, they will:

Be able to play their primary instrument proficiently. This includes playing all twelve major scales and arpeggios, natural minor scales and arpeggios, and be able to sight-read music of a grade 3 level. They will understand the music theory behind all of those goals and will be able to handle transpositions for their instrument (if applicable). For vocalists, it means having full control of their instrument in all ranges, singing with pure vowel sounds, proper support and phrasing, and singing a wide variety of styles.

Be able to improvise melodies over simple chord changes on their primary instrument. This is not limited to jazz music. This includes the music theory behind common tonic, sub-dominant, dominant, tonic chord progressions, and the construction of melody lines.

Be able to write a quartet in four-part harmony for their primary instrument. This obviously includes skills obtained from all of the above skills, plus the music theory necessary to write effective voice leading. Along the way, the study of musical form is incorporated into performing repertoire, sight-reading, and improvisation, leading to the student making their own creative decisions about writing an original work with a logical form.

Be able to record, edit, mix, and master their own music. This is a new goal for me, and one that has not become a reality yet. My vision is to give every one of my students the ability to write their own music, record it, give it a basic editing and mixing job, and be able to upload it to SoundCloud or YouTube. By the time my current middle school students reach twelfth grade, this goal will be a reality.

A Culture of Creativity

One of the greatest things about America as a culture is that we allow innovation and individualized thinking to exist. It’s okay in our culture to speak your mind, chart your own course, create your own destiny. American culture and government makes it possible for creative ideas to grow and the originators of those ideas to be monetarily compensated. I could easily diverge at this point on how copyright law no longer benefits the artist directly, but that is another article. For the purposes of this writing, it is the pioneering spirit of America combined with today’s modern communication tools that make it more possible than ever for artists of all kinds to find an audience.

It is no longer enough, in my opinion, for high school graduates to simply play an instrument or sing in a large ensemble. With as much personal growth as they receive from being a member of a band, chorus, or orchestra, the average American high school ensemble member does one of three things after high school: perform in similar groups in college, then quit, find community groups to continue their hobby, or become a professional musician in some fashion. Of these three, the vast majority quit performing music after high school or after college. Why? Work and family, of course.

I believe that more graduating seniors would continue music making into adulthood if they were better equipped to make their own music. If all they can do upon graduation is play their part in a concert band piece, or sing an alto part with the help of a section leader feeding them their pitches, their chances of continuing to make music are slim. Imagine how much more art, music, dance, and theatre would be out there if high school graduates were better equipped with the skills to exercise their own creativity.

If music improvisation and composition is nurtured in primary and early secondary grades, students are less likely to develop inhibitions to creativity, becoming more expressive and communicative. More original intellectual property can do nothing but good for the individual, our economy, and our culture.

The future of our internet-powered society is in more individuals trading their talents and ideas, collaborating to produce amazing results such as Wikipedia, Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, and many more. Our music education programs in public schools, I believe, need to continue the strong traditions of our performing ensembles, but need to make room in their school year for the parts of the study of music that make student more capable of being individually creative.

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.