Category Archives: Marching Band

A Few Tips on Selecting Your Halftime Show Music

 

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By Michael Story
Composer, Arranger, & Editor

Times sure have changed since I was in high school band. We used to perform a different halftime show for each home game. Nowadays, most bands perform just one show a year, which makes it even more important to select a show that truly fits your band. Although marching band students are not exposed to as much music as we were, the advantage to doing just one show a year allows for a much higher level of achievement in performance quality. Here are few tips to help you in your halftime music selection:

  • Type of Music: Although many bands have had success with original compositions for their show, there are many good reasons to consider a show based on pop music. Sure, there is good and bad pop music (just as there are good and bad original compositions), but many popular songs offer great teaching opportunities. The added benefit is that you will generally have a better opportunity to connect with your audience.
  • Difficulty Level: You want to choose music that is neither too easy nor too hard. Students will become bored with music that is too easy, and discouraged with music that is too difficult. Choosing music that is right at your band’s ability level (or slightly easier) allows you to focus on increased musicality and polishing the drill.
  • Quality: Are ALL the parts (not just the melody) interesting, musical, idiomatic, and written in a comfortable range for your students? Has the composer or arranger chosen an appropriate instrument or section to play the melody? Do the interior parts, countermelodies, and bass lines make musical sense?
  • Form: Does the show achieve a balance of REPETITION and CONTRAST? Examples of repetition include recurring themes or ideas, or an ending reprise of the opening melody to tie the show together. Contrast is achieved not only from varying the musical content, but also through textural and instrumental changes, including solos or ensembles within the show, musical highs and lows, and percussion or other section features.

Good halftime show music can come in all shapes and sizes–there can be great educational opportunities in all genres. Whatever music you choose, have fun with it, and have a great year!

Recruitment and Retention

Chris BernotasBy Chris M. Bernotas

Spring is coming and that is certainly welcome here in the Northeast!  Along with fresh air, spring also brings many exciting events in the world of education.  We are all enthusiastically preparing our ensembles for spring concerts, spring trips, spring community events, and many other performances.  The other school event that occurs around now is student course scheduling for next year’s classes! Kids are excitedly running to their counselors, looking ahead to the new and unique opportunities that await them (I can dream, can’t I?)  Of course the first thing on their list to register for is band!  That, at least, is the scenario we all hope and strive for.

Recruitment and retention are always on the minds of music educators.  Some goals in music education are to help students learn to be independent thinkers and problem solvers, as well as cultural contributors.  Without students studying music, it would be hard to achieve that.  We also want to share our love of music and our passion for working together in creating emotional performances and lifelong memories with as many students as possible.  Actively recruiting is essential in our quest of filling the sea of chairs in our room with fresh young minds that are eager to learn.

One way to encourage students to continue their study of music in band is to host a District Band Festival.  Many of us facilitate a district concert. Usually, we have all the different level bands perform a selection or two for each other and perhaps end the concert with a massive group performance. This is a wonderful concept and, while it can present a few challenges to arrange, the end result is often well worth it. How would a district festival work differently? First of all, the District Band Festival isn’t necessarily focused on holding a concert performance—it is about student-to-student interaction.  Let me explain.  The concept is to host a side-by-side day.  Seat the younger students next to the older students within the ensemble and run a workshop. Teach them a new piece of music!  What I love about running a festival day is that it allows the younger students (even at the 4th and 5th grade levels) to experience making music together with the older students and not just observe them.  The older kids are their heroes, their rock stars, and now they get to sit with them and even play music with them! That exciting opportunity alone creates a lasting impression on them.

The side-by-side experience is also wonderful for the older students. I encourage them to look at those little legs that don’t quite reach the floor, and think about when they were that age and what that music meant to them.  They love the reflection and gain an appreciation of how far they have come, and I bet that some of them feel wonderful about how they are making an impact on an impressionable young mind.  Not to mention that those younger kids get to see you, the director, in action doing what you love!

Adults can tell younger students that band is wonderful and how music is a lifelong passion and while we do need to impart that wisdom, words from student-to-student are incredibly powerful. Between their experience performing alongside their heroes, seeing a teacher that loves what they do, and hearing from older kids about how they love band, continuing to study music is a no-brainer.  To complete the day you may want to include a performance of the new piece for parents, teachers, administrators, and community members.  It is even a great idea to alternate between having a District Band Concert and a District Band Festival each year.

Music is an easy sell.  If we create memorable experiences that kids enjoy and connect with, when that day comes in the Spring and that student gets set to select his or her course schedule, they may just smile and remember that special day.

Including Your Students in Concert Repertoire Planning

By Jan Farrar-Royce 

Jan Farrar-RoyceWe all know that choosing a balanced program for our ensembles includes searching for pieces that contrast in tempo, mode, styles, and eras.  We also want to choose programs that are entertaining and include some musical and/or technical challenges.  Finally, we want to find music that our musicians will be excited to play,  and even practice, especially since we will spending so much time working on them!

Particularly for teaching students in the first three years, using pieces that everyone will recognize, notably ones with lyrics, can help students and their families enjoy their lesson and ensemble pieces more.  These tunes can include well known songs for children, folk tunes, some popular songs, and some of the tunes used in the General Music classes.  Building on this common repertoire encourages students to use their ear to help them become more skilled at playing more complex rhythms and better in tune.

Your students may even recommend songs that you wouldn’t have considered. If some of these pieces are a little beyond their current technical level, feeling like they have some input into what they play may further motivate students to be more invested in their practice, and encourage them to learn new notes and techniques.

You or a parent can help monitor internet research so that your students can earn extra credit by learning about “the story behind” the tunes you play, or about the composers who wrote the music.  This kind of investigating can be especially satisfying with living composers who will sometimes write back to students who ask them questions through the composer’s own or their publishers’ web pages! Use this research to create program notes that can be included in the printed program or read to the audience by a student before playing a piece.

Using familiar tunes and empowering your students to choose some of your ensemble materials may help them to be more invested in their practice, leading to better intonation and rhythmic capability, and more willingness to learn new techniques so that they can play the tunes that they have chosen!

Building an Encounter with Excellence into Every Lesson or Rehearsal

By Scott Watsonscott_watson

Perfection is a standard that – in almost every case – can never be met.  How many lines can really be drawn “perfectly” straight?  And for those of us working in the arts, what exactly does “perfect” mean?  Can an oil painting, or a musical performance, be considered “perfect”?

But it’s a term I use when teaching music fairly frequently.  A while back I was working with my 2nd-year (5th grade) alto saxophone section.  I was rehearsing a small gesture, just a few notes, and it sounded rough.  Each time we repaired a performance error another one emerged.  Someone missed an accidental.  Another held a note too long for the staccato articulation.  Then another rushed the rhythm… and so on.  I explained that there was no reason that we – as a section – shouldn’t be able to play this small phrase perfectly.  One of the more insightful girls in the section asked aloud, “Isn’t it impossible to play it absolutely perfect?”  This was the perfect (excuse the pun) time to launch into a favorite pedagogical sermon of mine!

Perfection – I pointed out – is not the point, but rather the striving for perfection, or for beauty, or for excellence.  I drew two horizontal lines on the board, one very high near the top of the board and one in the middle.  The top line represented perfection; the lower line represented being average (or with older kids, mediocrity).  If we strive to play our saxophones perfectly but (and here I drew an “x” just shy of the top line) fall a little short, you can see we’re still pretty darn good… some might call it excellent.  But if we only strive to be average (and here I drew an “x” just shy of the line in the middle) and fall short because we don’t care enough, then we’re not even mediocre.  You see, there’s no shame in aiming for a model of perfection.

Those saxes and I played a few more times and eventually they all played together in a way that was really excellent, especially for such young players.  All seven played the right notes, were rhythmically tight, and used the correct articulations.  It was only a small phrase, and frankly I don’t have the time in a 30-minute group sectional to always lead them to an experience with such excellence, but I strive to do just that at least once in every group lesson or rehearsal I lead.

This idea of bringing students into an encounter with excellence at least once each rehearsal isn’t original.  I first heard it from my college mentor and good friend, Ken Laudermilch.  Ken led the Wind Ensemble and taught trumpet at West Chester University when I was an undergraduate Music Education major there.  When he was still teaching, Ken allowed me to use his university wind ensemble to record a piece I had recently written as a commission for a middle school band.  In return, he asked me to talk to the students about teaching in the schools.  I rehearsed my piece for about 15 minutes.  They more or less “nailed it” when they sight-read it!  After polishing a few spots, I told Ken I was ready to record.  Ken gave the students a five-minute break and pulled me aside, saying, “I don’t want them to get off this easy.  Do you mind if I work on the piece a little bit?”  Returning from the break, Ken proceeded to tear apart and put back together every phrase I had thought was fine.  Nothing was overlooked – phrasing, attacks, releases, dynamic contour, subtle tempo shifts.  When he finished, the piece sounded truly glorious!  And better still, these fine university players had an encounter with musical beauty even with a middle school band piece because a master teacher led them there.

Years later, when I read Peter Boonshaft’s Teaching with Passion, I found the same principle.  I think of Peter as one of the preeminent wind band conductors on the planet at this time. He’s also one of the authors of the Sound Innovations instrumental method. In his excellent book Boonshaft suggests that, “in every rehearsal we need to make one beautiful pearl.”  In addition to serving as what he calls a “beacon” of perfection, Boonshaft points out that these moments give our students an example of our expectations, and they encourage progress as students realize they can produce something (no matter how small) that is truly beautiful.

I think it’s no accident that two of the most talented music education professionals that I know – Ken Laudermilch and Peter Boonshaft – both employ this technique of leading students to an encounter with excellence in their rehearsals.  Whether it’s a university wind ensemble or young saxophone section, doesn’t every one deserve to bump up against something truly beautiful, revel in it, and know that he or she is responsible in part for creating that beauty?

In each meeting with your instrumental students at any level, I’d like to recommend you find something, however small, to give them an “encounter with excellence” to serve as a model, a “beacon of perfection,” for all their music making!

Classics from One Generation to Another

By Douglas E. Wagner

Douglas WagnerIf there ever was a blast to the past in my life, it happened this past spring when I began to write concert band and string orchestra arrangements of The Who classic single, “My Generation.” That day, it was 1965 and I was 13 again.

While not fitting the mold as the stereotypical angst-ridden, anti-establishment teen of the time, the words didn’t hit me as strongly as they did some of my friends. For me it was all about the beat — that driving, pulsating forward motion and unrelenting call-and-response pattern. I remember hearing it for the first time, being jolted to a new awareness of the world around me, of life, of the freedom that only music can bring. And so it has been I’m sure for millions through the decades whose lives have been forever affected by this quintessential British Rock standard.

My five-year-old granddaughter happened to be in the house when I was listening to the playback. She exuberantly came running up the stairs exclaiming: “Papaw, Papaw, what is that?” “My Generation, Alex … and now it’s yours.”

Hope you and your students like the charts!

Playing Melodically: A Different Approach to Teaching Phrasing

By Todd Stalter

During my first semester in college, my studio teacher gave me what seemed like an insurmountable amount of technical studies to prepare for every lesson which, frankly, I enjoyed in a perverse sort of way—being able to play rings around everybody else was certainly on my mind as an ambitious freshman trumpet player (as if that was all there was to it).  During second semester, however, he tacked on some simple melodies in the back of the Arban Method for each lesson as well, saying, “I think it’s about time you learned how to play a melody.”  Of course, I thought I already did…boy, was I in for an education.  Thanks to him, I was initiated into my first truly detailed study of music.

One of the most important concepts we try to teach our ensembles is to play with good phrasing, but we often become frustrated when we don’t hear our groups playing phrases consistently.  I believe that part of the reason for this can be traced to our students’ first experiences with full ensemble music. They may be unconsciously making a distinction between that music and the material in their lesson books, which is naturally almost 100% melodic in focus.  You can’t really blame them; it’s hard to convince a young trombone player playing whole and half notes all day long, or alto sax and French horn players with an awkward middle voice part that sounds weird, that they actually have a melody of any kind.  And, to be honest, if we’re not careful, we directors can relegate phrasing pretty far down our priority list when rehearsing (guilty as charged).  After a few years of playing Grades 1 to 2.5 ensemble music with little or no attention to melodic playing, it becomes even harder to get good musical phrases out of them when they are in an ensemble capable of playing Grade 3 music and above.

We all know that for an ensemble player of any age, playing a good phrase requires knowing what the melody actually is, who plays it, and how their part relates to it.  I think too many directors get caught in the “melody vs. non-melody” trap while teaching phrasing, and are in fact unwittingly telling their students that when their part is not the melody, they should play “non-melodically,” which is exactly the opposite of what creates good phrasing in the first place.  I believe part of the answer to effectively teaching phrasing lies in convincing EVERYONE that their parts are melodic. Realizing that sometimes they may have the “primary” melody, a “secondary” melody, or even a “background” melody of some sort helps them find their place in the musical texture.  Using this approach, every member of the ensemble is focused on melodic playing, and is instinctively trying to phrase it musically, which gives the director something audible to work with, as in “Hey trombones, did you hear how the euphoniums played the part you share?  That’s how I want you to phrase it.”

Not only does this approach foster better individual and ensemble musicianship, but it teaches students to be more creative musicians and “think it” before they play it, which is a far more gratifying artistic result for both the director and their students.

Visualization and Mental Rehearsal: The Power of the Movie Theater in Your Mind

Thomas J. West

Any good music teacher and most accomplished music students will tell you that repetition is a key ingredient in mastering any musical instrument. Repetition of a physical skill makes that skill become automatic. Often with my students, I use the analogy that learning to play an instrument is like learning to tie your shoes. When you learn to tie your shoes at the ripe old age of 4 to 6 years old, someone has to teach you the steps of the shoe-tying process. You have to follow that process step by step, and therefore one shoelace may take up to two or three minutes to completely tie.

Now, fast forward to today. How long does it take to tie a shoelace now? Can you do it without looking? And the big question: what is the difference between then and now? The answer is usually fairly obvious to most students: since you learned that skill you have practiced it nearly daily for years, subjecting yourself to hundreds of repetitions of the action until it becomes “automatic.”

We learn nearly everything we know how to do in a similar fashion. Babies are born with only a few genetic reflexes and parents literally teach them how to roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, make noises, and learn to speak. We do this same learning process over and over our entire lives.

But how does the brain and body get to the point where the skill being learned becomes automatic and mastered? The millions of neurons that make up the brain literally send electrical signals from one neuron to another in patterns that cause the skill to be performed by the muscles. The more often that sequence of neurons fire their signal, the more associated those neurons become with one another, forming a neural network, or neuronet.

The more a neuronet is fired, the more “hard-wired” that neuronet becomes. The muscles develop what seems like their own “memory” for the skill. This is the normal process that each of us does daily in our lives without a second thought.

Now here’s the interesting part!

Neurologists have shown in clinical tests that a person can visualize in their mind’s eye completing a physical motor skill and can mentally rehearse the skill with significant effect on actually performing the skill physically. In an article in the 1995 Journal of Neurophysiology, [1] a research group showed that mental rehearsal produced significant results. Individuals participated in a five-day study of practicing the piano.

The first group memorized a short sequence of notes and practiced for two hours every day for five days. Another group did not touch a piano, but observed the first group being taught the sequence of notes until they had memorized the sequence. Then they mentally rehearsed their exercise by imagining themselves in the experience for the same length of time per day as the first group.

At the conclusion of the five days, researchers used modern scanning equipment to measure the amount of neural growth in the motor cortices of the brain. They were surprised to find that the group that did only mental rehearsal showed nearly the same expansion and development of neural networks that the participants who physically practiced. This kind of learning in neuroscience is called Hebbian learning. [2] The main idea of this type of learning is that “the nerve cells that fire together wire together.”

The Power of Imagination

Mental rehearsal is a real technique that can reduce the amount of physical practice time by a significant amount. The human mind’s ability to imagine something that isn’t there is at the core of every great invention, scientific discovery, musical masterpiece, and memorable sports performance. Before the body can DO an action, the mind must first SEE the action being done.

What is true about this human ability, however, is that a person can only learn something through mental rehearsal if they already have knowledge and memory of the skill they are attempting to master. For example, you can’t become the next Tiger Woods by simply sitting in a chair and imagining you are 20 under par. You have to have developed the knowledge and physical skills necessary to play the game of golf at that level. Similarly, you can not play a musical instrument simply by imagining you sound great. Knowledge acquisition builds the neuronets that then makes mental rehearsal an effective method of mastering specific musical skills.

Imagination is something that most people in our society consider to be something reserved for children, daydreamers, and TV screenplay writers. “Imagination” is literally “the ability to form images in the mind.” If you can imagine it, you acquire the knowledge to sharpen that image, and you focus on it and repeat it, you can make that image a physical reality.

Here’s How to Mentally Rehearse

Arrange for a time and place with a minimum of distractions, just like you would for a traditional practice session. Sit comfortably in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and bring your mind and body to a relaxed state. Once you are relaxed, begin to visualize yourself as the active participant in the skill you are practicing. Perhaps it is a specific passage of music you’ve had trouble with, or perhaps a specific technique on your instrument you need to work on. It is critical that you see yourself performing the skill to be learned as if it were happening in the present.

If you experience any stray thoughts or “voices in your head” telling you that you are doing it wrong or any other negative comment, simply allow that thought to flow through and resume your mental practice. Repeat the skill you are practicing over and over for as many times as you can before you begin to lose focus. When you finish, open your eyes and smile. The smile is important, because it attaches positive emotions to the memory you just created.

When you get out your instrument and perform the skill you have mentally rehearsed, you will get amazing results. It is especially effective if you mentally rehearse for several days before attempting to perform physically. Like any other practice method, mental rehearsal is itself an acquired skill. It has applications far beyond the scope of playing a musical instrument as well.

If you try mental rehearsal and have great results with it, please contact me and share your story.

Visualization and imagination are the true language of our minds. Everything springs forth from imagery, including the written and spoken word. Imagination is the tool that many of us lose as we enter adulthood. Imagining what you wish to see happen literally helps you become that which you imagined. The reality of playing a musical instrument with great skill comes forth from inside of the mind of each player, not from the words of a teacher or the repetition of a demonstration.

Thank you  to Thomas J. West for letting us use his blog!
Check out Thomas J. West’s blog: http://www.thomasjwestmusic.com/

Bang Zoom!!

Start your program off with a bang and watch kids get excited about music.

By Vince Gassi

Vince Gassi
There is so much to do in preparation for September and beyond, but just as important as all the organizing and ordering are the ways that we generate enthusiasm and excitement.  So how do we do it? How do we get kids buzzed about band and maintain that excitement all throughout the year? Here are just a few ideas. I’m sure you’ve got many more.

As you browse these eight great ideas, you can use the Mind Map below as a visual reference:
vincemindmap

1. BAND NIGHT OUT. Attend a concert as a band within the first few weeks of school. It’s a great way to kick off the year. There are always exciting performances to attend and good live music will aid in the development of a student’s concept of tone and style. Parents are always willing to help with transportation and other considerations. Plus, they will soon realize just how cool your program is.

2. SNEAK PREVIEWS. Consider inviting other classes, teachers, or parents into the band room for a quick snippet of your next concert. This doesn’t have to be onerous. Just one piece is sufficient or even a section that you are working on. Better yet, simply nab the next person walking past your room. Ask them to come in for a minute and listen. Kids love to perform and sometimes the best progress is made in front of a live audience.

3. OFF SPEED PITCH. As students are entering your room, why not have music playing? The twist is that it can be music that they listen to and not necessarily your musical preference. “Hey Miss, you like this stuff?” is a question you’ll no doubt hear. That’s okay. They’ll think that they have the coolest teacher in the school.

4. VIDEO TESTS (CONTESTS). Have students record their own playing tests. They are much easier to grade. What if they make a mistake and re-record? Great! The more they do that, the more they practice. Isn’t that the point? “But sir, I get nervous when I have to play a test.” My reply is, “Don’t think of it as a test but rather as a contest.” The word contest can imply a game or challenge to achieve a personal best. Athletes do it all the time.

5. BAND CAMP. It would take some preparation during the previous school year so you may want to save this one for next September, but how cool would it be (while the rest of the school is in class, of course) to have the senior band or the entire music department away at camp for a few days? Run sectionals and full rehearsals. It’s a great way to introduce repertoire for the year. Invite guest instructors for master classes and/or to perform with the band. Remember you want to turn kids on so it has to be fun.

6. BEGINNER CAMP. Have just the beginning music students at a mini-camp for one day. Specialists will ensure that concepts get ingrained correctly from the start. Order pizza (band budget) and invite parents to attend a very brief mini-concert (one very easy three-note piece). Briefly outline what your goals are and why home support is so crucial. What a sense of accomplishment your students will feel and what a fantastic sneak preview of the fun they’ll have in your music program!

7. VIDEO CONFERENCE. Set up a videoconference with a composer whose music you’ll be performing this year. It can just be a question and answer session. Forward student generated questions to your guest composer ahead of time. There isn’t a lot of tech setup (laptop, screen, Skype). Schedule a second session later in the year when the band has had time to work on the music. What an invaluable experience and what a great preparation for the actual concert. Plan ahead and this one will reap great benefits.

8. BANDFEST. How about a virtual and/or real band exchange? Two bands from different parts of the country or the world (or even just down the street) could meet via webcam and perform one piece for each other in preparation for an actual trip to each respective city. It’s up to you just how big you want to go.

OTHER IDEAS: 9. Youtube concert report (students critique other bands performing similar repertoire), 10. Senior students mentor juniors, 11. Start an ensemble or two, 12. “Hear and Tell” (students play short recordings for the other students of their favorite band piece/composer and talk about why they like it), 13. Students create a band website or a band blog, 14. Movie day (composers, famous musicians).

All of these activities generate excitement and energy and, most importantly, engender the belief that music is important and fun! Remember to make your classes and rehearsals engaging as well. Your excitement and energy will rub off, so be creative. Tap into your own passion for the music and share it. Start the year off with a bang and it won’t be long before your program will be zooming along!

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!
Check out Thomas J. West’s blog: http://www.thomasjwestmusic.com/

Developing an Entertaining and Effective Book of Charts for Athletic Bands

Image“Some people don’t like scat singing!” This was a phone-in remark from a listener to the weekend big band jazz show I hosted on a local radio station many years ago. In my former life as a college band director, I found that – like programming a good radio show on big band music – finding a balance of fun, effective, and easy-to-put-together charts for an athletic band “book” could be challenging. It was important for me to face the fact that musical taste varied widely depending on the venue and the sport (not to mention the age ranges of the audiences). It also occurred to me early on that bands have to compete with pre-recorded music and advertising over a public address system that can be turned up to eleven (just like Spinal Tap). The resulting plan developed a system that allowed the band to be flexible with regard to events occurring in real time. It also involved teaching all of the student musicians, especially the student conductors, an understanding of the sport being played, a how to read the “room” (players, crowd, etc.) and adjust the bands performance accordingly. In order to make this work from year to year, I developed a standard book that was adjusted each year. At the beginning of each year, our staff and students would meet and discuss to retire some charts (those that didn’t get the response we had hoped), give some others a year or two off (great charts, but we all need a break), and audition new charts for the marching band folio and/or basketball/volleyball band book. Frankly, athletic bands enjoy a high public profile and need to be able to provide a variety of music in addition to the marching competition show book. The charts do not have to be difficult to be effective.

Being in a college situation, I was fortunate to have students every year interested in studying arranging (I have also witnessed this in many high school situations, as well). Each student was provided the opportunity to audition charts during the folio/book “reboot” at the beginning of each season, starting with the basketball band book then graduating to the marching band folio if the chart was successful. The chart audition process I used on these students is the same process I used for the published charts that I would buy, which provided the majority of music in each book. It is important to note that I still impose these guidelines on myself when writing marching and pep band charts for publication:

  • Is the song instantly recognizable? (Most of the time, simple tunes need to be played simply – that is, folks don’t care for extended harmony in your everyday pop tune)
  • Are the parts and score clean? (Easy-to-read, no complex instructions needed, no “Dead Sea Scrolls”)
  • Is it 1:30 in length or less? (Let’s face it, attention spans are short. So are time-outs.)
  • Can it be adjusted/edited to fit into 30 second segments or less?
  • Does it have additional parts for maximum flexibility? (Keyboard, drum set, electric bass, optional bass clef parts in treble clef)
  • Can the chart be played in public on the third or fourth read down? (When you’re preparing 20-30 charts, they need to read down fast and easy)
  • Bonus points: does the song transcend age? (Jump in the Line – Shake Señora comes to mind as an example, known by people ages 5 to 85)

After the new charts are in place and prepared for public consumption, it is time to watch and read the atmosphere they do or do not create in a real time, live situation. Those that worked as planned were performed more often. Those that did not were placed in secondary mode and tried a few more times to double check their effectiveness.

The strangest story about the short life and rebirth of a chart was my arrangement of Peter Gabriel’s cool tune, Sledgehammer. The year I wrote the chart, it failed the basic audition criteria. It was moved to the book anyway where it was met with a total lack of interest by the band and the audience. Needless to say, that chart was quickly retired. Fast forward ten years: a student librarian discovers Sledgehammer in the library and asks to add it to the reading session. It was an instant hit with the band, the team, and the audience, becoming one of the most popular recurring charts for the next ten years! Be flexible, be interested in current music and music trends (stay hip, my friend!), and remember to observe the atmosphere that is created by the band.

Ralph Ford
Composer, arranger, conductor, and clinician