Tag Archives: band education

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!

Know Your Series

By Patrick RoszellPatrick Roszell

The Belwin Concert Band Series Guidelines have long been the industry standard in music educational publishing. We at Alfred/Belwin are constantly honing the guidelines to keep them contemporary and to best meet the needs of today’s ensembles and directors.

When arranging popular music for Beginning Band (Red Series: Grade 1 – 1 ½), writers are employed to reduce or eliminate syncopation down to quarter notes or dotted quarter notes that are written out with the use of a tie. Choosing a key that suits the song (B-flat, E-flat, F) that can fit within the range for beginning players is also a very important factor. This series always includes a clarinet part that does not go above the break.  An “easy” low brass part, which often constitutes doubling the trombone/baritone part up an octave with the tuba, can give you many options if your ensemble is lacking a tuba player. However, for the upper end of this series, an “easy harmonic” trombone/baritone part may be written for the arrangement. Typically, percussion can be written up a grade level to include sixteenth notes and an optional drumset part may be included to allow for a more authentic performance.

Arranging for Young Band (Green Series: Grade 2 – 2 ½), gives writers a bit of a larger score including two clarinet parts (with the second part still below the break), two trumpet parts, and separate trombone and baritone parts, however, the parts are still considered “easy.” The key signatures of the beginning series, B-flat, E-flat, and F, are still the main choices, however, the ranges in this series are expanded to suit second and third year players. A main goal in this series is to give every section a chance to be featured. The syncopation and rhythm difficulties increase slightly and offer an opportunity for more “pop” rhythms. Easy eighth-quarter-eighth rhythms and sixteenth notes are included in this series. Again, percussion can be written up a grade level for this series, and an optional drum set part can be included to allow for a more authentic performance.

The Concert Band (Blue Series; Grade 3 – 3 ½) presents full instrumentation for concert band along with the inclusion of “color” instruments, if the arranger chooses, such as electric bass, synthesizer, or a piano part. This series expands the key signatures to include A-flat and C. The time signatures start to include alla breve (cut time) and compound meters such as 6/8 and 12/8. The ranges in this series are again expanded to suit players from year three and beyond. This series is also very popular with community bands.

Last but not least, the Symphonic Band (Purple Series; Grade 4+) is all stops out with expanded instrumentation, ranges, rhythms, and extended material. Or as noted in the Belwin guidelines, “as necessary for musical content.”

Personally, I find a great deal of benefit in teaching popular music in the classroom. It presents an opportunity to work on breath control, tone, balance, blend, and intonation, often times without having to intensely teach rhythms, because the students quite possibly already know the songs. All that needs to be accomplished is to turn off the radio and play the notes on the page. My intent is that this quick overview of the Belwin Concert Band Series will help you find where your ensemble fits. I hope you and your students enjoy the New 2014 Belwin Pop Music Promo.

Have Fun and Enjoy the Music!

By Bob and Pat Cerulli

Teachers of successful instrumental programs usually agree that one of the main reasons that students play an instrument is to have fun. If students enjoy the music that they play, they will continue performing with their group.

There are several ways teachers can ensure that students have fun and are enthusiastic about studying an instrument and performing in a school music program. One is to choose music that the students like or are familiar with. Especially enjoyable is music that includes audience participation. This goes a long way to partner players with listeners which in the long term grows support for music programs.

The second and equally important factor for young musicians is the socialization that performing in a group provides. Students will look forward to independent practice, group rehearsals and performances if they are motivated by positive interactions with their peers. That being said, music teachers should choose selections that mirror the interests of the students and compliment the school curriculum.

Another important consideration is to assign music that is within the playing abilities of the students in a specific performing group. Perhaps one piece could be challenging yet within the scope of the students’ technique and skills. Giving students music that is too difficult for their stage of musical development might result in frustration or loss of interest. However, when students learn music within a short amount of time, their sense of accomplishment becomes a driver of their success both as individuals and as a group.

It might be worth your time to share your musical program choices with your students so that they may rate them according to their preferences. Students could use a simple rating scale of one to ten while listening to excerpts of the titles music teachers propose. In this way students could demonstrate their interests and teacher designated music will probably be more well received.

There are many Alfred Music publications that incorporate audience participation, reflect student interests, and support the growth of music programs. Above all, when choosing music for your program, keep in mind that the number one thought of your students is that they will have fun and enjoy the music.

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!

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.

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/

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.
thomasjwestmusic.com