Tag Archives: school band

A Few Tips on Selecting Your Halftime Show Music



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!

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.

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.

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

Competitive Marching Band and Indoor: Who Benefits?

Thomas J. West
It’s an age-old debate – is competition for scholastic music ensembles helpful or harmful? The correct answer is simple: it depends upon the community your school serves and their expectations. Large affluent suburban school districts have the resources to hire the best staff, recruit the deepest talent pool, provide the best equipment, and create a rehearsal environment that minimizes distractions and allows students to hyper-focus on their competitive show. Anyone else without those resources who tries to compete with that are doing their students a disservice. That is not to say that a smaller school can’t strive for excellence, but directors need to keep their egos in check and keep their choices student-centered. Does the community support that kind of aesthetic and artistic elitism? Do the students really understand and connect to the repertoire and skills that they are investing so much of their life on?

I know what it’s like to spend three months, 24 hours a day, focused on a 10-minute presentation as a member of a championship-winning drum and bugle corps. The life-lessons learned there were invaluable, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. There needs to be a place in the world for that kind of activity. Where I diverge from this, however, is when high school bands and other competitive scholastic programs become a snobby, egotistical display of extravagance with a poorly-contrived attempt to be innovative or gregariously artistic.

Over this past weekend, I watched video of several of America’s top competing high school bands as part of our judge’s clinic for the Cavalcade of Bands Association. There were two presentations that stood out of the lot for two very different reasons. Both of them were large, affluent suburban programs with more in common with each other than not. The results of their efforts were also comparably excellent in execution and performance quality. The differences, however, were literally night and day in an odd, backwards and upside-down fashion.

The first band’s show was technically challenging (but not overly so – which is what probably cost them the championship), visually stimulating, and extremely emotional. The energy and emotion pouring out of the students was palpable, even on DVD. As the finale of the show was in progress, you could see tears of pure emotion on the faces of students in the band.

The second band’s show quite possibly cost the school district and parents over $100,000 to put on the field for the season. It had an extravagant amount of props, staging, and costumes. The faces of the students is this band was one of disengagement and rote regurgitation. There was little or no emotion communicated from that show.

Both bands had a product and a season that would leave long impressions on the students and families involved. Both bands had student musicians who spent countless hours invested in their participation. Yet, what would the students in those bands come away with from the experience? On paper, just about anyone would rather be a student in Band A than Band B. And yet, Band B is an all-too-common sight on the competitive field.

When design teams sit down to design a program for their competitive season, I believe that the guiding principle behind the decisions they make should be “who benefits?” Every decision made, from repertoire to color choices, should be made from a student-centered point of view rather than a mature music staff’s personal need to display their artistry. All of the arts are about communication. If the show designed does not communicate to the student, it will communicate nothing to their audience other than a sense of “what was all of that?”

Here is another example of a staff decision that was not student-centered from that same Band B from above. Part of the band’s show involved costume changes. The front ensemble (percussion pit) were not involved in the color change, but were garbed in a unitard that matched the theme of the show. From an artistic standpoint, the costume choice worked. If the looks on the faces of the students in the pit were any indication, there were students who were not comfortable wearing the unitard. Yes, part of the lesson of being involved in a music ensemble is that you have to sacrifice personal tastes and preferences for the benefit of the ensemble. But, there is something to be said for taking the age and maturity of the ensemble’s participants into account. For how many of those students was wearing that uniform a barrier to being able to completely invest in the show? Again, who benefits?

Repertoire selection is one of the most important decisions that a music teacher in any scholastic performing setting has to make. In the case of designing a competitive music presentation, repertoire selection is only the tip of the iceberg. Drill design, choreography, staging, equipment, and transportation all take a part as defining factors, to name but a few. Unlike many other scholastic performing settings, students involved in the competitive arena spend a significantly higher amount of time and attention on a comparatively smaller and more focused musical product. They eat, sleep, and breathe that work for months. If anyone is going to spend that much time and effort, it needs to be something they can intellectually and emotionally buy into. If the students fail to grasp the content of their competitive show intellectually or emotionally, it will take a large amount of extrinsic motivation on the part of the staff to get them to perform, and the end result is a student ensemble that performs an emotionally flat, over-rehearsed show with the demeanor of a group of prison inmates. But, the staff will have the artistic vision that they labored for.

Who benefits?

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.

Keeping Your Eyes (and Ears) On the “Prize”

Danny Ursetti
Around this time of year most high school programs are in the thick of their competitive marching season. Rehearsals during the week are intensifying and weekends only exist for Saturday rehearsals and competitions.You’ve spent months preparing for your band’s 12-minute time slot to perform your show for an audience and the judges. The band performs its best show of the year but does not earn the score that you think they deserve. What now?

This happens all too often in this sport called marching band. That’s right, I said it, marching band is a sport. Hours and hours of rehearsal time are spent practicing and perfecting a drill set or a musical run, all for everyone to end up disappointed at the competition. We have to remember why we do marching band or music at all for that matter. It’s not for the thrill of winning a trophy, or taking the top score. Music is fun. It’s fun to listen, dance, sing, and play. And not to mention march to!

Art is subjective
Unlike other sports, where you have more control over whether or not you earn enough points to win, marching band is a judged competition. You can tune every chord, align every form, nail every transition and still not get the score you were hoping for. Music is an art form. Art is not created to be judged and/or critiqued.That being said, I do believe unbiased feedback is essential in getting the best out of your students and staff to help them improve throughout the season. It’s ok not to win. Competition is a great way to motivate students to do their best and to encourage them to learn how to deal with the end results, no matter what the results may be. But the most important thing is: If you perform your best, you win!

Take pride in your work
In a high school setting, playing music for fun isn’t quite enough. We have to help the students take pride in the work they are putting in. Yes, music is fun, but you know what’s even better? Sounding and looking your very best. The hours and hours of rehearsal time should not be geared at winning the competition or beating the cross-town rival. The goal should be to perform the best show of the season every time the band steps on the field. One thing or another will most likely go wrong at a show, but if the band takes everything the staff has given them and plays and marches their very best, that is a successful show and season.

Most students will not remember what score they received, place they took, or what trophy they won (which will most likely be covered in dust on a shelf in the band room), but what they will remember are the times they spent learning, practicing, and performing music with their friends to the best of their ability. That is something to be proud of. So as you are starting to go to competitions this season, and with championships on the not so distant horizon, try to remember why we learn (and teach) music: It’s fun!

Do you have any “fun” ways to motivate your students? In what ways do you motivate younger musicians to do their best? Please share your thoughts and insights below!
Good luck and have a great season!

Danny Ursetti
Music Caption Head, Royal High School

Seating Placement – Does it Really Matter?

Robert Sheldon

By Robert Sheldon

Is it at all important how you arrange the seating and placement of your ensemble?  Why does it matter?  What is there to be gained?  I believe there are many reasons to have this discussion.  Although every director may have their own opinion about what works for them, it is important to at least HAVE an opinion, and to have thought through the reasons why we have made these decisions.  We have all seen those design shows on television where the owner gets a room makeover, and in doing so is amazed and thrilled that by changing up the placement of the furniture in their room that suddenly the space is so much better, revitalized and more appealing.  Until the moment when the “reveal” takes place, they hadn’t changed the room in years because it had not occurred to them that it could or should be done differently. It is easy to fall into keeping things the way they are just because that is the way we have always done it.

Seating placement is all about the performers being able to hear each other, and the audience being able to hear the best possible representation of the performance.  When thinking about the geographical placement of the performers, it is helpful to consider the physical rehearsal space in which you will be working each day. But you must also consider the performance site as well.  What are the acoustical properties of these spaces?  Are risers built in to the rehearsal space, but not used in the performing area?  Or are risers used on stage, but the ensemble rehearses on a flat surface?  Balance will change dramatically when back rows are raised.  Likewise, balance can change given the direction of certain players’ instruments.  Not only will the location of brass players and the direction their bells are facing affect balance, but the posture they are using and the height and direction of their bells while they play will have a major impact.  Players who raise their bells up will be heard much more than the players who point their bells to the floor in front of them.  Consequently a consistent and uniform bell height in the section will promote better balance.

We need to be aware of the needs of the individual players in the ensemble as well.  The music selection is also something to consider.  Can the soloists be heard?  Can the sections that have musical conversations with other sections hear each other clearly?  Can all instrumentalists that play similar parts during the piece see and hear the other players who are involved?  If a duet occurs, can the players see and hear each other?  It might be a good idea to change the seating arrangement for a specific piece of music to address these concerns.

Principal players are such an important part of our ensembles for many reasons.  Not only are they often the strongest players in the group, but they are also the leaders, and therefore are the students with whom we may have the most eye contact, and the ones we cue most frequently when their entire section enters.  Therefore, we want to not only have them placed in the ensemble where we can see and hear them most clearly, but they need to be seen and heard by the principal players in the other sections as well.  It is worth considering placing the 1st trumpet player next to the 1st trombone player, especially when those sections play pieces where they have similar entrances.  The same idea can be used with horn and alto sax, clarinet and flute, and possibly others, depending on the piece being performed.  When the principal players play with more precision the rest of the section has a better chance of success.

We should also consider sections of the ensemble.  If all of the low brass and low woodwinds play similar parts in a given piece, it makes sense to have them all in the same region of the band.  Not only can they all interpret the conductor’s cues more easily, but they can also tune to each other as they play.  Obviously this applies to other sections as well.

Horns can present a unique challenge due to the direction of their bells.  I have found it best to seat the section so that the principal player’s bell is facing the rest of the section.  In other words, the principal horn has the rest of the section to their right.  Since you may not want the last chair horn’s bell facing the audience at the front of the stage, it may require seating the horns within the ensemble rather than at the outer edge.  Here is where it is important to examine performance and rehearsal space.  If there is a hard surface behind the horns, their sound will certainly be more evident than if they are just playing into other players who are sitting in back of them.  If the performance site is different than the rehearsal site in this regard, problems can certainly occur.  One way to control this is by using horn walls; I have made these from 3X4’ clear sheets of Plexiglas. These can be hung from the music stands of the players who sit behind the horns.  The effect is a much more prominent horn sound that seems to work in all environments, and the balance remains more consistent.

The location of the percussion section is also critical.  A hard surface behind the snare or bass drum can allow those instruments to sound much louder in the audience.  If the mallet players are playing passages with the upper woodwinds, it is helpful to place them close to those sections.  Likewise, if the timpani is located near the tuba section it is easier to tune and play with better confidence.  A stage that is narrow could result in some players standing behind wing curtains, and that could make it nearly impossible for them to be heard.

Given that the seating of the ensemble can have an enormous impact on balance, intonation and precision, a careful examination of the seating chart we use can lead to immediate improvements in these areas.  So I encourage directors to give it a try, change it up and see what happens!

Do you have any preferred seating arrangements for your ensemble? Has anything worked better or not worked at all in the past? We want to hear your thoughts!

The New “Super Heroes” Are Band Directors!

Victor LopezBy Victor Lopez

Due to the significant changes in public school instruction system in America, it has become extremely challenging for a band director to have an outstanding band program. The changes mean students will have more customized options tailored to their particular needs and interests.

The amount of challenges affecting the band program is overwhelming. Let us consider some of the most recent ones: Academic achievement was set as a priority in public education with stricter attendance rules; adoption of a no-pass, no-play rule prohibiting students who were failing courses from participating in sports and other extracurricular activities for a six-week period; and national norm-referenced testing throughout all grades to assure parents of individual schools’ performance through a common frame of reference; school choice programs; grade level configurations; and, the push to increase the number of students enrolled in advanced placement courses. Additionally, many band directors work in high poverty area schools where they experience the following: high student mobility rate; diminished pool of talented students; lack of equipment; limited feeder programs; declined attendance at performances; and, the shift of program funding from the school to other sources, just to name a few.

These challenges, one way or another, have been in existence for several decades and many band directors continue to face them on a daily basis. It does not take long to realize that it is a tug-of-war between the band program and the rest of the school, not to mention the personal life of students. However, year after year, these new ‘Super Heroes” manage to have quality programs despite the hurdles they face. Above all, they have a passion for music and the band program, provide musical direction, find scholarships for the students, accommodate special needs students, implement differentiated instructional techniques, support district mandates for raising student achievement and closing achievement gaps, are responsible for fund raising activities and yes, in many cases have become community leaders.

Overcoming all of these challenges is certainly not an easy task. We must continue to be strong advocates fighting to keep music alive in our schools.  We must continue to promote music and communicate to policymakers the value of what music education can do for a child — whether it’s academic, whether it’s social, whether it’s emotional — so that they understand the benefits of music education.”

To our Super Heroes, I say … keep the music playing!!!!!

Are there ways that you are advocating to keep music alive in schools that would be helpful to share with others reading this?