By Scott Watson,
The other day an old friend called me up to ask a question about directing young instrumentalists in a festival band. He’s used to working with high school players and wanted a few quick tips on dealing with the 2nd and 3rd year players he was going to be leading in a district honor band. I shared with him three concerns at the front of my mind when I’m working with developing players, whether it’s an honor ensemble or students in my own program.
1. Control Over Sound – This is tone. So many youngsters over play. Perhaps they’re compensating for something fundamental that is out-of-place (i.e. poor embouchure or incorrect tonguing), or maybe they just don’t hear how harsh they sound. I’m all for good air support, but uneven blasts of air (or forced percussion attacks) can destroy one of the primary goals of ensemble playing: balance and blend. Supporting one’s sound doesn’t have to mean losing control of one’s sound. Many times when such players are encouraged to lighten up and blend, their sound improves greatly. I like to say, “Let your sound melt into everyone else’s.”
2. Longer Phrases – Did you ever notice that as musicians mature, they perform longer and longer selections in their concerts? The average length of an elementary band piece is somewhere around two to three minutes, but in high school the selections can be eight or more minutes long, with multiple movements. Similarly, another sign of sophistication with performers is length of phrase. When I’m trying to remind my second year players how they used to sound as beginners, I play a melody for them taking huge, obvious breathes between almost every note. They giggle, but get the point: don’t breathe because you can; breathe when you need to and when it makes musical sense.
3. Intonation – I encourage you to bring intonation into the conversation as early as possible in lessons and sectionals. Once intonation is explained in those scenarios, it will mean more in rehearsals. My students love working with a tuner; they think matching a reference note is a game! An easy way to introduce tuning is to warm up with a long tone, have each student try to match you (or a strong player) on that tone, then instruct the player what to do to bring his/her instrument into tune. Later, ask student to guess what they need to do to fix their intonation. This is another opportunity to discuss intonation, and how even the “right notes” can sound wrong.
Challenge your elementary band to sound more like middle schoolers, and see if your intermediate band can aspire to sound more like the high school ensemble. Good tone from a controlled sound, longer phrases, and in tune playing are three keys to a more mature sound. Emphasizing each by frequently explaining and dealing with them in lessons, sectionals, and rehearsals will improve the sound of your developing band.
By the way, before I got off the phone with my friend I left him with one more piece of advice for working with younger players: be sure to let your students see how much you enjoy making music with them!