Monthly Archives: September 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Students The Tools to Be Life-Long Musicians

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

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

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

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

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

A Culture of Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Fry, Emmy-winning Composer, Arranger, Producer, and Music Educator

Gary Fry

Gary Fry is an Emmy-winning Chicago-based composer, arranger, producer, and music educator. He has crafted music for recordings, films, commercials, publication, and live performance. Significant credits include his position as arranger/composer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Welcome, Yule! holiday concerts since 1996, artistic consultant to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for their annual Christmas Celebration concerts, and over 100 commissions for Christmas and holiday music from those orchestras and others from around the nation.

For more than twenty years Gary Fry has been one of the nation’s foremost commercial music producers, with over 2500 nationally broadcast radio and television commercials for companies such as McDonald’s, Sears, United Airlines, Kellogg’s, the U.S. Air Force, and hundreds of other advertisers. He won an Emmy Award in 2006 for his original commercial music for WBBM-TV (Chicago).

This unique combination of symphonic skills and commercial experience has made him a highly-sought music writer for organizations looking for the highest-quality compositions and arrangements that also appeal to a broad audience.

Gary also has a passion for working with young people, particularly in choral music. Children’s choirs under his direction have performed at the White House, the United Nations, the Kennedy Center in Washington, and Carnegie Hall. He remains active as a clinician, lecturer, and conductor for ensembles in all levels of education from elementary schools to universities. In June 2012, Gary was Artistic Director for the first annual international choral festival Rhythms of One World in New York City, conducting his music at Avery Fisher Philharmonic Hall and at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations with a massed choir of 350 singers from around the globe.

To view all of Gary’s titles that are available through Alfred’s Rental Library, click here.

Piano Teaching Tips from Wynn-Anne Rossi

Wynn-Anne RossiOne of my favorite things about music is that it can take me anywhere, even to the stars. I’m happy to introduce “Estrellas en el cielo” from my new series, Música Latina. This piece is a tribute to La Paz, Bolivia where humans can reach up and almost touch the stars. It is the world’s highest capital city at 11,975 feet!

Just like jazz, Latin music has particular inherent features. One of these is the frequent use of syncopation. I often refer to syncopation as “rhythmic surprise.” As syncopation is not always easy to feel, a rhythm workshop is provided as a warm-up. I use a big drum in my studio which the students love. The rhythms can also be practiced on the student’s lap. Once students are comfortable with this exercise, they can easily proceed to the music.

Two common forms of syncopation surface immediately at the beginning of this piece. In measure 1, a tie causes the 2nd half of beat 2 to have unexpected emphasis. In measure 2, a rest on the downbeat causes a mild rhythmic shock. Emphasize syncopation by accenting these percussive moments. In measure 3, notice the LH circled note. This natural stress point occurs several times throughout the piece.

Another aspect of Latin music is the frequent use of creative harmonies. Beginning in measure 11, basic analysis reveals the use of 9ths, 13ths, and even quartal harmony (based on 4ths). In fact, every measure of this piece uses harmonic color beyond basic major and minor triads. This is one of the more beautiful aspects of the Latin style.

Polyrhythm is the presence of two or more distinct rhythms which are not obviously related. Latin music is famous for this! In measure 11, the piece is first and foremost in 4/4 time. However, below the surface is an entirely different rhythm in the 8ths: 12312312. If you back up to measure 3, you can see the first subtle developments of this unusual subdividing which continues throughout the piece.

Outside the obvious Latin nature of the piece, there are other important things to bring forward in its performance. Shaping of the phrases gives the stars a sense of movement and depth. The form is ternary (A – B – A). The fermata in measure 18 is an excellent time to breathe and calmly prepare for the return to A. Also notice that the compositional tool of sequencing is at work. Measures 7 – 10 are an exact replica of measures 3 – 6, simply lowered by a whole step. You can also see sequencing in the melody line in measures 11, 12, 15, and 16. Of course, I am fond of pointing out the tools of composition! For more information on sequencing, please reference Creative Composition Toolbox, book 3.

Let’s not forget imagination! This piece is about stars. The touch should be light, with warm pedal for maximum twinkle. The ending is particularly important. The stars are seemingly moving into the distance, leaving us to our own lives on earth. But they are constant, reminding us of a magnificent, ever-present universe.

Latin music is a rich, multi-cultural style which is often quite difficult to play. Música Latina brings these complex sounds into more accessible levels of performance. I wish you and your students beautiful travels as you explore these fascinating new sounds.

Musically yours,

Wynn-Anne Rossi
Author, Arranger, Composer 

Musica Latina, Books 1-3

Estrellas en el cielo

Breaking Bad Vocal Habits . . . The “Aha” Moment!

By Dina Else, Choral Clinician and Voice Instructor

“The more I delve into my singing, the more I realize that the problems I have as a singer are pretty much self-inflicted.” — Sebastian Gillespie

The above quote is from one of my private voice students, spoken this summer as he was preparing to compete in the final round of the Iowa State Fair Talent Competition. The young man has a fantastic voice coupled with a slew of bad habits that make his practice and preparation a pretty miserable experience. At the time, he habitually placed his chin a couple of inches in front of his sternum, causing his pharyngeal space to be cut off and the production of his tone to be strained at best. The higher the musical line went, the further out in front of his sternum his chin traveled! He also struggled with breath intake and management.

Growing up, his main focus was dance. Need I say more? His dance instructors, appropriately so, drilled into him that during dancing his abdominal wall should be pulled in and held in that position. As with many dancers, he found himself adopting this body carriage during the everyday care and feeding of his body. Needless to say, that torso positioning doesn’t help out a young singer who desperately needs to engage his breath support!

Sebastian is not alone in his quest to overcome poor singing habits. Private voice studios are alive and well and filled with singers like Sebastian who have lofty performance goals but find themselves at the mercy of their body’s long-standing debilitating habits. In today’s society of quick fixes and ready-made solutions, most singers find themselves waiting to be handed the magic bullet. I’m pretty sure that up until the “aha” moment I shared above, he thought that if he waited long enough, a quick fix was right around the corner, and all of his poor habits would be replaced by some magical piece of information I just hadn’t given him in the two years he’d been studying with me!

Does the above scenario sound familiar to anyone? Whether you are a solo singer, a singer in a choral ensemble, or an adult singer in a church choir, if you want to improve as a singer, you first and foremost must understand how the vocal instrument works (scientifically speaking), and then you must identify the poor habits that are detrimental to your progress and make a plan to replace those habits with new, more productive habits.

I’m happy to report that since this pivotal lesson in late July, Sebastian has begun to keep what I call a “habit busting journal.” As he stated so succinctly, his vocal frustrations were self-inflicted. Since that day in July, he has identified the poor habits that were stalling out his progress and has begun the process of replacing them with new, clearly defined habits. He is now actually using the tools I’ve been giving him for the past two years to correct his head and neck alignment issues, and he quickly catches if his chin and sternum aren’t lined up or his ears and shoulders aren’t lined up.

Let’s use Sebastian’s breath intake and management issues to drive home an important point. After two years of lessons, this young man clearly understood how to execute a correct breath intake, and he absolutely knew how to engage his diaphragmatic breath support. By the end of each 30-minute lesson he was always in good shape regarding both of these issues. He would walk out of his lesson confident that this was the turning point lesson, the lesson where he fully understood what he was supposed to be doing differently, and this time the information was going to stick. As his voice instructor, I would encourage him to begin the journey of taking that information and building daily habits that would solidify the information and move him forward . . . then I would keep my fingers crossed.

Unfortunately, after giving my students the necessary information, tools, and resources, the next step is totally up to them and out of my control. Sebastian would come back the next week and we would start the process all over again! Sound familiar? The issue with this young man wasn’t a lack of intellectual ability—he is truly one of the brightest students I’ve ever had. He just had an absolute blind spot in regard to the power of habit. I’m happy to report that at this point in Sebastian’s journey he is progressing quickly toward his goals. Not a moment too soon, since he’s a high school senior getting ready to audition for college scholarships.

As educators, I think we sometimes fall into the trap of dealing individually with each problem and issue that pops up, applying bandages as fast as we can manage. It pays to take a step back and really analyze the cause of the issue in the first place. If it’s a matter of habit, take the time to help your singers identify detrimental habits and hold them accountable to implementation of a more helpful routine!

Mrs. Dina Else is a highly sought after vocal technician/specialist, choral clinician, motivational speaker, festival conductor, and adjudicator through out the United States. The choral ensembles she works with are consistently awarded ‘Best Vocals’ and highest honors in competitions and festivals. Dina is a published author and columnist and currently serves as the Vocal Technique Columnist for Choral Strategies Inc.

Dina has had 17 years of high school choral classroom experience and 10 years at the collegiate level including: Ithaca College, Wartburg College, Drake University, the University of Northern Iowa (where she received her Bachelor and Masters Degrees), and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (where she completed all of her doctoral coursework in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy).

As a mezzo-soprano, Dina has performed many opera and oratorio roles as well as several recital and guest soloist appearances. She is also a highly regarded private voice teacher in the Des Moines area, heading into her 25th year of teaching privately. She is committed to researching, acquiring, and sharing new knowledge concerning voice science and pedagogy.

Please visit for more information or to contact Dina.

A Christmas Carol That Inspired a Hymn Book

Vincent J. CarrolaBy Vincent J. Carrola

Consider the following story with me:

Even though it was a cold and snowy December, a group of actors decided to brave the Austrian Alps and cross over to a small town near Salzburg, Austria, in order to perform a special play that they had been preparing for Christmas. They arrived at the St. Nicholas parish church on December 23rd ready to perform their play (which was the story of Christ’s birth) for the local residents. However, in order for the group to perform their play they needed musical accompaniment. And, unfortunately, the church’s organ was not functioning properly. Therefore, the decision was made to perform their play at a local resident’s house where they would have access to a piano.

Now even though the actors’ dilemma was resolved, the priest of St. Nicholas parish church still had the problem of a non-functional organ. After all, Christmas Eve was tomorrow and what good would a Christmas Eve service be bereft of music? As the priest journeyed home on the evening of the 23rd, he looked out over the vast, quiet town and, suddenly, an idea came to him. Maybe a poem that he had penned a few years earlier could be set to music? But there was still the problem of finding an instrument that could lead the congregation. So, the priest talked with the organist of a nearby village who offered to set the poem to music and lead the congregation with his guitar. Thus, together, they wrote what would become one of the most famous Christmas Carols of all time. The priest was Joseph Mohr, the organist (guitarist) Franz Gruber, and the Christmas Carol, Silent Night. But little did Mohr or Gruber know that their carol would go on to inspire millions of people all over the world.

To say that Mohr and Gruber’s story inspired me to write music books would be partially true. A few years back, I was asked to accompany a choir on guitar while they sang Silent Night. In order to prepare for this I decided to arrange Silent Night for the guitar. After the performance, it was suggested that I try to publish my arrangement. So I looked into the possibility and, with that, This Holy Night 12 Christmas Classics for Guitar, was born.

Soon after, I realized that This Holy Night was not only an idea that sprang from a story and one guitar arrangement, but also from a necessity. And the more I thought about the necessity, the more I thought about a particular genre of music that was lacking for the guitar: praise and worship material. It has always bothered me that pianists had their choice of hymnals to play from while guitarists basically had nothing. So, I endeavored to write a guitar hymn book which eventually became The Worship Leader’s Guitar Hymn Book. But, in order to proceed with the guitar hymn book, several aspects had to be taken into consideration:

1. In order to be an inclusive music book, the guitar hymn book had to provide numerous performance options for guitarists of all levels. For example, if each arrangement included lyrics and common strumming chords, plus an optional intermediate-level guitar arrangement with TAB,  guitarists would have many options at their disposal. They could sing and play the chords, play the intermediate arrangement, or improvise and develop either the simple chord part or the intermediate version.

2. The guitar hymn book had to provide hymns in comfortable keys for guitarists that would match the keys of a popular hymnal so that guitarists would have the option to play with other musicians. This was a hard one. It seemed like every hymn was written in a key that was not at all comfortable for guitarists. Thus, basically every hymn that was included in the guitar hymn book had to be transposed to a key suitable for guitarists. This of course, could inhibit guitarists from playing with other musicians. So, to remedy this vexing problem, a capo chart was added to the guitar hymn book. Now all that guitarists have to do to fix the key problem is snap on a capo and play!

3. It would be amazing if the guitar hymn book could include an accompaniment CD. This is why: if guitarists want to play with other musicians, in order to get a bigger sound, the CD accompaniment would be an excellent and convenient substitute – though with no less quality! In order to accomplish this goal, I teamed up with my brother, Dominic Carrola, who arranged and orchestrated full accompaniment tracks for each hymn included in the book.

So, keeping these points in mind, The Worship Leader’s Guitar Hymnal was written. The result: a collection of praise and worship favorites that offers several performance options and is very assessable to guitarists of all levels.
Thank you for reading this post, and if you have any comments or questions feel free to comment below or contact me at

Cool Tips: Holiday Concert Energizers

Vince GassiBy Vince Gassi
Six Cool Tips to Help You Break Out of the Holiday Concert Rut

Holiday concerts have a tendency to sneak up on us. It seems the school year just gets underway and before long, it’s time to start planning. I am always enlightened when attending other concerts as I often learn new “dos and don’ts”—that is, things I’m impressed by and things that make me say “hmm…note to self.” Given our wealth of experience with holiday concerts we might ask, “Why the need to start planning so early?”. Great question! The answer is that nothing we do at the last minute is ever our best work. Smooth flowing concerts don’t just get thrown together. There are many details to consider such as music acquisition and rehearsal, tickets, equipment rentals, audio, refreshments, set up crews, etc. Starting early means that you can be creative in your planning, have ample time to work out the details, and adjust if needed.

The trap is that it’s easy to lapse into HCR (Holiday Concert Rut) which can often result in a lackluster concert consisting of overused repertoire, disorganization, and a disinterested audience made up of parents who wish to leave the moment their child is finished performing regardless of what other ensembles have yet to perform. So let’s look at six cool tips to help break old habits and energize your next holiday concert.

Cool Tip #1 – Rep Awareness
It’s easy to fall back on the old standards that everyone is expecting to hear, however, variety is a good thing and there is plenty of published music available that is nontraditional. You’ll have to research a bit. Ask your colleagues in other schools what’s worked for them in the past. I’ve gleaned some great programming tips just by asking. Is there any repertoire that allows you to combine two ensembles, e.g. strings and percussion? What about a piece that features a soloist or an unusual instrument? Perhaps this is an opportunity for you to compose or arrange your own music to better suit your needs. Hey, just sayin’.

Cool Tip #2 – Event Flow
All music directors in the department should plan the flow of the concert together, sharing repertoire ideas and considering what it would be like to sit in the audience. Holiday concerts can be repetitive not only in the sense that the same or similar music is performed each year but also that there is overlap between ensembles. The pace of the concert should definitely be planned out and not be just a display of each ensemble. Audiences tend to tune out when they hear the same holiday selections from one ensemble that were just performed by the previous ensemble! Planning is critical even when there is only one conductor and one ensemble. If you were in the audience at your last holiday concert, what would your critique sound like? What would you change?

Cool Tip #3 – The Change-up
Why not consider a theme concert? How about holidays around the world or holiday music throughout history? Is there a MIDI program in your school? Take ten minutes to feature your young composers. Speaking of change-ups, if yours is a school with a uniform, consider a different approach. How about all black with red Santa hats and/or green reindeer antlers? You don’t need to go overboard and it may be a challenge to acquire as many hats as you have students. Just a few here and there is all it’ll take to set the tone (pardon the pun). What other alternative themes and wardrobe ideas can you come up with? Ask your students. They’re always willing to try new things.

Cool Tip #4 – The Pre-game Show (or Kids in the Hall)
How cool would it be to have one or more chamber groups playing in the lobby while people are entering? Placed in various locations in the lobby, hallways, or outside (if you are fortunate enough to live in a balmy clime), groups of three or four students could be serenading audience members before the concert, at intermission, or as they exit. We have Entr’actes and Exit Music in musicals? Aren’t our holiday concerts musical?

Speaking of musicals, if your Arts department is staging one soon, why not play a few selections at holiday time just to whet everyone’s appetite. It’s great advertising and a pleasant diversion from the regular holiday fare. Does every selection have to be a holiday piece anyway? Why not mix it up?

Cool Tip #5 – Toss the Salad

What about a change in the usual order of ensembles? It never hurts to “toss the salad” every so often. Do you usually start with Junior ensembles followed by more experienced ones? Mix it up. Nothing is written in stone. Would alternating work? Why not have the juniors and seniors play together on one selection?

Cool Tip #6 – Crews and Equipment
Well-trained crews can make a huge difference. What crews are needed for your concert? You’ll need to make a list and you can post sign-up sheets in the music room. Students love to volunteer for these duties, especially ones who aren’t on stage as much. What goes on behind the scenes is just as important. The stage crew will have to practice until they know their jobs and can execute them quickly and safely. Your physical setup may determine, to a large extent, the order in which your ensembles will perform. Consider ensemble placement and equipment needs (stands, chairs, risers, audio). By the way, do you need to rent audio or other equipment? What other crews are needed (e.g. tech, tickets, ushers, refreshments, setup, cleanup, etc.)?

Other Ideas
Have you invited an administrator to say “a few” words? I’ve found the best time to let them have the floor is during a setup change as it can smooth over a potential “dead spot”. It also gets your principal out to your events and they’ll be impressed when they see all the great work you do. Additionally, parents will get it that your program enjoys the support of the school community.

How about combining with other Arts departments for one or two selections? Adding an interpretive dance, drama tableau, or gallery walk featuring student art is a very cool way to enhance a concert. These other groups can be coordinated with your ensemble or perhaps as a break from them. One year, I taught music and drama and had short, one minute drama monologues presented between each ensemble. You may wish to consider another type of HCR; a Holiday Concert Raffle with cool prizes like iPods and iTunes gift cards. Proceeds can be shared between a charity of your choice and any music department needs you may have. It’ll also give the audience a change of pace. Do you interact with the audience as the conductor? Do you occasionally provide a brief introduction or background for a piece? Too much of this can be boring so be judicious. Perhaps you could have a student emcee or even the Phys. Ed. teacher. It’s good for other teachers to see what their students do outside of their departments and again, it provides variety. Do make sure you go to the next basketball game though. Support is a two way street.

One Final Suggestion
Each year, our music department has a carol sing-along to end the concert. Every student and teacher in our music department is present in the auditorium for the last selection of the night and, with the audience, sings a medley of carols to the accompaniment of the band. The room is packed, there are red hats, green reindeer ears, and most importantly, good cheer abounding.

Our holiday concerts shouldn’t be an onerous experience for anyone. It truly is a delightful thing to see and hear young people making music (good music!!). Planning early will allow you to pay attention to the finer points that add a touch of class to an event that could otherwise turn into a snoozer. Be creative. Have fun devising and implementing new and engaging ideas that will provide an enjoyable experience for all.

What are some of your favorite unique holiday concert activities?

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 Rhythm Is Gonna Get You!

Sally K. AlbrechtBy Sally K. Albrecht

It is so important that we work with our students on their rhythmic reading skills. That’s why we’re excited to present the new publication Rhythm Workshop, featuring 575 rhythmic reading exercises. You may chose to clap, tap a pencil, pat your thigh, stomp, walk, patty-cake with a friend, speak, play, and/or sing these rhythmic exercises.

How did you learn to read rhythms? Perhaps you used “Too” or “Doo” on long-held whole or half notes, “Ta” or “Da” on quarter notes, “Ti-ka” or “Da-ba” on eighth notes, “Ti-ka-ta-ka” or “Do-be-do-be” on sixteenth notes. Or perhaps you use a combination of different approaches to keep your reading fresh and fun!

I enjoyed presenting Rhythm Workshop at several teacher sessions over the summer. We started by reciting an exercise on a common syllable. Then I added the challenge of using participants’ names on different rhythms (Sue = half note, Joyce = quarter note, Michael = two eighth notes). On page six of the publication, I suggested many other words to use, including fruits/veggies, flowers/trees, and cities. Use your imagination! Try using musical terms such as tie, staff, beam, rest, bar line, coda, etc. Or, in the fall, how about using football terms? (Click HERE to see example.) Or ask your students to suggest other appropriate words to match a season or upcoming event.

Add a handclap on each rest, or say “shh” or “rest” in order to make sure your students are keeping a steady beat.

Ask your students to write down the rhythm of their own name, street, city, favorite food, TV show, or movie, etc. Use some of those words the next time you read a new rhythmic exercise.

Choose a chord (Bass on do, Alto on mi, Tenor on sol, Soprano on high do) and perform the next exercise on a simple “ta.” Afterwords, invite your students to make up a rhyming lyric and/or create a simple singable melody, testing and expanding their compositional skills!

Most of the examples are eight measures long, so try singing “do” on the rhythm in the 1st measure, “re” on measure 2, “mi” on measure 3, and so on moving up the scale. Or start on high “do” and move down the scale. Then split your group in half with one group moving up the scale and the other moving down on another exercise, creating a 2-part texture.

Rhythm Workshop also features several 2-part examples. Split your students in half to read these rhythms. Double the fun by having Group A read Part I followed by Part II and Group B read Part II followed by Part I. For a challenge, “play” both rhythms using two hands (right hand taps top line, left hand taps bottom line), or tap one part while speaking the other.

Also featured are 11 “Missing Bar Lines” examples, where the students are asked to fill in the missing bar lines in different time signatures (answer keys provided). The final section of the book features six pages with mixed meter examples.

An enclosed Enhanced CD includes reproducible PDF files of each page, plus 36 musical tracks in a variety of tempos and musical styles. This encourages your students to get “in the groove” and not to rush as they read the rhythms. One of my teacher groups last month in Kansas City read an entire page of 3/4 examples to a lilting waltz track, with the added challenge of walking around the room (without running into anyone else) and landing back at their seat by the time the page was completed.

Enjoy using this new reproducible publication with your students!

Rhythm Workshop:  Reproducible Book & Enhanced CD (00-38270)……$34.99

Click for more information and to view free sample exercise pages #10 and #95