By Robert Sheldon
The band is on stage as the auditorium lights dim in expectation of the first sounds. And what a glorious sight it is! A full complement of double reeds and low woodwinds, a rafter of horns, a squadron of trombones and a platoon of tubas! Depending on our own band room experiences back home, we are either thrilled with what we see, or filled with envy. How did they get so many students in band? How did they achieve such great instrumentation? Why can’t my band be like that?
While there are a number of forces at play when trying to increase band membership and achieve full instrumentation, the most significant might be the personality and reputation of the band director, and the recruiting/retention program in place. These and other issues could be discussed and researched for weeks on end providing various degrees of enlightenment. But for today we will focus on one aspect of this equation: the way teachers guide students in selection of an instrument for beginning band.
There are many ways to address this, and one article is hardly a comprehensive how-to tool. But it is important to think about this topic when recruiting for beginning band every year, and it is helpful to make attempts to steer some beginners in a different direction as their skills improve and their musical personalities develop.
1. Start with Basic Needs
So—let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start… (insert Julie Andrew’s voice here). Start with a realistic expectation of the number of students who typically sign up for beginning band each year, while identifying a target instrumentation that resembles a well-balanced ensemble. Perhaps you could focus on the most commonly chosen instruments before tackling the rest.
2. Introduce Students to the Instruments
It is always helpful to have each student hear every band instrument and see them up close before making a decision about what they want to play. If there is a way to teach them to make a sound on each instrument, then the band director can assist in making a decision that may provide the most successful experience.
3. Find the Student’s Natural Ability
One method of helping students select their instruments is to go with what they seem to have a natural ability for. For instance, students who can immediately produce a good flute sound, or buzz successfully into a brass mouthpiece are going to enjoy band more quickly on those instruments than students who are challenged by those techniques.
4. Ask Questions
Of course, other issues should be considered. Are braces happening soon? Does a family member play an instrument already, or does the family already have an instrument for the student to use? Does the instrument fit the student’s height or hand size? And perhaps most importantly—what does the student really WANT to play? And WHY?
5. Balance the Band & Provide Incentives
Once all of this is considered, the next goal is getting a balanced instrumentation. If we want to guide students to instruments they might otherwise not select on their own, there needs to be an incentive. Having a talented and personable musician available to demonstrate how much fun it is and how good it sounds could encourage a young student to choose to play the tuba, or whatever other instruments might be needed. Sometimes that is all it takes to create an interest. And if the band has some school instruments available, parents can often get on-board with a limited initial financial investment.
6. Combine Approaches
Some band directors find it helpful to ask students to choose 2 or 3 instruments, and observe the student’s initial experience playing them. Then the director can place the student on an instrument based on that analysis and evaluation, while ALSO considering balanced instrumentation. Doing this also ensures that the student has input on what instrument is selected for them to play.
7. Be Flexible
After all of our efforts, we may still not have the kind of instrumentation we desire. But it is important to note that achieving good instrumentation is a process that doesn’t end once the beginners start learning to play. This is something to be monitored and tweaked all the way through high school, and in some cases beyond. One of the many things I love about the Sound Innovations for Concert Band method are the instructional DVDs. If a student ever decides to switch instruments, or learn to play another in order to help improve the balance of the band, these DVDs (now available free of charge as streaming video at SI Online) can help get an aspiring young musician ready to contribute to full instrumentation with relative ease. This works particularly well at the high school level when students are often more agreeable and interested in learning a new instrument as their music and life experiences grow.
8. Encourage Involvement
During the high school years it is not uncommon to find a number of students roaming the halls that used to be in band years ago, but quit for one reason or another. If the band in your school is a place where students are happy, treat each other with respect, are enjoying their musical experiences and feel pride in their achievements, then it can definitely be a place where other students you have yet to meet will want to be. And that means sometimes all it takes is an invitation from the band director to join. It is also worth noting that the band members themselves might be an excellent source for finding students who might be interested in learning to play an instrument, or getting back into this wonderful activity we all know and love. Tell them to bring a friend to the band room and teach them to play a few notes on the bassoon!
There are many reasons for not having the number of students or the instrumentation we want in our band program. Lack of budget, uncooperative guidance counselors, conflicts with athletics, un-supportive administrators, etc., etc… We all know this can be a very long and self-defeating list. But in the end, a talented, positive and enthusiastic band director with a real passion for music who loves teaching kids will be successful in creating a special and meaningful experience for their students. Persistence, positive attitude, professionalism, and providing great music for our students to perform will go a long way toward helping every student experience the joy of making music!
Internationally recognized composer, clinician, music educator, and Alfred Music Concert Band Editor, Robert Sheldon has taught band and orchestra in the Florida and Illinois public schools. He was conductor of the Alachua County Youth Orchestra, and has served on the faculty at Florida State University. Mr. Sheldon is also a co-author of the successful method, Sound Innovations for Concert Band.
The most comprehensive method available, Sound Innovations for Concert Band now has five volumes, allowing you to teach young band through advanced ensembles with the same approach. Now with SI Online, adjust the pacing and focus of your teaching any time during the semester to address differentiation and the unique needs within your classroom. Also, explore the wealth of additional repertoire available online. Learn more at alfred.com/SI.