5-Minute Read: Make Your Band into Dynamic Detectives

As the marching season fades behind us and we move into a more concert band-focused period of the year, we are all looking for ways to improve the sounds of our indoor ensembles.  Amongst the many factors we have to contend with – tone quality, rhythmic and pitch accuracy, intonation, and more – one item can often hide from our ears “in plain sight” as it were: balance.  Improper balance not only obscures the quality of your band’s sound, but it also negatively affects all of those other factors I just mentioned.

Now, when we speak of “balance”  in the musical world, we are actually speaking of two separate ideas:

  1. the ratio of the volume of lower notes and voices to higher notes and voices
  2. the ability of the audience to clearly hear the primary line, followed by the secondary line, and the tertiary line.

It’s that second item I want to tackle in today’s 5-Minute Read. We all seek clarity in our ensemble, meaning that the audience members always and clearly know what the most important voice is. This is much harder than it sounds because it requires our ensemble members to know not just their own parts, but the parts of everyone else in the band!  Therefore, your students must become dynamic detectives.

Teach Your Students to Play in 3-D

In order for your performers to interpret the dynamic markings on their page, they need to know if they are the foreground, the middle ground, or background part.  This is harder than it sounds, as it requires understanding all of the other parts in the band.  My favorite way to teach this is to play a game of “Who’s Got the Melody?” Here’s how it works:

  • Have your band play a large portion, or all, of a work in which you’re trying to develop balance clarity.
  • Percussion are always in, but they always have to play softly unless they have the melody.
  • Everyone else can only play when they have the melody.  They must rest and listen when they don’t have the melody.

You will be stunned to hear not only the moments when the trombones playing tied whole notes play because they thought they had the melody, but the moments where no one plays because no one knows that they’re the melody.  Once you’ve been able to find these moments have students mark the areas where they are the primary line, then go back and play the music as written.  But this time, tell the students that they must hear the melody over themselves at all times.  The sudden improvement in balance and clarity will be eye-opening! Keep in mind that this learning of the composite line can be very granular and involve jumping around the band even within a measure, beat by beat.

Seven Dynamic Rules of Thumb

Despite some shades of grey that can result from modifiers such as “piu” or “molto,” we’re basically stuck with six usable dynamic levels: pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte, and fortissimo.  That’s a rather low-resolution scale for something as subtle as a concert band. Additionally, we often see the entire score, every part, marked the same dynamic! There’s no way each and every member of the ensemble can be playing the same volume.   Therefore, let’s teach our students to be dynamic detectives by having them learn the following rules:

  1. The more repetitive your part is, the softer it should become.
    • If you are playing a repetitive line, then chances are strong that you are a motor rhythmic accompaniment or other sort of ostinato.  You are the framework upon which melody will be arrayed, so play softer!
  2. If you have an important part that you establish and then repeat after a new voice enters, your part should become softer when that new part enters.
    • This is related to the previous rule, and often happens in the low brass and lower woodwinds.  Even if your part is fairly interesting rhythmically or melodically, this new voice is more important as it is a new color.  This is especially in fugue-like moments, where the initial voice of interest becomes a countermelody to the new melodic voice.
  3. If you are playing in unison/soli and there is a sudden divisi into a chord, then you must suddenly play louder.
    • Your players have to overcome acoustics and physics here.  If your trombones are playing a unison soli section, and then the line suddenly opens into a divisi chord, the individual parts must play louder so that this chord sounds as loud as the previous unison moment.  Play the divisi moment louder!
  4. Play higher notes and lower notes louder.
    • Again, this is the science of acoustics. Higher notes carry more energy, and therefore we perceive them as louder.  Higher parts in higher tessituras just don’t need to be played so loud.  Lower parts in lower tessituras have to have some extra sound to be balanced.
  5. Just because you have the most notes, it doesn’t mean you’re the most important part.
    • This often applies when woodwinds are given some ornamental running lines above a broader melody in the lower winds.  Because all those running 16th notes look so interesting, it’s easy to assume that the melody is there.  But the melody is most likely a chorale or augmented melody that must be heard above this ornamentation. Play softer than written!
  6. A solo is always louder than it’s marked.
    • The word “one” or “solo” replaces any dynamic marking with “be heard over everyone else in the ensemble, with the best sound you can make.” Our finest performers are often our best students and followers of instructions.  That means they need to be convinced that a solo marked “mezzo piano” is anything but “medium soft.” Play louder!
  7. If you begin a note, then sustain it while new voices enter, you must get softer.
    • This often happens on long, loud notes!  If you have a loud, accented whole note, that you sustain while other voices enter on later beats, you’ve got to get out of the way of those new voices.  Reduce your volume!

I hope that you’ll try these methods with your concert ensembles soon! The “who’s got the melody” game is always fun and eye-opening for students and director alike.  And with the improved balance, your audience’s ears will always know exactly what to listen for at your next performance.

Eight Not-So-Secret Ways to Experience Success with Honor Bands

My name is Catheryn Shaw and I am a Ph.D. student in Music Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In a previous life (well, the last seven years) I taught school band in Georgia. The last four years were spent at a Title I middle school in south Georgia. I grew up a Band Director’s Kid and spent my middle and high school years participating in many honor bands, though not always by choice. I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of those experiences, whether for the musical or social aspects, and could give you a million reasons as to why honor band is important to the development of our students as musicians.  But that’s not what this article is about.

When I first made the transition from high school assistant band director to the middle school director, I had to learn to establish a culture within my band program that promoted and encouraged honor band participation. In my four years at the middle school, we went from 13 students selected to an honor band in year one, to 49 students selected in year four.

Listed below are eight secrets to dominating honor band. Many if not all of the secrets are tips that I have picked up from colleagues and have simply adapted to my situation. I taught in a Title I, lower socio-economic school, so my incentives may be different than what you may use. Above all, know your students, know your program, set goals, and stay organized!

#1 – Be The Motivator, The Cheerleader, The Beggar, The Pleader

At some point in time during your honor band journey, you are going to be one of the above (just, hopefully, without having to wear the actual cheerleading uniform). How many times have you heard or said “My students just aren’t motivated to tryout for honor band?” Well, what are we, as directors, doing to motivate them? I promised my students that if they would just sign up for the audition, I would do everything in my power to ensure that they were prepared. Sometimes, the only motivation a student needs is knowing that they are not going to be on their own in their preparation. Once the preparation begins, however, it is important that you remember to cheer and encourage every step of the way. Celebrate small victories: learning a difficult passage in the etude, expanding their range to “high G” on trumpet, memorizing a scale. There is going to be a time during the process when a student plateaus and you will need to be the one to push them onward and upward. Could you imagine your band program if every student practiced without being asked? It’s up to you to stay upbeat and make this a positive experience!

#2 – Wait, THAT Kid Wants to Audition?

We all have that one student. Or five. Bless him. He sits last chair trombone and can’t play “Hot Cross Buns” in whole notes, but the day you mention honor band auditions he is the first student at your door waiting to sign up. Sign him up! Spending time learning scales and working on a prepared piece are in no way going to make him a weaker musician. I have seen students truly blossom through this process and completely surprise me. This may be the structure that they need to push them further in their musical journey. I know what you’re thinking – “That’s really really sunshine and roses, but what about the reality that this student just won’t be prepared?” I know exactly where you are coming from. I never wanted to send a student into an audition unprepared. I wanted this to be a positive experience and I cringed at the thought of my band director colleagues having to hear one of my students play poorly. Your escape route with Little Johnny can be found below in tip number eight: the “Mock Audition” section!

#3 – Are YOU Prepared for the Audition?

Ok, so tons of students have signed up for the audition. Hurdle #1: crossed. Now what? You need to prepare for the audition more than the students do! It is your responsibility as the director to know every aspect of the audition. There is nothing worse than sitting in the audition room as a judge when a student comes in unprepared – and by no fault of their own! We’ve all seen it: students playing the wrong scales, students not knowing they had to play scales, students playing the wrong etude. We have to set our students up for success! If you don’t know what is required, ask a colleague!

#4 – Incentives (Or just call it what it is…Bribery)

A group of my students who were selected for an honor band. They received a limo ride to the event. Faces blurred to protect the awesome.
A group of my students who were selected for an honor band. They received a limo ride to the event. Faces blurred to protect the awesome.

So, I have no shame in telling you that I have promised food, practice record forgiveness, and limousine rides (you read that right) to my students to encourage them to put in the work towardsauditions. As much as we would love for every one of our students to audition for honor band for the sheer joy of setting and achieving a personal goal and for the sake of a positive experience, that’s not exactly the way a middle school brain works. My students needed a reward, a treat, if you will. Here is an example that worked for me – feel free to substitute what will work for your students!

  1. Audition for honor band: 2 free 100s for practice records
  2. Make honor band – Miss Shaw makes lunch! Baked spaghetti, garlic bread, soda, and Oreo balls all served in the privacy of an empty classroom and not the crowded cafeteria!
  3. Make the second round All-State audition: I checked the students out of school to go eat lunch at a local favorite and we traveled to and from lunch in a limousine…did I mention how awesome it is to have a supportive principal?

Plain and simple, the students will want to know what’s in it for them besides the whole personal achievement thing. Make it worth their while!

#5 – Classroom Habits of Success

After perusing several state music educator websites, it’s obvious that scales are an important part of the audition. Scales should be an important part of your daily fundamental warm-up routine, right? Absolutely! The question is, are we teaching scales or just going through the motions? In the state of Georgia, middle school band students must play four scales for their honor band audition (F, B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat). Starting at the beginning of the school year, we spend 2 weeks on each scale, going in reverse order. Every student in my 7th and 8th grade bands had to play each scale from memory. We incorporated other warm-up activities that used the key signature of the particular scale we were working on, including long tones, chorales, and rhythmic exercises. So, regardless of whether a student is auditioning for an honor band or All-State, they will learn the scales in class and it will be for a grade. Let me also add that it is amazing how a scale chart on the wall in the band room, complete with star stickers, can motivate students to learn scales. Spend the time to set up good daily habits and it will pay off in the long run.

#6 – The Dreaded Etude

So, I’m a 7th grader who is super excited about auditioning for honor band for the first time and then I see the etude. This prepared piece with rhythms I may not know yet and notes that just seem foreign to me. Tell me again, why am I doing this? Never fear! There is a way to get through this prepared piece without overwhelming your student and without requiring that they take private lessons. Most etudes played for these auditions consist of 16 to 24 measures and can be easily divided into manageable parts. For example, if you have a 20-measure etude, break it up into 4 measure sections and create a timeline that has your student learning 4 measures every 2 weeks. If they stay on schedule, they will learn the etude with plenty of time to spare!

#7 – Get Obsessive Compulsive with Your Organization

So, I may like spreadsheets. A lot. My “honor band” folder on my computer was full of multiple spreadsheets: Students Auditioning, Students Paid, Audition Progress, etc. One of the main keys to your students experiencing success at auditions is the director staying organized. What do I mean by this? The best thing I ever did was make a spreadsheet like the one shown below.

Name Instrument Scale #1 Etude m.1-4 Scale #2 Etude m. 5-8
Joey A. Tuba 09/14 09/28 10/12 10/25
Amy S. Clarinet 09/15 09/28 10/10 10/18

I also created a check-off sheet for each of my students participating in the audition. This sheet included each scale, each section of the etude, and “due dates” for the student to pass off these sections for me either before or after school. As they would pass off sections, I would keep a record of it on my “OCD Organizational Queen” spreadsheet mentioned above. I also made sure to post reminders on the board and remind the students verbally during announcement time in class.

#8 – Mock Auditions

It’s important for your students to feel comfortable with the audition process. I always tried to make sure my students knew what to expect when they walked in the room: how many judges, the placement of the chair and the stand, the order of the audition, etc. For this reason, I required my students to go through the audition process with me. They would come into my office and go through the entire audition (scales, etude, sight reading), I would score them on a score sheet identical to the one that would be used at the real audition, and then after they had finished, we would talk through what went well and what they needed to improve. Many times, this can get the performance anxiety out of the way, and it also allows the director to know exactly how prepared their students are going into the audition. This also allows you to control whether a student goes to the audition and positively represents themselves and your program (i.e. if they are not prepared 2 weeks before the audition, they will not participate). It is not fair to the student to have to endure what could be a humiliating experience, and it is not fair to the judges to have to sit through a painful audition.

In Conclusion

I hope these tips help you and your students experience success! Honor Bands have always been something I am extremely passionate about. My father met his two lifelong best friends in an honor band. They still travel together and talk to each other on a weekly basis! In my honor band experiences, I met very dear friends, was able to learn from my future college band director, as he was one of our clinicians, and above all, made great music with other talented students. By following the tips in this article, you can create an excellent program in which every student is given the opportunity to participate. So, go forth, dominate your  region’s honor band, and happy music making!

Blue Stars Announce “On Corps!” Arranging Competition

I am proud to be a partner with the Blue Stars Drum & Bugle Corps as they announce a new competition for aspiring arrangers and composers! We invite individuals with an interest in arranging and composing music to submit their works to be considered for performance by the 2016 Blue Stars. The winning arrangement/composition will be performed as part of the corps` encore repertoire for the season.

All participants will receive feedback from members of the Blue Stars design and instructional team, including myself and Richard Saucedo.

Works submitted should meet the following criteria:

  1. May not be shorter than 1 minute 30 seconds or longer than two minutes in length
  2. Must be arranged with the following part distribution:
    • 3 trumpets
    • 2 mellophones
    • 3 baritones/euphoniums
    • 1 tuba (sparing use of divisi writing is permissible)
    • percussion (Our staff will augment percussion parts as needed)
  3. Music must be able to be performed publicly under current copyright laws. The Blue Stars will pay copyright fees for the winning work if needed.
  4. The work must be an original arrangement or composition, unpublished in any other venue.

Submission Process:
A $50 fee must accompany each submission. Individuals may submit as many entries as they so choose, but each submitted work requires the $50 fee. A PDF score and digital recording (both computer-synthesized and live ensemble recordings are acceptable) must be submitted to ward.miller@bluestars.org by 8 AM on Monday, April 1, 2016. The score must include the author’s full name, e-mail address, and telephone number. The winner will be announced by Friday, April 15, and the winning work will be performed as an encore by the Blue Stars Drum and bugle Corps during their 2016 tour. All submissions will receive feedback on their submissions no later than May 20, 2016.

Happy Birthday, Hindemith!

Today, November 16th, is the birthdate of celebrated composer Paul Hindemith.  Hindemith, who passed away in 1963, contributed multiple canon works in both the orchestral and wind repertoires.  Born near Frankfurt am Maim, Germany, in 1895, Hindemith created a unique and memorable harmonic language that stemmed from his own system that ranked intervals from most to least dissonant.  His innovative harmonic language was coupled with an incredible mastery of counterpoint.

Celebrate his birthday with listenings of his Symphony in Bb for concert band, the wind transcription of his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (transcribed by Keith Wilson in cooperation with Hindemith himself), and the marvelous early work Konzertmusik für Blasorchester, Op. 41.

A recording of Konzertmusik für Blasorchester

My Blue Stars Music Education Tour a Success!

My Blue Stars Drum and Bugle Corps-sponsored ( #bluestarsdbc ) tour has concluded as a rousing success.  After driving around 2,500 miles, I was honored to guest lecture, clinic, conduct, rehearse, observe, and generally have a blast with concert and marching ensembles, music education majors, and both prospective and returning Blue Stars at:

  • Minnesota State University (Mankato, MN)
  • Eden Prairie High School (MN)
  • University of Minnesota-Duluth
  • Milford High School (Milford, Ohio)
  • Miami University of Ohio (Oxford, Ohio)
  • Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN)
  • Marian University (Indianapolis, IN)
  • Youngstown State University (Youngstown, OH)
  • University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY)

The tour concluded with a three-day recruiting and information booth for the Blue Stars at the Bands of America Grand National Championships, held in Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis,  This journey has brought me into contact with so many great friends, colleagues, industry representatives, and performers.  Thank you to the Blue Stars for making this possible, as they are the drum and bugle corps who are seriously partnering with school music educators throughout the country. #FCO