Guest Article: How to Fail at Band in 3 Easy Steps!

By Dr. Russell Gavin, Associate Professor of Instrumental Music Education at Baylor University.

1) Program the Wrong Music

If you want to ensure your students will come up short, all you have to do is program poorly. Remember that great music is only great when performed at an appropriate level of achievement for the ensemble. Great music performed poorly is often transformed into terrible music for both the musician and the listener. We often aspire to share the pieces that impacted our lives with those students sitting in front of us; however, we forget the fact that we played that piece on an All-State Concert or sitting in an ensemble with an elite membership and performance success. If playing a composer’s music badly actually made them roll over in their grave, we would hear a steady hum coming from the final resting places of Holst and Grainger!

Deciding what music is wrong or right for your ensemble requires an intense awareness of where the ensemble is on the day you hand the music out. Try new pieces, but have the courage to recognize your ensemble may not be ready for a particular work. Pick works that will enable you to continue solidifying the fundamental skills your musicians require, while simultaneously exposing them to rich melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic experiences. The number one way I have found to discover these kinds of pieces? Ask people you respect what they would play. Or, potentially more important, run your ideas by them and ask them what the potential pitfalls in your ideas are.

2) Assume Students Will Automatically Practice

“Students should practice!” That sentence belongs in the same category as “I should exercise” and, “I should really manage my finances in a way that provides a three to six-month financial cushion.” If knowing what we should do actually resulted in us doing things, the world would be a very different place. So what are you doing to motivate your students to practice regularly? I don’t have enough space to type the ways I have seen people work to provide this motivation, but I can say that the best programs instill practice habits early on. The habit strength that leads your consistently thinner friend to pick a salad when you are getting the buffalo wings was often cultivated many years ago. Similarly, the programs that have dozens of kids making all-state every year typically inspire the practice habit in their beginners more effectively than in other programs. Practice logs, playing tests, recorded evaluations, evil glares of disappointment – there are so many options I see people using in an attempt to motivate their students’ practice. Ultimately, you must experiment and figure out what actually works for your students. Do something. If that fails, do something else. But remember that your students’ failure to practice is ultimately your failure to motivate them to practice.

3) Be a Bad Colleague

The quickest path to a career laden with underachievement and frustration can be found in treating your colleagues badly. Go ahead and assume that every adult you interact with is a colleague. We work in a profession in which we rely on other human beings regularly. Whether we are talking about your bookkeepers, custodians, other music teachers, or administrators, it doesn’t really matter. Work to treat the people around you well at all times. The most common mistake I see band directors making with the people around them is being self-centered. You care about your band more than every other person on the planet, but it is a mistake to expect other people to care similarly. Work to figure out what your colleagues care about, then put effort into demonstrating that you care about their needs. Make sure they know that you are aware of the world around you, and avoid any actions that insinuate you feel your program is more important than the other things going on at the school. The best programs I see employ highly collaborative people, and we should all aspire to be considered “easy to work with.”

In closing, I share these thoughts from a place of reflection. In Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling On Happiness, he states that we can achieve satisfaction, and avoid misery, by paying attention to people who have traveled the path on which we are just starting. I have personally made all of the above mistakes multiple times. It is my hope that some of you might avoid similar errors in your own career by reading about my failures. Happy banding!

Guest Article: Give Your Boosters a Boost!

Band Boosters are a vital part of many band programs. The vast amount of our band activities are funded by booster fees and fundraising, and our many events and travel opportunities are supported by parent volunteers. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more common for boosters to be disbanded for various reasons, including the misuse of funds or tension between the director and parents. As it is getting close to time for most organizations to elect new officers, here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare for next year.

Choosing Your Officers

Your organization should have your nomination and election process clearly defined in their bylaws or constitution. But as director, it’s important that you are involved in getting the parents you need in office. By talking to parents before nominations and letting them know you think they would be good in a position, it lets them know that you trust them and value their opinion. You want to find parents who are friendly, organized, and trustworthy. They should be good at communication and delegation. The officers shouldn’t carry the organization on their backs; they should be helping enlist all parents’ involvement in the various activities throughout the year.

Clearly Define Booster Roles

When people are given leadership positions, their natural instinct is to take authority and start making changes. They want others to set a new standard and improve on the past. Unfortunately, boosters often, while trying to help, will overstep and try to make decisions and be involved in areas that solely are at the director’s discretion. Make sure you meet with your officers early and lay out their responsibilities and limitations. While they are a separate organization with their own bylaws, constitution, and regulations, the director is ultimately the “CEO.” You should be aware of all decisions being made and any meetings that occur.

Always Know Where The Money Is

Depending on your school, your booster account may fall under the eye of the school bookkeeper or it may be an outside account. Either way, you need to make sure you know the balance of the account and who can issue checks. If money goes missing, it ultimately falls back on you as director. This is another reason to choose your officers carefully. If you can pass a budget at the beginning of the year, go ahead and set up approved purchases so the parents know what will be coming out and what they need to deposit. This helps the treasurer plan fundraisers and purchases for the year. But again, don’t leave it in their hands and never look at it again. Stay involved. The quickest way to get fired is over money issues.

Give and Take

Part of keeping a building and maintain a relationship is good communication. If boosters are spending their time and energy supporting the program, they want to feel like they have a say in some decisions. While many of those decisions have to be made by the director, if there are choices in which you can involve your boosters, go for it! This goes a long way in proving that you value their opinions and the work they put into your program. Maybe it’s helping design the logo for your t-shirts or choosing the menu for the end-of-the-year banquet. Anything they can contribute that will take things off your plate and encourage them to serve more will serve your relationship with the boosters well.

Keep Administration Involved

When you think you may be approaching a problem with a booster, go ahead and give your administration a heads up. No one, especially a principal, likes to be surprised by an issue of which they were previously unaware. Parents have the right to go to the principal if they have a complaint about a teacher. If you want your administration to have your back, make sure they know what’s going on before someone else approaches them. Many times they can give you advice on how to handle it so that the parents never make it to their office.

Age vs. Experience

There are various ways that boosters can employ when trying to influence your decisions. Many boosters were involved in band when they were in high school and that is why their children are today. It is also common, if you are a new director, that you boosters are older than you. If you don’t have kids yourself, this is yet another area where the parents believe they “outrank” you in experience. It’s difficult to define, but there is narrow but definite a line between taking advice and taking charge. Your boosters can help you plan activities by asking questions from a parent’s view you may not have thought of yet. Their input in invaluable. But on the other side of the line is making sure you don’t let them run over you and make decisions they shouldn’t be making. You are the one with the degree and the job title. It’s a difficult conversation, but sometimes you have to remind parents of this. Make sure they know you value their involvement, but that ultimately all decisions are up to you.

It’s About The Kids

At the end of the day, when the concession stand has been cleared and the uniforms have been cleaned, it’s vital to remember that it’s all about the kids. You are a teacher, your boosters are parents, and your students are kids. They are the center of all of your goals and decisions. Everything you do should help to educate them, make them better musicians, and make them better people. A great relationship and organizational plan with your boosters can go a long way towards optimizing their music education experience.

Guest Article: A Rehearsal Taxonomy for Observing Ensemble Conductors

Do you have an increasing number of observations in your classrooms by administrators and non-music colleagues?  If so, you have likely found that these professionals, though trained educators, are not quite sure what to look for in a music educator’s rehearsal technique.  The observation and assessment tools they use are often ill-suited to determine the quality of teaching in your rehearsal. Therefore, our department created a written taxonomy to assist in evaluating music educators.  This can be of tremendous benefit to your administrators who are observing your classroom teaching.  Even more crucially, it is an excellent tool for non-musicians tasked with evaluating and eventually hiring new music educators at a given school.

The idea of this musical Rehearsal Taxonomy was based on Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Bloom’s Taxonomy is an effective way to prioritize the kind of learning experiences students are having in the classroom.  Our department developed a similar instrument to help observers in our classrooms evaluate the level of musicianship that is being taught.   Student learning experiences are arranged from basic skill “rote” teaching to high-level activities that lead students to have emotional, musical, and aesthetic experiences.

Granted, not every rehearsal can be taught the same way, and most rehearsals will typically have activities that function at several levels of the taxonomy.  There are days in which we just need to chase notes and rhythms.  But even then, we should encourage as much of an aesthetic approach to musicianship as possible.

Rehearsal Taxonomy for Ensemble Conductors

All of these rehearsal activities are critical to the ensemble experience.  But, high-level conductors invest much more effort at the top of the chart than basic-level conductors.

rehearsal_taxonomy_scott_rabehl

Separate from the Taxonomy, but Vital to Being an Outstanding Conductor

A high level conductor must demonstrate that they believe the group can be wonderful, a belief that the kids can be musical and in tune.  Leaders get what they tolerate or accept.  If the group is already wonderful, do they have a vision of a performance level that is even higher?

In addition, feeling “tone” or “atmosphere” in the room is truly important.  There are a lot of different ways to say, “You didn’t do that right.  Let’s try it again this way.”  Some of them build up the group.  Some of them tear the group down.  A performing ensemble must be a happy community! Otherwise, who would choose to participate?

I hope this observation guideline, or some modification of it, can be a useful tool for you, your colleagues, and your administrators.  Not only can you help your observations from non-music-educator administrators and peers be more fair and useful, but you can also assist your school and district making better hiring decisions.  Finally, self-examination of your rehearsal methods, viewed through the lens of these guidelines,  may assist you as you grow and develop as an educator and conductor.

Guest Article: A Plea for Methods Classes

Instrumental “Methods” classes are among the most important, if not the most important classes taken by a music education major studying to be a band director.  It is in these classes that the band-director-in-training is supposed to learn how to teach each of the instruments.  This knowledge is critical to the future director’s success when he/she begins working with their band. While there are so many things to learn about each instrument that we can’t list them all here, there are four things that a student must take away from a methods class:

1) Form a Correct Embouchure

A good embouchure is fundamental to good tone production and intonation.  This is the very first thing a band student should be taught and taught correctly.   

2) Produce a Characteristic Sound

This closely follows my first point above.  There is no substitute for a beautiful characteristic tone.      

3) Knowledge of Basic Fingerings

While fingering charts are available and are useful for trill and other unusual fingerings, the director can waste a tremendous amount of rehearsal time looking up fingerings if he/she doesn’t know them.

4) Knowledge of Intonation Deficiencies of the Instrument

It is impossible to manufacture instruments that play perfectly in tune.  While many notes on any given instrument are in tune, others are not.  Learning which notes these are, and what to do about them, is essential to teaching a band to play in tune.  This knowledge seems often to be missing, even with some experienced directors.

A Plea for More Instrumental Methods Instruction

A serious problem with the current model for methods classes is the amount of (or lack of) importance they seem receive in the instrumental music education curriculum.  Recently, in looking through the curriculum model of a college with which I’m familiar, I found that within a 128-hour curriculum, instrumental music education students take only one two-hour brass methods class, one two-hour woodwind methods class, and a single one-hour percussion methods class.  That’s ridiculous!  How could a person possibly learn and be able to do the four things listed above for every woodwind or every brass instrument in a one-semester, two-hour class?  It’s simply not possible!  And why would the single course in which the students are supposed to learn about the multiplicity of percussion instruments receive only one hour credit?  In my opinion, this simply makes no sense.

I’m afraid that unless more emphasis is placed on learning to teach the instruments, and unless more time is devoted to this important part of a future band director’s training, new directors entering the profession will be poorly prepared to do their job.  Let’s put more time and energy back into these instrumental methods courses!

Guest Article: Fundamentals vs Performance – We Can Have Both!

This time of year, when we’re all preparing our bands to play a handful of pieces for concert adjudication, I am reminded of a new favorite mantra, “a good sounding band is a good sounding band.” It’s easy to get caught up in performance preparation, tough schedules, lack of rehearsal time, and other things that can stand in the way of helping students create wonderful music and a polished performance. But if we just “chase notes” and neglect the fundamental skills for our ensembles, our performances will lack the very polish we seek and we will not have a good sounding band! Below are a few ways that I have found to integrate fundamental musicianship skills into rehearsals, while still preparing for the next concert or festival.

Sound Quality/ Tuning/ Balance

While students are playing all of the notes on the page in front of them, their brain activity often becomes singularly devoted to producing those notes as individuals rather than listening to the sounds they are creating as part of an ensemble. Rather than working on these fundamentals separately, here is a way to work on those same notes while working fundamental ensemble skills.

Starting with the first measure of a section or phrase and ask students to “hold a whole note on first note you play in measure 1, rest for 4 counts, then repeat.” During the 4-count rest ask directed listening questions and offer suggestions to the ensemble. These may include things like:

  • “Can you hear the tubas while you play?”
  • “Is this a major or minor chord?”
  • “Which section is the loudest?”
  • “Which section has the best sound right now?”
  • “More air!”
  • “Just the brass/woodwinds this next time.”

Once you are satisfied with what you are hearing, use the 4-count rest to direct students to play the next measure, and repeat this process until you finish the segment or phrase. To bridge back to playing the full piece take out the rests and play the new “chorale” you just created while directing students to maintain the level of performance they created during the exercise. Conduct dynamics and shape the line. It’s great fun for you, and you’ll be making connections between the conductor and the ensemble! Win-win!

Scales for EVERYONE!

If the woodwinds have a technical run or passage, ask them what key it is in. It is often in a different key than the key signature! Ask the entire band to play that scale. My favorite process for working on a scale with a full band is:

  • Entire band recites scale in concert pitch (Db, Eb, F, Gb, etc)
  • Each instrument says their scale, while performing fingerings, as the director picks a section to recite with “French Horns I’m with you – (Ab, Bb, C, Db, etc)
  • Perform scale.
    Then ask the students to write in above the technical passage “Db Major” so they know the vocabulary they are using in that spot. Now all the students have shared in the learning that technical passage requires. The next time everyone encounters a difficult scale passage in that key, they’ll be better prepared to identify and meet that challenge.

Remington Long Tone Exercise – Not Just for Warm-ups!

If there is a section of music where your brass keeps missing larger leaps in their music and/or your woodwinds tend to sound louder and out of balance in the upper register taking a Remington “time out” can be very helpful. Ask students to start on a comfortable pitch: F, Bb, tonal center, etc. and proceed down or up in half steps or up the scale of the piece (more scales!)

One example I use a lot with my high school band is to start on the concert Bb that would be the top note of each instrument’s scale, play Bb, C, Bb, rest… Bb, D, Bb, rest… Eb, F, etc. Around Eb concert is when tone and volume usually start to change for the worse. Things to remind students of as they proceed:

  • Try to maintain the same volume and tone on the middle note
  • The larger the distance between notes the more focused the air should be
  • Maintain excellent posture with relaxed shoulders and neck, no tension

After working to create a good, balanced sound, have the ensemble re-approach the same section and try to apply the same air and sounds they just made in the exercise to the musical passage. Listen for how they transfer the fundamentals!

Difficult Rhythmic Passages

Start by giving the rhythm in question to the whole band. There are many ways to do this. A few ideas are:

  • Ask students whose part contains the rhythm to play and have others attempt to transcribe it with teacher writing it on the board.
  • Use technology – take picture of the rhythm and project it, use a document camera, etc.
  • Prepare a rhythm sheet with many or all the rhythms used in the piece

Try playing this rhythm in unison on concert F or Bb, the tonal center of the piece, or the first note of the measure. Even students who have different musical lines can use the first note of each measure to play a rhythmic ostinato that is written on the board while the section in question plays their part.

Final Thoughts

You can conduct during any of these exercises or turn on a metronome as well. I have taken to using a mechanical wind up metronome on my stand or near me on the podium. The whole band can hear the metronome during the rests then they have to maintain an internal pulse while playing and watching the conductor (who can still hear the metronome to maintain a consistent pulse).

Much like chopping up extra vegetables into the pasta sauce that my kids eat to make it healthier, I hope some of these ideas help your students not only improve the pieces you’re working on but help them to “get better at getting better” and become healthier musicians.