Five Ideas for a Better Beginning Band Winter Concert

If you teach beginning band like I do, you know that preparing for the Winter Concert is a huge challenge. Here are a few ideas to make that first performance a little better.

Music Staff Christmas Tree1. Use piano accompaniment. Let’s face it: A unison rendition of Hot Cross Buns and Jingle Bells is pretty frightening. Having a piano accompanist who can fill out the harmonies will go a long way in adding color. Ever since I started using a pianist about 10 years ago, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. Hint: Decide on your metronome markings in advance and tell your accompanist. Also, bring in the accompanist at least once before the performance to get the students used to the idea.

2. Feature various instrument groups at the beginning of each song. For example, the clarinets might play Mary Had a Little Lamb alone (with piano) first, and then the rest of the ensemble joins them on the repeat. Hint: Feature your strongest section on your most difficult piece, and a weaker section on an easier piece. For me, that usually means the trombones get featured on Hot Cross Buns, and the clarinets get featured on Jingle Bells.

3. Allow a student to introduce the songs to the audience. You’ll want to select a student with a good speaking voice, not necessarily your best musician. Rehearse their speech with them. (By speech, I mean “Our first song is Hot Cross Buns. It will feature the trumpets.”)

4. Give parents a moment to take pictures while the students are on stage with their instruments. I didn’t start doing this until I had children of my own, and my wife took a gazillion photos of every move they made. Now I appreciate the fact that parents want to capture the moment.

5. Make sure there is at least one administrator and another teacher at the performance. If your concert features more than one ensemble, you need someone to supervise the students who aren’t performing. And if a more serious incident occurs during the performance – like an injury, a squabble among parents, a power outage, etc. – you’ll need an administrator to manage that issue while you lead your performers.

Any other bright ideas? Share them here!

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Teaching About Key Signatures

Hello, bloggers! I’m writing to ask for help and share my own little thoughts on how to teach students about key signatures.

"Three sharps! Ford Cars Go. F#, C#, G#. See?!?"

My school district has a long history of prioritizing elementary full orchestra. Playing in this setting requires students to quickly learn to play in new and unfamiliar key signatures, often using notes and fingerings not typically taught in beginning band or beginning strings.

Directing elementary full orchestras has forced me to improve my skills on teaching students how to read key signatures. I’m getting better at it, but so far, I’d still only give myself a B- in terms of being creative or explaining the concept in clear, consise terms that connect with 5th and 6th graders.

The best idea I’ve come up with so far is “Simon Says.” The key signature is Simon. Did Simon say to play F#s? Or Bbs? What did Simon say to the alto saxophones? What did Simon say to the clarinets and trumpets? The strings, flutes and low brass?

The key of C is a challenge for flutists and trombonists who are used to playing Bbs and Ebs. Since key signatures only use sharps and flats and not naturals, it’s a bit of an abstract concept for those players.

A colleague one taught me to teach the order of sharps as “Ford Cars Go Dead At Every Bump” (F C G D E A B). If a student sees 3 sharps in their key signature, they say “Ford Cars Go; F Sharp, C Charp, G Sharp.”

No brilliant thoughts yet on the order of flats. Any great ideas?

My Concert Band Repertoire, Spring 2009

Poor left hand technique!This Spring, I have purposefully programmed music that is easier than what I’ve chosen in the past. I’ve decided to err on the side of giving the students music which is more easily within their grasp instead of overwhelming them with difficult music. I still want to challenge them with new musical concepts, but not necessarily in the context of concert selections.

With that said, here’s what’s in my Concert Band’s folders:

Distant Journey by Paul Lavender. This is written at the Essential Elements Explorer Level, and correlates with page 11 of the method book. I’m drawn to easy music in minor keys, and this one fits both of those descriptions.

Intensity by Sean O’Loughlin. It’s labeled as “Very Easy Band,” although the ranges get pretty high. In my humble opinion, a written D for trumpet is not “very easy.” Nevertheless, the piece is well-written and rehearses easily.

Latin Fire by John Higgins. Essential Elements Performer Level, and correlates with page 24 of the method book. This is a good choice for young groups who are ready for a little challenge. It uses lots of the musical concepts from the later pages of the method book, including dotted-quarter/eighth rhythms, slurs, accidentals, accents, and dynamic changes.

Let’s Go Band  arranged by Andrew Balent. A perennial favorite. To give you and idea of how well-liked this piece is, I programmed it last year after hearing another school perform it. A colleague of mine heard my groups perform it and wanted to include it in her repertoire also. My students keep asking to play this one in rehearsals.

Pirates’ Cave by Mark Williams. Labeled as Grade ½, Very Easy, and correlates with page 13 of the Accent on Achievement method book. Similar in style to Distant Journey (and a million other pieces), this is in G minor and uses the only first seven notes typically taught in beginning band. My students ask for this one often.

Simple Gifts arranged by Jack Bullock. Belwin classifies this piece as “Very Beginning Band,” but the clarinet ranges make me disagree with that “very beginning” label. Coincidentally, Yo-Yo Ma and Itztak Perlman and company performed a John Williams arrangement of Simple Gifts at the President Obama’s inauguration ceremony. I plan to include this piece in my Spring Concerts, highlighting the fact that it was featured at the inauguration.

To read about music I’ve programmed in the past, click here or here.

Do you have any experience with the above music? Have you found a new gem for young bands? Share your thoughts!

High Points and Disappointments of my 2008 Winter Concerts

My Winter Concerts reached new highs and sunk to new lows this year. First, the high points:

For the first time, my advanced groups played at our local zoo’s Holiday Lights event. (Click here or here for info.) It is rare in my district for elementary school music groups to venture off campus, so this was a bit unusual. It was a treat for me to bring together my best students from my three schools and form an ad-hoc honor band of sorts. The students really enjoyed the event, and you could tell how proud the parents were of their students. Everyone is enthusiastic about doing it again next year.

Unfortunately, just a couple nights later one of my schools had what was probably the weakest concerts I’ve conducted in recent history. The beginners weren’t necessarily much worse than normal, but my advanced groups definitely performed below my hopes. We have been learning the same music as my other schools, so it’s not as through I made unreasonable music selections. And many of the students in the advanced ensembles are in the gifted program, so it’s not as though they’re incapable of playing those selections.

This situation is forcing me to reevaluate much of the way I approach teaching at this school. I’m going to have to take a deeper look at just about every aspect of teaching here, from classroom management to rhythm and technical studies, rehearsal techniques, and motivation. I’m likely blog more about this as the weeks go on.

Winter Concert “Fogged Out”

 Bakersfield fog“Winter Concert Cancelled Due to Intense Fog.” Does this sound like the headline from a bad Christmas movie or what? Well, that’s what happened for one of my schools this year. Here in Bakersfield, we regularly have 2-hour fog delays during the Winter months, and the concert happened to fall on one of those days.

Downtown School doesn’t have a stage, and the cafeteria is about a third of the size of a normal cafeteria, so having a big concert on campus just isn’t an option. For our school concerts, the whole student body gets on buses and drives about 3 miles to the district offices where there is an auditorium with a large stage.

Okay, so the concert wasn’t entirely cancelled, but we did have to make a last minute change of venue. Instead of having the field trip like we usually do, we put on three performances of the program in the dinky little cafeteria.

The highlight of the program was the Concert Band’s performance of The Night Before Christmas (arr. by James Swearingen) narrated by two of our local NBC news anchors. One of my trumpet students is their son (the two anchors are married), so they were a logical choice to narrate at the concert.

Concert Programming

Like many of you, I’m feeling the pressure of upcoming Winter Concerts. Can anyone out there relate?

I teach at three schools, each with beginning and intermediate level Band and Strings, so 4 ensembles per school multiplied by 3. Some of these groups have been doing well and are prepared to perform. Others, on the other hand, are still struggling just a few days before the proverbial curtain rises.

So now I’m faced with the decision about making last-minute changes to the selections some of these ensembles will perform. In the process of doing so, I can’t help but question whether I selected music that was too difficult, or if it was simply an issue of the students not rising to the occasion.

I’m curious how you make your final decisions on concert selections. Do you ever make changes two or three weeks before a performance? Have you had to bail out on a difficult piece and substitute a much easier one?

My Concert Band Repertoire, Fall 2008

I always enjoy seeing what music other band directors put into their ensemble’s folders. Here’s what I’ve got in the hopper this fall (in no particular order):

Bells, Bells, Bells/arr. John Edmonson. A nice Grade 1 Christmas medley which features The Ukrainian Bell Carol (Carol Of The Bells) and Jingle Bells. This one has required a little more effort in my bands as the piece has less repetition than the others.

The Might of Hercules/Mark Williams. Similar in character to his Centurion and March of the Cyborgs. Requires students to count through rests, and is a good next step in the process of teaching students rhythmic independence.

The Little Drummer Boy/arr. John O’Reilly. Nicely scored. Rehearses pretty easily. The low brass part is easy, but is also for the most part boring for talented players. I like arrangements like this which give all the winds (including low brass) a chance to play a melody line.

Refried Beans/Bruce Pearson & Barrie Gott. This title is from the collection “Standard of Excellence First Performance Plus.” Similar in character to Bruce Pearson’s other titles, Jamaican Holiday, Starfire March, and Rio Bravo. The students like that it’s a fun piece to play and easy to learn. It’s been a good piece for the beginning of the year to get the band’s momentum rolling again.

Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)/arr. Michael Sweeney. From the Essential Elements Performer Level series. Although the Essential Elements method book includes Banana Boat Song, this arrangement is a more thorough version of Harry Belafonte’s recording.

The Night Before Christmas/arr. James Swearingen. This medley uses a narrator reading the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Includes familiar Christmas carols Ding Dong! Merrily On High; Jingle Bells; Up On the Housetop; Jolly Old St. Nicholas and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I’ve asked one of the local NBC News anchors (whose son is one of my trumpet players) to read the narration in our Winter Concert.

How about you? What music do you have in your folders? What titles are the kids excited about this year?