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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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.