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!

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!

Cat in the Window

A clinician once made an analogy about music using the example of a cat sitting in a window. The cat doesn’t see the details of the cars driving by; he only sees broad impressions.

Cat in a WindowThe same is often true of our students. I often wonder what students’ responses would be if you were to ask them what they learned in class today. Did they actually remember anything? Or were they distracted by the actions of other students?

How can we make our lessons more interesting and memorable than whatever distractions pull at our students? What can we do differently to hold the attention of our cats?

I also wonder what audiences remember about performances. What do the students in the audience remember? The teachers and staff? The parents? What broad impressions do those people have of our music programs?

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.

SmartMusic in Public Schools

This afternoon I had the good fortune to enjoy a workshop about SmartMusic presented by Tom Carruth. In a nutshell, SmartMusic is a tool to help students as they practice music, and a tool to help teachers objectively assess students’ playing. (I’ll refrain from turning this post into a commercial about all the features and benefits. If you’re interested in knowing more about the program, click here.)

I am curious to hear from those of you who may use SmartMusic with your students. Have you been pleased with it? Disappointed? Somewhere in between?

If you use it, how heavily do you rely on it for grading? Do you require all students to use it, or is it optional?

Here are a few of my initial thoughts and observations. Those of who who know the program, please tell me if you agree or not.

– The program is incredibly well designed. It’s obvious this is not a first draft of the program. I think Tom said they’re on version 11 now, so most of the major bugs are gone, and the bells & whistles are getting really cool.

– There’s a ton of music already loaded into the system. It has virutally every popular method book and a ton of ensemble music ready to be used. For example, my students who use Essential Elements 2000 would have a very easy time practicing the music we learn at school with SmartMusic.

– Students can see the results of their assessment and get instant feedback on what they need to improve, at least in terms of playing right notes and rhythms.

– Since the nature of the program is very computer-centered, it requires students to have access to a computer. I teach in a primarily low-income district where most homes do not have a computer. It would be totally unreasonable to mandate that my students use the program. And since I teach primarily elementary, some students may lack the basic computer skills to do the work. In short, the whole element of using a computer could be an obstacle.

– The program is computer-centered, which might attract some students while discouraging others. Some students might be inclined to think, “Hey! I get to play my instrument AND use my computer at the same time! Cool!” while others might think, “If there’s anything worse than having to sit inside with a computer, it’s having to use a computer and practice my dumb instrument.” 

– Students are required to enter an email address in order to enroll and log in. Some of the teachers at the workshop mentioned that some of their students do not have email addresses because they are not allowed to use the internet. (I realize that anyone can get free email accounts, but that’s not the issue.) Has the internet/computer usage issue been an obstacle for anyone?

The Make-Ahead Private Lesson

One dilemma private music teachers face is how to handle make-up lessons. Should you charge for missed lessons? How much advance notice should be required for a lesson cancellation? I don’t have any brilliant new ideas with those issues, but here’s one idea which has worked well for me: The Make-Ahead Lesson.

The make-ahead lesson is basically using any available time slots in your teaching schedule to give students an opportunity to take one or two additional lessons prior to their need for a make-up lesson. Think of it as a make-up lesson in advance.

Currently I have an open hour right in the middle of one of my lesson days. Sometimes the break is nice; I’ve already taught a full day at school, and still have a few more private students yet to go. But honestly, if I’m going to be away from home and sitting in a studio, I’d rather be teaching.

So from time to time, for my faithful students, I invite them to come for an additional lesson during that time gap. Some students are more prone to needing make-up lessons, and I like getting those lessons done in advance. Sometimes it can be difficult to schedule a make-up lesson, so if you know of an opportunity ahead of time, why not take advantage of it?