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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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?

Beginning Percussionists: Every Teacher’s Dilemma

My district has been doing a lot of experimenting in recent years with beginning percussion. The junior high and high school teachers had been frustrated with being fed lots of drummers from the elementaries. Few of these students had experience with pitched percussion like marimba or even timpani, and all of whom wanted to play snare.

Two or three years ago, we began experimenting at selected schools with having all beginning percussionists learning to play orchestra bells until Christmas. Then they had the option of switching to snare or sticking (ha!) with bells. Last year, that system was expanded to all the elementary schools. We used a practice pad/bell kit like this one.

In terms of numbers, this cut my beginning percussion sections way down, but perhaps too far down. Some students may have been turned off by the bells and decided not to join the music program, some chose a different instrument instead, and some took up the percussion challenge. Among those who started percussion, some have been successful and some have not.

Since I am in year two or three of this program, I am feeling the effects of having very few good advanced percussionists. On one hand, the memory of 13 mischievous elementary drummers standing in the back of the room is still fresh in my mind. On the other hand, at one of my schools, I had no advanced percussionists and had to recruit some of my advanced string players to play percussion in band.

So the purpose in writing about all this is to ask your input on how you handle beginning percussion in your schools. Do you have limits on how many percussionists you will start? Or limits for any instrument? Do you teach bells in addition to snare? Please chime in here (pun intended!) and share your experiences.