Here We Go a Caroling

I recently invited a few select BandLand middle schoolers to participate in a special ensemble that would play Christmas carols at the local nursing homes in December.  I made it clear that we would need to do all of our extra rehearsing after school.  But what I originally envisioned as a small group of half a dozen students has quickly blossomed to more than 25.  I had thought I would limit the size so we could focus on quality, but in the end I decided that I would take advantage of this opportunity to get students playing their instruments.  After all, they are only improving when they are playing.  So the more they play the better.  Besides, they know by now that quality is not an option.

One student, when asked if he would like to participate in this caroling group, asked if I was going to have him sing.

“Good Heavens, no,” I replied, “Those old folks over there have it tough enough.  We are supposed to be cheering them up!”

I know it is only the the first week of October, but we are already working on music for our Christmas concert.  And I am pleased to report that both bands – Cadet and Concert – seem to be moving along rather quickly, so much so that we may eventually take a break from Christmas music and work on some pieces for later in the year.

My students must be getting the hang of this music reading thing.  What a difference it makes when they begin to comprehend the meaning of a key signature; they are then able to look ahead in their new music and mark notes they are likely to miss.  This is why we work so hard on the most common scales used in middle school music:  Concert Bb, Eb, F, Ab, and C, and also the chromatic scale.  The first thing I have them do with a new piece of music is mark notes.  Of course, I am constantly teaching and re-teaching what notes each instrument has to watch out for.  For instance, in Eb concert, the flutes will need to mark Ab; clarinets – Bb; alto/bari saxes – F natural, and so on.  (I know this is tedious shop talk, but I thought a few of my band friends might find it interesting… or not, since they already know all this).

The point is:  there is value in systematically teaching this sort of information.  Early in my teaching career I did not understand the importance or significance of these skills.  As a result, my bands played a lot of wrong notes.  Our first year at contest both of my bands got Silver awards.  One of the categories the judges unanimously agreed needed work was intonation.  So I made it a goal to teach my students how to play in tune only to realize that our problems were much more basic than that.  As a new teacher I hadn’t been listening closely enough to all the different instrumental voices in the band.  I could hear the melody, and maybe the bass line, but I wasn’t paying attention to the inside parts.  Too many students were playing wrong notes for us to even begin playing in tune.  It only takes one wrong note to ruin the efforts of the rest of the band.

So I made it my mission to teach my students – and I mean all my students – how to read the notes in the music.  I even made a big banner to hang on the wall that read, “You Can’t Play Wrong Notes In Tune.”  I know this sounds really obvious, even to non-music people, but you would be amazed how difficult all this can be to accomplish.  There are a lot of ways for students to play along and sort of “get it right” without really understanding what they are doing.  In reality they are just following their neighbors, sometimes not even playing the parts they don’t understand.  It takes a great deal of persistence on the director’s part to ensure that every player understands the notes on the page.  Here is my system in a nutshell:

1.  I require that all students have a pencil every day.

2.  I require that all students know the scales listed above.  Of course, beginners will learn key signatures before they learn scales, but they can learn what the key signature is telling them to do.  For the Concert Band students, though, knowing what scale the key signature represents makes the job a lot faster and easier.

3.  I require that all students write everything in their own music even if they are sharing a stand and music with someone else.  For instance, if a clarinet player misses a Bb, all clarinets are to mark it in their own music.  If they don’t mark it and then they miss it sometime later, they lose participation points because they didn’t do everything they could to get it right.  In other words, they did not make their best effort, and in BandLand that is not acceptable.

4.  Repeat.  Keep at it.  Do it again the next day.  You get the idea.  Eventually it will pay off.

Easy, right?  And I do all of this while teaching rhythm counting, and technique, and breath support, tone quality, balance, dynamics, and everything else it takes to make a band sound good.  Challenging?  Yes.  Impossible?  No.  Worth it?  Absolutely.  Just wait until you hear those Christmas carols.

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