Monday, January 18, 2016
IN THIS ISSUE:
Editor's Note: Check out this beautifully written article by Bethany Harper, daughter of Fayetteville Director of Bands Barry Harper. We would like to thank Bethany for giving us permission to redistribute this article.
And no, my dad didn't tell me to write this.
Additional Editor's Note #1: to continue reading this article, click here.
A new calendar year, a new semester...and a new opportunity for expanding your students' musical horizons. The spring semester is always a favorite 'season' for me because after taking time to build a sound concept within the band through the first semester, we get to read--and read a lot. So, how does your band plan, rehearse, and perform throughout the festival season? It starts with you, and your partner is the literature you choose.
The old adage (thanks, Dee Lewis!) goes "if your band can't sight-read it, don't take it to festival." The message I take from this is "read--and read AS MUCH as you can" to discover your band's hidden strengths and "areas to improve." Remember, this benefits your musical growth as well. If you are in your first three or four years of teaching, you may still be leaning on your principal instrument as a primary factor in selecting music--either to assume that since you can play it, your kids can achieve that level, or to assume that since you can't easily read it, your kids can't succeed with it. (Take it from a tuba player who was overwhelmed by a lot of upper woodwind parts early on in his career.) You don't have to read the whole piece, and if it sits in the back of the folder for a few weeks, so much the better! Your group might return to it and find out just how much progress they've made.
In my experiences as an adjudicator in Missouri, selection of literature has probably played more into my evaluative processes than anything else--not because I have a set list of music that bands should play, but because of the 'fit' that each band has either achieved or has had forced on them. More often than not, the problem is caused by one of two factors: the director has chosen a piece above the technical capabilities of the band, or the piece is incomplete due to a significant lack of parts represented. I can't blame either of these problems on the students, but they are the ones who take the brunt of the comments when tone, balance and blend suffer.
My philosophy for my own band is "do less if you can do it better." Mind you, I am NOT settling for poor technique, bad tone, or intonation by programming a half-grade or grade less than what the kids could reasonably perform with a good effort. The trade (and I think it's a good one) is that I now have time to work on what a band is really all about--tone, blend, balance, intonation...and yes, we use our sight-reading procedures for nearly every piece. I have never awarded a band a lesser rating because I felt that they should play more challenging music; however, it's painfully obvious when the students either don't have the needed technique or the band hasn't had the time to prepare.
I have overprogrammed, especially as a beginning director...but I have also walked that tightrope of reading a lot of simpler pieces and then having no time in the calendar to move on to more challenging material before festival time. I still believe that you are better off playing back a grade with a better sound than a grade ahead with no hope of bringing a true band sound to the stage--and, having the bonus of a band that's ready to tackle the sight-reading evaluation.
Practical hints: Examine the sight-reading criteria for your class, and try to keep your selections within that particular instrumentation and meter/key/rhythmic specifications. For smaller bands with limited bass lines, look for the octave doubling in euphonium and (if necessary) trombone. (I'm not a big fan of taking the second octave out of their standard roles, but you have to remind the kids that the band is on the way to something better.) State workshop performances and reading clinics are great resources, but a practical resource for you in the long term is to hear groups at festival. Whenever possible, I take my students early to hear as many bands as they can before they suit up, warm up, and strike up their own performance. (It's also a great listening activity. I encourage them to look at the setup of other bands, listen for hot spots on the stage, observe concert etiquette and--who knows?--they might hear a piece that they really like and suggest it for our group's spring concert or next year's festival.)
The key is balance. Read as much as you can to build your students' chops (and yours!), and discover literature that matches your students' ability and practical room for growth. If they can wrap their heads, hands and hearts around the music you've put in front of them (and it takes all three), everyone wins. Your festival adjudicators want to hear 1) quality literature 2)that fits your group and 3) allows the students to demonstrate a cohesive band sound. Your kids will have a lot better chance of playing "over their heads" if the music isn't.
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