Creating Musical Flexibility Through the Ensemble
Bands and orchestras are often repertoire machines – churning out a fixed collection of pieces year after year. Directors are judged by the pieces they select and how their ensembles perform at concerts and competitive festivals. Through all of this, rehearsals become desperate scrambles to the finish line – a process that, while it can be rewarding, leaves little room for creativity from the members of the ensemble. This system creates an overemphasis on reading and performing music, a fraction of our national standards. What can we do to fix this imbalance? How can we create an ensemble whose individual members think for themselves and compose music?
In 1996, I was hired as a band teacher for a “high need” district. There were literally zero kids in band at the time, which meant that I was given the opportunity to create my own vision for the music program. Without having to rely on the traditions of a district music program, I created a curriculum that focused on four things: musical discipline, technique, listening, and composing.
Starting with the sixth grade band, the oldest band members when I arrived, I grew my program one year at a time. In fact, it took me five years to have what most would consider a functioning band. Throughout it all, I was able to tailor my program to address all nine national music standards – including that elusive fourth standard, composition.
I found that, while my band was both growing in size and technical ability, I was still not satisfied with their overall musical progress. Bands often finish a year having played a dozen tunes, yet if you ask them to play “Over the Rainbow” (for example), you get a sea of blank stares. The same is true if you ask them to mentally change the key of a song.
As I thought more about this, I realized that the skills required to play by ear or to change keys are important for many musicians. If I ask the Dirty Dozen band to play, “Over the Rainbow,” in G – and as a waltz! – they would do it. Instantly. That was the musical experience I wanted to create for the students in my band. I needed to figure out how to get there.
It became clear that I needed to create experiences that would help my students to become more flexible musicians. That realization led me to focus on four specific skills:
1. Musical Discipline.
We all know we have kids who “float” through band. Playing the notes, showing up on time, and just being a good kid. But how would they respond if we expected them to be able to play a dozen songs like “Camptown Races” or “America, the Beautiful”? What if, when the flute player is out sick, we passed his flute part to the saxophone player and asked her to play it with the group? Lastly, what if we were working on Bach chorales with the choir and needed to transpose the band arrangements on the spot?
Put simply: I want my students to really know their instruments. I felt we needed to move from static technique, scale patterns, and rhythm exercises, to true musical fluency – demonstrated, in part, through an ability to play songs by ear. How fun and rewarding would our band or orchestra class be if you could simply call a tune and your students could play it? They could call their own pieces, too! This ability will undoubtedly help with their reading skills as well.
It was important to me that my students had some understanding as to what was happening both melodically and harmonically in the music we chose to rehearse and perform. Finding ways to move them beyond a mere “button pushing” experience and towards a brader conception of “musician” proved to be my biggest challenge. Why did Bach choose that note? Who is the alto voice here? Basses–can I have a I-V-I pattern over these four measures? Theory should not be a class with 14 kids in it. Our band and orchestra classes should be theory classes!
What if student composition became the primary function of your band or orchestra? What if the band was a lab for performing student arrangements and compositions. To help support this goal, I actively sought opportunities for my students to compose. For example, I had every HS student arrange the Star Spangled Banner for orchestra. The grand prize was their arrangement played by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra at their summer concerts.
How I did it:
Knowing that consistent repetition is the best way for students to learn, listening and ear training had to be a part of every rehearsal. I had a 45-minute period every day and a two hour rehearsal every week (alternating with jazz ensemble). This is a simplified list of what I did over a twenty-week period:
1. Play “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
2. Play the piece in four different keys.
3. Rotate through all 12 major keys.
4. Learn Bach the chorale, “Wachet Auf”.
5. Write the solfege into “Wachet Auf” using pencil.
6. Sing, learn, play all four parts (SATB) using solfege.
7. Rotate parts: Trombones play melody, flutes play bass, etc…
8. Start playing scale patterns through all 12 keys. Start with “Do-Re-Do” or “Do-Ti-Do”. As the students get more comfortable with neighbor tones, move to “Do-Re-Mi”, etc….
9. Ask the students to play “Wachet Auf” in F or C.
10. Pass out Level 1 song. Have students identify key and solfege. Play song. Pass parts to your left (clarinets to flutes, etc…). Play song, etc… Pass again.
We went to state MEA festival with the band that year. For our concert, in order to demonstrate the work we had been doing in the classroom, I had the audience choose individual cards for piece, key, and who would play melody/bass/counter. The choices were “Amazing Grace”, “Wachet Auf”, or “Over the Rainbow”. After asking the audience to set all of the musical parameters, I simply turned around and counted off the group. Everything went off without a hitch! After that, I turned around to the audience and said, “Now we will play it in G!” This was not just a neat trick; it was a great way to demonstrate the type of musical knowledge that my students had developed.
Additionally, while in class, my students loved played a game we called, “Switching Genres”. Basically, we would learn a tune like “Wachet Auf” – a traditional Bach chorale – and play it in the style of a waltz, reggae, salsa, or a swing tune. Of course, in order to successfully play this game, the students have to understand some basic concepts about every style. Their skills created a new space for musical play. Not only did we have a lot of fun, but they were engaged in some very powerful music-making.
Now, while it is tempting to think that this idea is revolutionary, you should remember that this is what most musicians have been able to do for forever. Until public school music teachers got in the habit of pumping out concerts and relying solely on printed music, musicians used to be able to play “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, switch keys, tempo, feel, genre, and whatever else the occasion required them to do.
It is important to remember that the group that performed at the concert was not an “elite” group (as defined through years of private lessons and a tradition of winning “Superior” ratings at contest). The seniors in this program were only the third group of seniors to ever graduate from the program. I bring this up to highlight the idea that any program is in a position to adopt some of the central tenants of an approach like this.
1. Track the tunes the students in your band can play. Are you teaching the American songbook? Are you teaching American folk songs? Can your band members play “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, “Over the Rainbow”, or “Guantanamera”? I am using this Form today to track what tunes my students play.
2. Do everything in all 12 keys. Learn a song a week and a key a week. Start with two keys, move to 4, etc…
3. Learn crazy tunes that use odd modes or styles and move them through the keys (The theme fo The Simpsons, The Theme from Jaws, Carol of the Bells, etc…).
4. Find games that work for your band. You could make a chart where you “race” to 50 tunes. Maybe a “Nextel Cup” where musicians get a certain amount of points for cycling challenging songs through all 12 keys.
5. Involve the community!! What songs are important to the community? What songs do they want passed down?
After committing to this system, you will be surprised at how much less time you are spending in rehearsal going over key signs, intonation, and listening skills. You will have built some serious musicians with serious ears and serious skills.
If we don’t do it, who will?
Music samples of this group: http://brandtschneider.blogspot.com/p/music-samples.html
Want more great music education content?
Keep in touch with Leading Notes by following us on social media or subscribing to our newsletter!