Taming the Beast – The Middle School Non-Varsity Band:  Overcoming “Summer Brain” and “Summer Chops”

It’s the first week back to school and all of your non-varsity band kids are chomping at the bit to learn new music and play their instruments with the group.  Though, let’s be honest, most of our kids are coming off of summer break with a serious case of Summer Brain.

Let’s take a second and think about our students in the non-varsity band with regards to their musical and intellectual involvement over the summer: 

How many days or weeks could we estimate that they practiced their instrument?  What percentage of them attended a band camp?  We can hope and pray they have played their instrument for up to possibly three weeks, but that can only be a serious conclusion if we include a band camp that they have attended.  We would be THRILLED if up to 25% of our non-varsity attended a local camp, though the more realistic number is closer to 10%. 

 How many books have they read over the summer?  Does reading 140 characters at a time count?  #bookreadingstrengthensmusicreading

A frightening question: how many instances have your students used a pencil over the summer?  Think about it…  We are going to ask them to start marking objectives and notate on their music from our first rehearsal and the act of using a pencil will seem like a foreign concept!

Okay, we are painting a rough picture of what we expect to see in our non-varsity band, but we must admit that these kids are on a different level than our most advanced students. 

Jumpstart the Brain & Reinforce Positive Habits

Note Naming Sheets:  sounds too elementary?  Can every one of your non-varsity band clarinets walk in on the first day and correctly name/finger their full range chromatic scale?  Take a moment and do an assessment of “what they know” on the first day by having your students fill out a note naming sheet.  If there is time have your students complete a second note-naming sheet at the end of the first week.  You might be surprised at the results!

Demand eye contact:  The skill of looking someone in the eye when communicating is being lost on our young kids.  Take the time at the beginning of the school year to scan the room and make sure every student is making eye contact with you before you start every exercise. Be patient, this will be a time-consuming task initially, but will pay off dividends when they catch on!

Posture and Pencil Checks:  If marking music and instrument posture are important to you then take the time to walk through the band set-up to check posture, instrument angles, hand position and pencils on music stands on a daily basis at the beginning of the year.  (Remember, most students summer sitting posture involves a couch and potato chips). 

Instrument Maintenance: Set a high standard of personal responsibility. Make sure the brass players have all their slides and valves in working order after summer break. Check that your reed players aren’t playing on the same reeds from the previous spring (gross!); you will probably literally need to remind them to open up new reeds, and then to take the reed off the mouthpiece at the end of class. Check flute cork placement as it may have shifted due to weather changes over the summer. If you want woodwinds to swab at the end of band class, make sure you give them plenty of time to do this so they aren’t anxious about being late to their next class.

Woodwind embouchure concerns: You’ll need to make sure embouchures, tongue placement and air speed is correct after the long summer. The easiest way to do this is by checking pitch on the small parts of the instrument, just as we taught in beginner class. Flute headjoint: A, Clarinet Mouthpiece and Barrel: F#, Alto  Sax Mouthpiece and Neck: G#, etc.

Brass Range Concerns:  Remind your brass students to not freak out if they have lost some range and endurance from the lack of summer practice.  After evaluating your brass section find a major scale that travels up to a partial on the edge of where they are comfortable.  Example: Eb Major (this gives us a starting point to work up to the F Major and beyond!)  Use this scale as the starting point of your scale pass-offs for the year or incorporate it into your daily drill for repetition.  The only way we will expand our range is if we spend time in those registers daily.

Practicing: We need to develop smarter practicing habits with our students. These are the students who didn’t develop the best practicing skills in beginner band so they need to be retaught.  If you use practice charts, consider revising the first practice chart of the year to also be a how-to practice guide. Click here for an example. Involve and inform the parents in the practicing process as much as possible for support at home. Here is a website with more information for parents: http://practicingguide.weebly.com/

Chris Meredith and Alicia DeSoto are in their 8th year together as the band directors at Shadow Ridge Middle School in Flower Mound, Texas. The Shadow Ridge Honor Winds performed at the 2012 Midwest Clinic, has been recognized as a National Winner in the Mark of Excellence Wind Band Honors contest in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 & 2015, and have placed 3rd (2013) and 5th (2015) at the TMEA CC Honor Band Contest. Meredith and DeSoto have presented multiple lectures and clinics throughout the country including the Midwest Clinic and at several universities. Both directors earned their undergraduate degrees from the University of North Texas and Masters degrees from Southern Methodist University.

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