Can I tell you about one of my favorite concerts of the year? It’s our first concert with beginners. Why? Because it’s so much fun for the kids, parents, and directors! I can’t remember whether the director I was working with at the time, Jared Brown, or I, had read an article from NAfME (MENC at the time) that stated that band students who performed a concert within the first 6 weeks of beginning band were more likely to stick with band for the long term. We talked about it and thought, “Let’s give it a try!”
How do you do a concert with students who have only had instruments for six weeks you ask? It’s actually easy. You invite their parents to a concert, and, depending on your space, have one or both parental units sit next to their student. The first year we did this we had a relatively small class and hosted the concert in the band hall with both parents sitting with the student. We packed the room and it was tight. However, the parents really got to experience class in the true setting. Since then I have held this concert in both a gym and a cafeteria. Just give yourself room for a set up that is double or triple your norm.
Once you have everyone settled, it’s time to start the concert. We literally hold a day of class in abbreviated form. We start with students performing on their mouthpieces, breathing exercises. Then we go through our long tone and lip slur routine, review the first five notes and go into the book. During this time my colleague and I give students feedback, as well as use the metronome and Harmony Director just as we do each day in class. Doing the concert this way allows us to “educate” our parents about how students should be practicing, what they should be practicing and why they do the various exercises.
We also talk to our parents about what their student being part of the band family means. In our program, family means meals together before concerts, weekly grade checks, a safe haven for their student and directors who are invested in their child for the three years. We are a Title One community with about 1,000 students on campus grades 6-8, with many of our parents working multiple jobs. Knowing that their student is involved with a program that is watching out for them both academically and socially throughout their time on campus is a comfort to our parents.
At the end of the concert comes the best part! Students teach their parents how to make a sound on their instrument, how to hold the instrument, and even how to play a note or two. The students are so excited to be able to teach their parents something that they don’t know. We also invite our teachers and older band students to the concert as well to be “parents.” There is much laughter and a whole lot of noise! This year I discovered that an 8th grade tuba player has an amazing clarinet sound when he sat in with one of our beginners!
This concert only lasts for about 25 minutes, however, it has a massive positive impact on how parents perceive the band program and its benefits for their students. The students have a very positive first performance and are excited about concerts from that point forward. It’s a win and anyone who hasn’t tried it should consider doing so!
Follow up article:
After I shared this article with a band director friend, he had many excellent questions. As we talked through his questions a second article with the details seemed to develop. Here’s a list of things that I’ve learned and solutions we discussed.
Meals before the concert
This was the first thing we discussed. For my campus, this meal is done as a way to keep the students busy and supervised before a concert. In addition, most of my parents would struggle to get home from work in San Antonio traffic, pick up their student and make it back to campus in time for the concert. So we keep them at school and the parents join us at concert time without the trip home. We provide hot dogs, buns, and condiments. We then divide up the various sections to bring in chips, desserts, drinks, and paper goods to finish out the meal. A side benefit to doing this is that these meals become an amazing opportunity to build community among the students.
For my band director friend, he saw the meal as an opportunity to do a small fundraiser by selling box dinners. That works for his clientele and is still a win for building community. Do what works for your students and families!
Student sound early in the year
He also expressed concern about what students sound like that early in the year and my response was, “embrace it!” Beginners at this point are pretty raucous and this will not be a refined product, it is essentially a day of class. Don’t stress about that. Parents, hopefully, are hearing it at home as well. Instead, educate your parents about the development of an instrumentalist and why they sound like that now vs. what they will sound like at the winter concert or spring concert. It reassures parents that what they’re hearing at home will get better! Approach the sound with humor and honesty.
What do the kids wear?
My school wears uniforms of polos and uniform pants. As a result, our concert uniform is either their school uniform or their uniform pants and a band T-shirt. His students also wear uniforms that include a concert polo. A previous school I taught in didn’t have a school uniform, but our middle school concert uniform was khaki pants and a white shirt. We kept extra pants and shirts on hands for our students who absolutely couldn’t get the uniform.
Documents and handouts at concerts
My friend asked if I had any documents that I hand out at the concert that have advocacy information. I don’t. I find that much of that material goes unread. Instead, I’m planning to add a slideshow before the concert with bullets of information thrown into a power point with pictures of their students from the first six weeks of classes. They will be watching the powerpoint looking for their students and get the information in spite of themselves!
Another question I received was, “How do you deal with divorced parents who hate each other?” This issue seems to resolve itself even with those parents. We keep the concert informal, so parents can switch halfway through if they can’t stand to even sit on either side of their student. I’ve seen them do it! More often they simply ask if they can both sit with the student even if, for most students, we only have one parent sit with their child. Be flexible for students so that they and their parents have a positive experience and love your program!
Parents who can’t or don’t come
We followed that up with a discussion about students who have parents that don’t come to concerts or cannot come because of work commitments. I solved this issue in two ways. First, I put out an e-mail to our teaching staff and ask for “foster” parents. We always have a good response to that request. I would rather have extra parents, so I also invite our older band students to attend the concert and sit in as parents if needed. Between the two groups, we are able to ensure that no student is alone for this experience. What about germs? We provide alcohol wipes to all so that they can wipe down mouthpieces as needed. Some parents don’t care, but being ready to battle germs is always a win!
When it’s all said and done, we each teach a different clientele and we must adapt to the community in which we teach. I’ve taught in Title One schools, both rural and now urban, for most of my career so my approach reflects that client. I now teach in a massive school district on the outskirts of San Antonio. Things that would have been easy in my rural community jobs, like having high school students perform as a closer at this concert, have many logistical pieces that must be weighed against the outcome. Decide what kind of outcome you want from the concert and then tailor it to achieve those results. You won’t regret it!
Danika White is currently the band director at Rayburn MS in Northside ISD in San Antonio. She spent the first seventeen years of her teaching career in Missouri where her bands received numerous I ratings at State Contest, her solo and ensemble students were very successful at both the district and state level, and she had All-State Band members on flute, clarinet, and French Horn. Her marching bands were honored to represent Missouri at the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C. twice in five years. Ms. White holds degrees from Central Methodist University and the University of Arkansas.
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