As students move up in band programs, it is vital they continue to develop their technical skills and ability to read and perform music outside the common keys of Bb, Eb, and F. Many band programs have curricular goals that students learn and perform scales in all 12 keys. While this might be a common goal for a middle school band member, the prospect of having to master these scales might not seem like an enjoyable process for some students. How can directors enhance this process that benefits student growth and spark their interest in playing?
One strategy to explore using over the course of an entire year is to create a tune challenge. In addition to helping students grow more comfortable in their mastery of scales, it makes them apply their knowledge of key signatures in a meaningful way. Using short and familiar tunes that students may have encountered in their elementary general music experience and their beginning band method books, challenge students to play them in all 12 keys.
I would encourage directors to be sensitive in their selection of tunes. Using melodies that have chromatic pitches or movement might be confusing for some students trying to master a particular key. Through careful selection of melodies that specifically address a variety of rhythms or make use of meters like 3/4 and 6/8 can help students improve. The following list provides ideas for directors to introduce a tune challenge to their band.
- Start small: Most students have played “Hot cross buns” in their entry level method book. Their first experience was likely in Bb concert, and depending upon the book they may also have played it in the keys of Eb and F concert. Encourage students to play that tune using the first three notes in each of the 12 keys.
- Expand their range: If students can master all 12 keys using those first three notes, set the next challenge in front of them: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” With one major tonal skip and a range of major 6th, the melody moves in steps (most of which are descending).
- Expand their ear: Ask students to learn “Twinkle, Twinkle Black Hole” by transposing that melody into the relative minor in each key. Changing the tonal center of a folk tune is a useful way to sharpen their perception between major and minor tonalities.
- Get in the season(s): Directors can offer a choice of tunes to their students around the various holidays that are observed. With a choice of music that is personally meaningful to students, the end product can be a short musical greeting that students can share with friends and family. There are several holidays observed in December that can be utilized to create a choice list (e.g., the opening phrase to the hymn tune “Joy to the World” is a descending major scale). May is an opportune time for students to learn something patriotic like “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
- Celebrate with a song: It’s one thing to have some students sing “Happy Birthday” to a teacher, but it’s another thing to send a band student to another teacher’s classroom and serenade them with that same tune. Like the holiday challenge listed above, this challenge can become a skill that students can share with other family members and friends moving forward.
- The student’s choice: While not every popular music melody might translate well to the instrument, there are plenty of themes from television and movies that will. As programming may shift towards popular selections towards the end of the year, using certain popular or cinematic music themes can be an engaging activity and ensure all students learn some of the melodic material from a larger work.
- Don’t forget the school pride: A final challenge that could help students continue to grow over the summer as they leave the middle school is to learn either the melody to the high school fight song or Alma Mater. Although some chromaticism may be present (e.g., The Notre Dame Victory March), students who have mastered the above challenges should be able to navigate these small occurrences and adjust accordingly.
The tune challenge can be useful within a rehearsal to warm up the group. While part of the process is working on correct notes and fingerings, directors can listen for individual tone, section blend, and ensemble balance as everyone is playing in unison. Additionally, if the melody, theme, or tune is taken from the ensemble repertoire, it can be helpful to develop the student’s awareness of important melodic elements in the work.
Outside of rehearsal, the tune challenge can also be a rewarding project for students. Shorter, familiar tunes will be easier for a student to gauge their progress and evaluate the quality of their work. Within instrumental lesson time, directors can check in with students quickly and ask if anyone wants to play a tune challenge. To heighten the excitement, directors can ask students to draw three key signatures out of a hat to see which keys they will perform their tune challenge in.
I must emphasize that the tune challenge should not take the place of good teaching with an emphasis on building a characteristic sound, increasing students’ technical skills, and developing principles of musicianship. Each band program is settled in a unique context and the background and experience of every director varies. Some programs might be more suited to doing a monthly tune challenge, while other programs may only utilize it for specific tunes that connect to their band program’s curriculum. It can be a unique enrichment project and provide a new way to energize students about playing their instrument. With any new endeavor, be patient with yourself and your students. Small steps forward are still a small step forward, and before too long students will be stepping forward in all 12 keys!
Travis J. Weller serves as Assistant Chair in the Music Department at Messiah University. His duties include overseeing the music education program, conducting the Symphonic Winds, and teaches courses in the graduate music programs in conducting and music education. His works for band can be found among numerous publishers ranging in difficulty from elementary to collegiate bands and ensembles.
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