In the realm of beginning band, there are many different forms the first school year of instruction can take. How can we make that vital foundation best suit our students, given the high level of variation in our programs? Clearly, the most important tool in your collection is your knowledge and how you express and pass that upon your students. Pedagogy, passion, communication, and organization are all vital skills for success in this position. Beyond that is how you utilize your method books and ensemble music to give your students a rewarding experience, keeping them engaged and prepared to move on within your district’s band program.
When I switched from teaching high school to beginners, I discovered one of the most intriguing aspects of beginning band was the wide range in the difficulty of repertoire that was all labeled Grade 1/2, .5, or “very beginning band.” Indeed, most music grading is dependent on the difficulty of individual parts. However, the ensemble skills required for a piece of music are as important as individual skills, though this aspect is often overlooked. In my upcoming session at Midwest Clinic, I examine four excellent pieces of grade 1/2 music and discuss the ensemble challenges present in each while also discussing the practicality of programming them based on a beginning band program’s individual needs. Do the students just receive weekly homogeneous sectional lessons? Are they playing only in an ensemble on a daily basis? Some sort of mixture?
My first position in elementary band was in two schools where students received a 30-minute lesson and a 40-minute ensemble rehearsal once a week. My current position is in 5 schools of 40-minute weekly lessons with no regular ensemble rehearsals. Based on those differences alone, I had to alter my programming even though my teaching strategies have largely been the same. Examining the depth of texture and the ensemble demands of music, even with the simplest range and rhythmic demands, is critical to success in performance and the student’s sense of accomplishment that comes with it.
Since teaching music literacy is half of what we do as beginning band teachers, reinforcing that part of our craft becomes a regular part of our rehearsals, whether it be in a group of eight clarinet students or an ensemble class of 50 students. An educator would be well-advised to plan their lessons accordingly so that their students can develop their literacy skills while gaining further confidence in their instrumental technique.
One method I employ when students are looking at a 4-8 measure exercise or phrase for the first time, I have students say the pitch names in the written rhythm while doing the corresponding slide position, fingering, or sticking. One or two repetitions of this technique prior to playing the phrase will improve accuracy and gain greater understanding of the music. Later in the ensemble rehearsal, rehearse the ostinati or repetitive material, typically in the percussion and low brass, followed by the melodic material. Allowing exposure to the dominant voices in the score will give students comfort in knowing there are other parts besides their own, and they may not necessarily line up with one another.
When conducting young students, we wish to give them all the information that they need to be successful. However, what if, in trying to achieve that goal, we inhibit their development in error? By giving too much information in our conducting, we may absolve students from truly understanding the rhythmic content in front of them; note lengths, initiations, releases, and anacrusis. Akin to too much modeling of trombone positions or writing in pitch names, these efforts to simplify the music for our students only delay the inevitable; they must develop a rudimentary understanding of the language of written music. Provide balance in these things to guide your students, but not to the extent that they are totally dependent on you for performance.
As teachers of beginning band, we are often the veterinarians of the profession, using our experience and education to address a myriad of student developmental needs that are typically greater than those of our middle and high school colleagues. As there are so many variations from program to program, it is incumbent upon you to have realistic expectations for your students, given your schedule and the amount of ensemble rehearsal time you have (if any). By focusing on the fundamentals of sound production and literacy, we can best prepare our students for the rigors of instruction in the future. In the ensemble, if we maximize our rehearsals for developing student understanding of ensemble skills and requirements, we will have better bands now and in the future, and that is a circus to be proud to lead.
Nicholas Greeson has been teaching first-year elementary band for 7 years in Sussex County, DE; currently with the Cape Henlopen School District. Prior to his elementary experience, he taught high school band in both urban and suburban environments for 9 years. He is a Music Performance Team Leader and Platoon Sergeant for the 78th Army Band, US Army Reserve, where he has served for 25 years. He has presented sessions at the New Jersey and Delaware music education state conferences and is scheduled to present at the 75th annual Midwest Clinic in December. He is an active adjudicator for Tournament of Bands, TIA Jazz, and Drum Corps Associates. Nicholas resides in Delaware with his wife Gina and son Robert. He is a graduate of West Chester University of PA and the American Band College.