If you’re a band director, then you know those first couple of rehearsals in the fall can sound, well, not pretty, especially if you have not had band camp or some sort of summer band program. Students have often not practiced much over the summer, and for those who take private lessons, they have been sporadic or suspended over the summer recess. Although playing is bound to be a bit rusty no matter how we start off, there are some things the band director can do to help get the ensemble up a running a little more enjoyably.
Teachers typically spend the first week of school reviewing, practicing and establishing procedures and routines. For many teachers, procedures include passing out and collecting paper, how to move about the room, entering and exiting the room, and so forth. These procedures are important for band directors too, but also must include basic playing techniques; re-establishing holding positions, posture, breath management, embouchures, warm-up procedures, and attending to you when you’re on the podium. Before serious rehearsal of repertoire can begin, these things must be firmly in place. Everything will sound better, even wrong notes, when these procedural and technical things are being done well.
This is also the time to spend a lot of time on chorales and etudes. Work on articulation, scales, and intonation, but with fun materials, not boring exercises. Improvisation, canons, and student conductors are just a few examples of how this early sessions can be enjoyable and fruitful.
Before passing out new repertoire for first performances, pass out something from last year that the students enjoyed playing. They already have learned the piece, so they will sound good on it quickly, giving them the opportunity to “get back into it” without having to try to learn unfamiliar repertoire at the same time. You can also use this piece to reteach familiar concepts or unfamiliar concepts. Using a familiar work to teach a new concept is good pedagogy because it limits the newness to the concept. A familiar piece can also be used to teach interpretation, with students generating ideas for exploring different tempos, dynamics, articulations, and so forth. This gives old repertoire a freshening up, and further develops and readies the students’ musicianship, readying it to transfer to new repertoire.
At the start of each rehearsal schedule, and especially at the beginning of the year, I like to play professional recordings of one or two of the pieces I plan to teach them. I will play one piece that is challenging, and set that as the bar for them for their next concert, and one piece that is easier but sure to be a favorite. The latter generates excitement, and the former sets a challenge before the band. I have found that the combination of the two provides good motivation that starts the rehearsals off on a positive, exciting note.
Chances are, your band students are probably already a pretty closely knit group, especially if you have traveled to festivals together. None the less, you can never do too much relationship building, and the beginning of the year is a great time for this too. My students ask me from time to time if they can try playing another instrument. They don’t want to drop their instrument and switch to another permanently, they’re just curious about what it’s like to play something else. I use this as a relationship builder at the beginning of the year, and also as a needed break from intensive rehearsal during the year, when needed. Students ask a bandmate to teach them how to play hot cross buns on their instrument. I take sanitation precautions, supplying sanitation wash or extra mouthpieces and reeds. They really enjoy this activity, and it is an excellent relationship building activity. It also gives students a valuable awareness of what their friends have to do to play their instruments, which improves ensemble. For example, when a saxophone player tries to play a flute loudly, they quickly learn how easy it is for a flute in the mid-range to be overpowered by a saxophone in any register. Sometimes awareness is everything.
The beginning of the year also provides a great opportunity to involve the students in selecting repertoire to perform. The fourth anchor standard in The National Core Arts Standards includes [selecting] “varied musical works to present based on interest, knowledge, technical skill and context.” The highest proficiency for this standard is for students to “Develop and apply criteria to select varied programs to study and perform based on an understanding of theoretical and structural characteristics and expressive challenges in the music, the technical skill of the individual or ensemble, and the purpose and context of the performance.”
There are many possibilities for learning embedded in this standard that are well suited to the beginning of the year. Students can take self-inventories of their musical interests, knowledge of music for their ensemble, their own technical skill and that of the ensemble in general, and of what music is most appropriate for the various venues at which they will performing during the course of the academic year. The music you of which you play recordings for them can also be used for instruction to this standard. The structure, form, genre, expressive and technical difficulty of each listening selection can be discussed, and the discussion can be a basis for students selecting repertoire. Students can consider in what ways selections within a concert program can vary, and also in what ways music can be not only technically challenging, but also expressively so.
The self inventory of technical skill used to help select repertoire can also be used to set personal and ensemble goals for the year. Once students have identified personal growth needs, they can make a goal for themselves to improve in that area. Students who have similar goals can later be grouped together in sectional rehearsals to work on those goals, and the goals can also be helpful to the teacher in developing individual performance objectives for their teacher evaluation.
Everything I have discussed here is an investment in the year. None of it involves rehearsing concert or field show music, but all of it will enable students to perform at a higher level sooner, and work at a higher proficiency level and more efficiently. These activities are time well spent and will usually result in better performances and more engaged motivated students for the whole academic year. And what teacher doesn’t want that.