Chapter 4: Bag of Tricks

Selecting Literature | Tone | Phrasing | Accent | Crescendo | Start at the End | Run the Transitions | Count and Subdivide to Your Baton | Student-led Warm-ups | Loonie Contest | Sing | Video links: Lip Slurs; Tuning; Hear the Pulse

Selecting Literature

First and foremost, talk to experienced band directors with a track record of quality beginning bands. Steal as many ideas about everything as you can. These men and women often have a list of pieces they like to use for beginning bands at festivals. I developed a three-year rotation of festival literature. My all-time hit parade included March of the Irish Guard and Anasazi.

Serious vs. Pop Music: This might be the most divisive subject known to mankind. Well, that is a slight exaggeration. I have always been somewhere in the middle. If you steer your beginners in the right direction, they will quickly prefer to rehearse and perform quality and serious literature composed for band at their level of difficulty. They will also develop the skills needed to judge and make decisions on their own. Isn’t this one of our main goals in teaching music to kids?


“Tone always wins.” This simple three-word phrase has made Clinton Marshall famous. At least he thinks so. His point – nothing matters if it is not played with good tone. If your band cannot play ff with good tone, do not play louder than f .

I always have my beginners play loud for the first two or three weeks. Starting on about Day 14, I start asking them to bring it down a little. I will play a minute or two of a quality recording of a professional _____ (take your pick) player and ask my students to strive for that tone. By Week 4 I insist on good tone. ALWAYS!


“Hi…my name is…Mr. Taylor. I…am pleased…to meet…you.”

Say something similar with intentionally placed pauses and they get it. A phrase is a musical sentence. You say a full sentence and then take a breath. We breathe at the end of sentences, not in the middle. Phrases are musical sentences and it sounds weird when we breathe in the middle of phrases. 


Have the band play a whole note at forte. Then have them play the same whole note starting at f and decrescendo to piano over the four beats. Repeat the same process and decrescendo over three beats, two beats and finally over one beat. Voila; I guarantee one of the finest accents you have ever heard.

This is a perfect example of a couple of things. First, most of the teaching strategies you will collect will be through interaction with colleagues. I knew nothing about teaching beginner bands in 1978 when I graduated. I owe everything to my mentors who I had the privilege of watching, listening to and learning from. Second, very young bands have the ability to perform with sensitivity, emotion and musicality. They have the ability to perform dynamics, phrasing and accents with beautiful control and tone. You just need to find a way of making the concept understood by that age group.


Write the numbers 1 to 4 on the board. Discuss your expectation that 1 will stand for piano. Play p until you are happy with the level, tone quality and tone. Repeat this process with 2, 3 and then 4 representing forte.

The next step is important. Ask the band to simply respond to the number of fingers you hold up – 1,2, 3 or 4. Or by pointing to the numbers on the board. Select randomly from the four numbers moving on to a different number only when you are happy with the sound as described above. Eventually lead them to the not-so-random order of 1 – 2 – 3 – 4. That will create a very nice crescendo.

I translate this exercise into the literature. If there is a two-measure crescendo, for example, I do not attempt to create a ‘gradual’ increase in volume. Rather, I have them play 1 (p) for 2 a half measure, 2 (mp) for the next half measure, and so on.

Every young band will perform crescendos better than they perform decrescendos. It goes without saying that the use of this exercise in reverse order will also help tremendously with this.

I thank Larry Schrum for the following trick. I train my kids to respond to my question “Crescendo means?” with a group shout-out “Start soft.” Some colleagues adjusted the response to “Start softer.” Either way works by making the crescendo more effective and apparent without overblowing and threatening tone quality.

Other Tricks

Start at the end

Have you ever realized days before a major performance that the first half of a piece sounds great and the last half is barely ready? I often have the band start with the last section and work it for the first rehearsal. On the next day, work the second last section and put those two together. Keep working backwards until you run it from start to finish.

Run the transitions

This rehearsal trick produces great results. Run a few measures at a time wherever time, tempo or key changes occur.

Memorize first three or four measures of the intro and all transitions.

Give the band two minutes to memorize the 3 or 4 measures that contain a tempo change, for example. After the two minutes are up, have them turn their music stands to face you. Run the two measures making wild variations on how much and how quickly you change the tempo.

Count and subdivide to your baton

Simple. They count (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +) while you conduct. Change up the tempo and the number of beats in the pattern. Make sure they ALWAYS look for ‘one’; the downbeat.

Student-led warm-ups

I always pick a tuba or low woodwind player. Sometimes I have the class close their eyes.

  • Start and stop just one note together
  • Play a major scale with 4 or 8 eighth notes for every scale degree.

Loonie contest

Everyone stand up. When I count you in, take a deep breath and start playing. Sit down as soon as you stop playing. Flutes get to take a second breath. Last man standing wins a Loonie. But only after he takes a minute to catch his breath and stands to do it again by himself.


My bands sang a lot; from Day 1. If you do this you will avoid any chance of kids being reluctant to sing out. Young kids love to dance and sing. Try having them sing their parts while doing the fingerings on their instruments.

Here are links to three videos of me teaching various warm-ups and concepts.

Lip Slurs


Hear the Pulse