Have a Plan
I always had a plan. It might not have been written down, but I had a plan. My plan would not suit every band director’s needs or teaching style. My plans were not necessarily the best. The following is merely one example of a list I might have written to prepare for the start of the school year.
- Letters home: Introduce yourself to the parents and add a few words about the program. Include a description of how the first few weeks will unfold – instrument demonstration and choosing instrument process. How do students obtain their instruments – school provided, rental purchase plan?
- Calendar: Include dates such as demo, instrument selection, first few lessons, first concert.
- Book clinicians for start-up day.
- How and when will I show videos?
- Handbook: Research other band directors’ handbooks. Be very clear. Do not include any rules or policies you are not prepared to enforce and stand up for.
- Check the inventory.
- How will we dispense reeds and oil?
- Purchasing music, instruments and supplies: Does the school use purchase orders, credit cards, standing accounts?
- Music folders: How many? Where do we keep them?
- Method books, scale sheets, rhythm sheets
- Literature: Christmas, festival, pops concert …
My first class with a beginner band class was a demonstration of the instruments available for the students to choose from. If you are not proficient enough to at least play a scale or simple melody, there are other resources available.
The easiest and sometimes most effective is to have older students to come in and play. If you do this, make sure you meet briefly ahead of time and give them clear instructions on what to play, what to say, etc.
Another option is showing some videos, such as the following from the U.S. Army Field Band.
An excellent Professional Development activity is to spend some time over the summer learning how to play a major scale and/or a few short recognizable tunes on every instrument in the band. It will make the instrument demo session easy and also establishes a bit of respect in the students’ eyes toward your ability to teach them.
I start by quickly discussing how the instruments are divided into two groups – brass and woodwinds. I then pick up a flute, ask what the name of the instrument is, then play for no more than 30 seconds. If you want or need help, older students are usually more than happy to get out of math class to come in and help with the demonstrations.
I use this time to discuss the selection process which should be within no more than two or three days. I also send home a form that must be completed and signed by both student and parent.
U.S. Army Field Band Instrument Demonstration Videos
Take an opportunity at the beginning of this class to reinforce the need for a balanced band. I will have an approximate instrumentation numbers already posted on the board.
Over the years I discovered a lower retention rate among trombones and low brass. So when I looked at my enrollment, I leaned a bit heavier in that direction. Another trick I developed was chatting with the feeder school teachers and especially the music specialist to get some recommendations for F horn players. The same can be said for oboe and bassoon. You need special students on these instruments. I usually had chosen them and contacted parents before the school year began.
If I was starting 50 students in beginning band, my list of instruments and numbers available might look like the following:
4 French Horns
A letter with an attached form to parents was handed out. A sample is shown in the Resource section. Students who return the completed and signed form are allowed first crack at their first choice on selection day.
The selection process goes something like this:
- Have everyone who has flute as their first choice stand up. If the number does not exceed the number on the board (in this case, seven), all of their names go on the list; a list I have someone else like a colleague on a prep compiling. If the number is greater, they sit down and take time to consider trying their second choice.
- Proceed through the list in this manner.
- Nothing further needs to happen with any instrumental sections that have been filled. For example, if I have four students listed for tuba I am done with them. I take a moment before returning to the top of the list by stating that this is a chance for some to be guaranteed to get their second choice. Students willing to fill spots in less than prescribed sections are quite anxious to do so.
- Then I start back at the top for a second round. I use discretion at this point and am a little flexible. For example, if we are down to eight students who adamantly want to play flute, I will ‘give in.’
The important thing to keep in mind is trying to start out with an instrumentation balance that makes sense and serves your situation and purposes. This is not the one and only way to get there; it’s just how I did it.
This whole process is completely unnecessary if you use the following exploratory method.
I taught at Cayley School for several years. Cayley is a tiny hamlet south of Calgary, Alberta. The combined Grade 5/6 homeroom often had no more than ten Grade 6 kids – the grade we started band. I struggled for a few years with kids who ended up on an instrument that did not suit them. In almost every case, those students dropped band as soon as they could.
During that time, I met Clinton Marshall, maybe the best guest conductor I have ever met and had the privilege to watch and learn from. One day in Banff where he was working with my high school bands at a band retreat, Clinton mentioned a band director in the U.S. who had been experimenting with something called an “exploratory.” An exploratory allows students to try out 2 or more instruments over a period of time before deciding on an instrument to remain on for the rest of the year.
I tried it the following school year at little Cayley School with a Grade 6 band of nine students. They were required to try three different wind instruments (at least one brass and one woodwind). At the end of each trial, which lasted about three weeks with three classes per week, I would listen to a student perform something – a simple song from a method book or a part of a scale, lasting no more than 20 or 30 seconds. That’s all it took for me to jot down a few observations.
It was mid-November when the third trial period concluded and it was time to select an instrument to remain playing for the rest of the school year. I used my notes to guide students to the best choices.
A few times, but very seldom, I would put my foot down and not allow a choice I felt would end up in failure, especially kids who demonstrated they could not come close to pitching a trumpet. An NHL hockey coach once said, “My main job is to put players in the position where they can be successful.” If I put a student in a position that is impossible to succeed in, that is my failure and is inexcusable.
I was nervous that my experiment with using an exploratory concept would put that group way behind schedule. Quite the opposite. Because every student ended up on an instrument that suited them and they liked playing, that group soared through the curriculum, was more than ready to perform at the Christmas concert, and became one of the best beginning bands I had the pleasure to work with at Cayley School. AND … every one of those students remained in band when they moved on to high school three years later.