Prepare Before the School Year Begins
I am a ‘list’ person. In teaching band, it seemed I added two ‘to do’ items for every item I stroked one off as completed. It is not practical in this setting for me to suggest a list of everything you should prepare for and consider before starting a school year (music folders, supplies, concert dates, festivals, seating plans, music stand storage, uniforms, course outlines, unit plans, decorating the room, assessment schedule).
Every summer I started going to work about two weeks before classes started. Some days I might only spend an hour or two before going home to do something with my kids or meeting a buddy to fish for the afternoon. Other days I might spend six or seven hours at work. Some people are good at flying by the seat of their pants. I am not one of them. I was a much more effective teacher when I had all the items on my Back to School list checked off.
A wise man once told me, “Teaching band is not rocket science.” The ability to produce consistently well-performing ensembles is not a matter of high academia. It is simply one of a commitment to prepare, put in the hours and most importantly, have a passion for teaching band.
If you are not the person to trust with starting and/or maintaining an up-to-date and accurate inventory, then find someone who is. Do you have a band parent who operates a small business in town who has years of experience with inventory?
Condition of Inventory
It is our responsibility as band teachers to provide our students with the best possible chance of success. The biggest roadblock to achieving this is to put an instrument in poor working condition in the hands of a beginner.
I started teaching in 1978. The school division that hired me had a lot of excess tax revenue and a superintendent who understood the value of a good music program. I wanted for nothing.
Every student who played an instrument larger than a tenor sax or trombone was assigned two – one for school and one for home practice. The quality of every instrument was excellent. This was especially helpful in this farming community where most students had up to a 90-minute bus ride each way.
In 1988 I took a job teaching band in a different school division. The inventory consisted of two tubas, a very old bass clarinet, no baritone sax and one front-bell euphonium which needed duct tape to keep the bell attached.
I struggled with this situation for two years until I thought of a solution. I did a lot of research into instrument prices and what to expect when ordering large numbers. I drafted a proposal to admin and eventually made a presentation to the school board. I showed how a $400 clarinet would generate $1,500 in rental income over the expected 15-year lifespan. The $1,100 difference between the initial cost and the rental fees generated could then go toward the purchase of larger and/or more expensive instruments.
The Board approved my proposal in 1990 to buy a large number of band instruments to rent out to students. The rental monies collected each year were handed over to band directors in June to buy new instruments. We called it the Evergreen Program. It was extremely successful to the point where they are now purchasing semi-professional models for high school band programs.
The main point here is to be prepared. Go through your inventory. Give yourself time to consider solutions to any potential problems, such as introducing an optional rent-to-purchase plan from a local retailer. Take a problem-solving approach. Be careful not to be seen as a complainer. Contact an experienced colleague to ask for advice.
Sax and Percussion
Are you concerned about balanced instrumentation? If the answer is yes, you must have a plan or a standing policy on students starting on saxophone or percussion. Why? They are by far the two most popular choices of instrument by beginning students AND parents. My policy was that nobody started on either and students had to earn their way to switch.
I used every avenue of communication available to ensure students and parents were informed of my policy well before the time arrived to make their instrument selections. Parents occasionally tried to circumvent this policy by purchasing instruments before the selection process. My attempt at a diplomatic solution was to offer free rent for a school-owned instrument other than sax or percussion for the first year of band. I would then consider allowing the student to switch or double starting in year two if they earned that privilege.
Having no saxes or percussion in a beginning band presents no performance problems. Third year students can easily fill in at a moment’s notice. For festivals I had second year students learn, rehearse and perform on the three saxes, bass clarinets and percussion. I always informed the adjudicators of this and mentioned that all of the second years are actually first years on the instruments they are playing.
When switching to sax or percussion, first and foremost, students should earn the privilege by demonstrating consistent effort in class and private practice. I have tried various strategies to assist students making a switch or learning a second instrument in order to double.
The club was open to every student who met a minimum criterion of private practice, classroom effort and concert attendance. It started in May after school; one day a week. I recruited older students to be my peer mentors.
I made it clear to students that attending Saxophone Club did not mean they could necessarily switch completely to sax the next school year. Most students were encouraged to remain on their original instrument for concert band and double on sax for jazz band. They were also allowed a chance to rehearse for and perform at one concert on sax with the concert band.
This is where I tried many different approaches. In my early years I allowed students with advanced piano studies and proficiency to start on percussion. Another strategy was the Percussion Club, which was run exactly as described for sax. Another successful approach required students to attend a week-long summer band camp where beginner percussion instruction was available.
Whatever method you use, the one most important requirement is start on MALLET PERCUSSION! Once and only when students demonstrate proficiency on mallets, allow them to learn snare drum, timpani, bass drum and auxiliary percussion.
Some other options to consider:
- Allow percussionists in beginner band but always start them off on mallets. They earn the privilege of moving on to snare drum after proving proficiency on mallets.
- All students who express an interest in percussion start on a wind instrument, but are part of a rotation that allows them to play mallets in class once every week or so.
- Start the doubling process on sax immediately following the Christmas concert with the goal of the students returning to class in January with enough basic skill level to double between sax and their original woodwind instrument.
I have started students in band as early as Grade 5 and as late as Grade 7. My personal preference is to start in Grade 6. There are many band teachers who do a great job of starting earlier but it does not suit my teaching style. Translation – I don’t have the patience!
I have been able to consistently start beginning Grade 7 bands in September and guide them to Gold or Superior Awards by April or May. There is a readiness factor that comes in to play at that age. In other words, something biologically and/or physically occurs around the age of 12 that enables youngsters to physically handle the instruments with more ease and develop the musical components much more quickly.
Mandatory or Elective
The key element in making these decisions is the starting grade. I have taught in just about every kind of program. The biggest stressor in my long career was caused by teaching mandatory Grade 8 band. Actually, it was a result of one particular incompetent principal, but that is the topic for another book.
My experience has been that by the time students reach Grade 7 they have fairly strong opinions on joining band. Band is like few other courses in the sense that improvement, learning and musical progress are so interdependent. It is truly a group activity. Dealing with students who do not want to be there is not only stressful, but they have can also have a serious impact on the learning and musical development of the rest of the group.
I once had an amazing beginner band of 135 students. At the end of the school year we received the class lists for the following September and about 10 of our better Grade 7 band students were not signed up for Grade 8 band. We had a meeting with those 10 or so students and this one brave little girl had this to say: “I loved band at the beginning of the year but after 10 months of having to sit beside ‘Johnnie B. Good’ (real name withheld to protect the guilty) I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
A colleague calls it the ‘cancer in the room’ and if you do not remove the cancer, it will spread and continue to cause damage until it is removed.