Teach Band 101


Success can be measured in many ways when it comes to teaching band.  Here are just some of the measures that often define success in a band program:

  • There are many students participating in the band program.
  • The students are successfully performing a variety of challenging repertoire. 
  • The students are engaged in their learning and gaining musical skills and understanding.
  • The students are performing on a regular basis and concerts are well-attended.
  • The band room has a feeling of community.
  • The bands are receiving awards or accolades at music festivals and competitions.
  • The students are developing a life-long passion for music and music-making. 

Most band teachers would agree that all of these measures are worthy in and of themselves and with effective planning and implementation they are all very possible.

Before the School Year Starts

Choosing Repertoire

Lessons and rehearsals are most effective when you have a plan in advance regarding what you wish to accomplish. All too often band directors start at the beginning of a piece and take a “Clean as you go” approach, correcting things like rhythms and notes, balance, style, intonation, etc. While this approach does often reap good musical reward for you and your students, our time working with students is not always maximized and we often simply run out of time to refine all aspects of our performances.

We have all been to band concerts where the group starts out sounding great and is well-rehearsed with good attention to detail. Oftentimes further into the same performance, the band seems to lack that same level of refinement and care and attention in their performance. It is obvious that the band has the ability to make the music sound great but has not invested the same amount of time or care in preparing for the entire concert. It becomes a matter of needing more effective time management.

Lesson and rehearsal time is best spent when we can equip students with an understanding of the concepts we are trying to reinforce rather than just the “Clean as you go” approach. When we equip students with a better understanding of things like how to properly read and feel rhythms, how to apply key signatures and accidentals, how to play specific musical styles, how to balance melody and accompaniment, how to listen for good intonation, and a host of other concepts that good into strong musical performances, we empower them to apply this knowledge to other musical settings much more quickly. As a result, we are able to prepare music for performance much more efficiently.

In planning lessons and rehearsals be mindful of what you want to have your students learn or accomplish. Each class or rehearsal should have the goal of fostering student skill and understanding to ultimately create even greater enjoyment of music and music-making. Ideally we want to equip our students with enough skill and understanding so that they can take more ownership and apply their knowledge and abilities to other musical settings and challenges.

How you implement this approach is important. Kids want to play music and the majority of our time with them should be spent playing and learning new music. Having said this, just a few dedicated minutes of every class on technique-building pays dividends in the long run. When planning your lessons and rehearsals try to have your plans include four general elements:

  1. Listening and/or music appreciation
  2. Skill or technical development
  3. Announcements and administrative matters
  4. Rehearsing music

As a general guideline, a one-hour class could look somewhat like this:

Listen to Music (5 minutes)

Listening is so important and often neglected with the excuse that, “We just don’t have time.” Have students listen to and learn about great music, artists, and composers that they wouldn’t necessarily know. Students will appreciate quality music even if it is unfamiliar to them and in many cases they will seek out more. Listen to the repertoire you are working on with the students. There has always been an argument that by doing that we’re not teaching students how to read music and instead we are teaching them by rote. But if we make a point of teaching students how to read rhythms and develop their technical skills along with a basic understanding of keys and musical form, by listening to a piece of music they will pick up much more than, “This is how it goes.” Students will have a better sense of the style of the piece, the form and contour of the piece and the role that their part plays and how it relates to others’ parts. It also gives us an understanding or example of what generally what we’re aiming to sound like and the impetus on how to interpret it our own way.

Technique/Skill-Building (5-10 minutes)

While most students would certainly prefer to ‘skip the scales’, you are doing them a disservice if you do. ALL of the music we are teaching our students is based on scales and scale patterns. By working on increasing their technique on their instruments every class, students will gain skills that can be applied to more music and lead to even greater musical challenges. This period of working on technique should include working in a variety of keys and scale patterns. There are more keys than Bb Major and scales don’t always start on the root and ascend one octave and descend one octave. Be creative and have some fun as students learn to better get around on their instruments. Encourage students to play everything including scales and patterns with good musical intent and sense of phrase, as scales and patterns don’t need to sound mechanical. Be creative and encourage students to always play with musicality.

Announcements (As little time as possible)

While we hate to take any time away from teaching for things like administration, it is important to keep everyone informed on upcoming events and information. Separating working on technique and working on repertoire gives students a better understanding that increasing their technique is something that is an important aspect of their musical development.

Rehearsing Music (35-45 Minutes)

To be most effective, rehearsing music should include two main elements:
1) allowing students to experience the success of playing part of or an entire piece very well
2) having students really digging into something that needs work and a focused effort
In short, aim to reinforce and celebrate something and aim to improve something. If we only rehearse what we can already do, we’re not improving. If we only rehearse stuff that needs lots of work and nothing sounds good, that can leave students (and you!) frustrated, particularly if we’re trying to play something that is way too hard for the overall level of the group. Use your limited rehearsal time wisely.

The other thing worth noting about this four-part approach to planning is that by design you always start and end with music. Music is, after all, what got us teaching this rehearsal or class in the first place.

A collection of eLessons linked to Learner Outcomes in the Alberta curriculum for Instrumental Music.

Lesson Sharing

The success of this project relies on your support and contributions. They do not need to be elaborate complex lessons. In fact, I think very brief, simple and fun eLessons are needed right now. The lesson topic can be anything fitting a band class anywhere. They do not need to align with any curriculum.

Please send your lessons in WORD or PDF format to the following email address: teachband101@gmail.com

Like any other subject in school, assessment in a band class should be a measure of student achievement and understanding, attitude and overall effort. 

While most school band curricula dictate both specific and general learning objectives for students in a band class, there seems to be much latitude on how band students are assessed. Some teachers believe in rewarding students based solely on attendance with little regard for any measure of student understanding and achievement. Some teachers only assess demonstrated playing skill with little regard for attitude, effort or regular attendance. Some teachers assign “team” marks that reflect the efforts or accomplishments for an entire ensemble.  

Some teachers encourage student input in assigning marks where others do not. Some teachers allow students to complete assignments late without penalty while some will not accept assignments or a demonstration of competency beyond a specified due date. Some teachers allow students to retest again and again to raise marks while others do not and expect students to be ready to meet a hard deadline. The point is to find what works best for you, your students and your situation. 

Let’s face it; in most classes and particularly in band class, most students and their parents are generally more concerned about marks than meeting the objectives of the curriculum. If we simply award high marks we can keep everyone happy. But are we really showing students the value of hard work and achievement if they receive high marks just for showing up? It is  difficult to justify awarding high marks when we may have some students that perform badly due to a lack of effort and the willingness to assume any personal responsibility. In a math class students must demonstrate an understanding of concepts presented. Band class should be no different and our assessments should reflect playing performance, effort, growth and overall musicianship.  

Assessment may be formative or summative, but most importantly should encourage student growth and success. Students are much more likely to stay involved in band class if they are having fun making music with their peers and experiencing success. What is important is the need for regular assessment. Regular assessment does not necessarily mean constant and rigorous individual testing, this is very time consuming and not particularly enjoyable for all parties. 

Conversely, providing only assessments that don’t really measure student achievement often don’t lend themselves to a true measure of student musicianship and understanding. For example, the occasional “pencil checks” for marks can be beneficial for assessing student effort and attitude but they certainly don’t measure musical skill and understanding. It is much more effective to design regular assessments where students can demonstrate a variety of skills and in a variety of ways that empower them and allow them to succeed. Aim to have your assessments include a measure of the understanding of concepts presented. This may take the form of performing a short excerpt from their repertoire or a scale or scale pattern. 

These formative evaluations do not need to be extensive and are not always necessarily for marks. To be most effective they do need to occur regularly and it is the regularity of these assessments that helps us as teachers gauge student learning and make necessary adjustments to our teaching to improve student learning.  

Some students prefer live testing where many others would prefer turning things in electronically. Where possible, give them the option. This brings us to the point of whether or not to use your valuable class time and have students perform in front of one another. Do it! By having students perform in front of their peers, it holds them accountable to themselves and to one another.

At first this can be very intimidating for some students and it will take some time for them to feel comfortable performing in front of their classmates. In these cases, consider allowing students to perform their test in a private setting before the scheduled test time. As time goes on you will likely find that before long students are much more willing to play in front of their peers if you set them up for success and foster an environment where you and their classmates support their efforts and learning. The added bonus in this approach is seeing students garner more and more confidence in themselves. 

For a more summative evaluation of their playing skills you can save testing time by assigning several items that they are responsible for but only actually testing part of the assignment as determined by a coin toss, roll of a dice or other creative means. Students will still have to prepare everything but you don’t necessarily need to hear everything. In summative evaluation,  try and include evaluative tools like rubrics where students can get feedback on their strengths and areas for improvement.  

Encourage mastery learning by having students redo assessments if they don’t reach an appropriate level of performance. While some students are able to complete assessments with little extra preparation needed, some students have to work very hard to meet expectations. As long as a student is working and demonstrating improvement in their skills, allow them, where possible and reasonable, more time to master these skills. 

Student assessment is an important aspect of band class. Set your students up for success.

Free Worksheets

Crash Course Theory
YouTube playlist by Odd Quartet

Hopkins Jr. High School Instrumental Music Department
Practice Sheets / Theory Assignments

Mr. Krammer’s Music Page
Worksheets and other resources

Lincoln Middle School
Theory Worksheets
Elements of Music Terminology

Mr. R.J. Maglocci Jr. – International Music Instructor
Band Worksheets

Jeff Waggoner – Waggoner Music Publishing
Rhythm Teaching Sheets for Concert Band

James Workman Middle School
Music Theory Review & Tests

Shed The Music
Rhythm Worksheets

Commercially Available Resources

Breezin’ Thru® Composing
Interactive compositions lessons app

Breezin’ Thru® Theory
Free Sign-Up

JW Pepper
Music Listening Assignments

Sight Reading Factory
Sight Reading and Sight Singing Practice

Stepwise Publications
Free Worksheets for Band

Teachers Pay Teachers
Online marketplace for original educational resources
Browse material for concert band

Rhythm Exercises

Teaching students how to read musical notation includes learning how to read and perform various rhythms.  Much can be gained by having students work on recognizing rhythmic patterns and basic subdivisions as when students have a good understanding and feel for various rhythmic elements they not only become better music sight-readers, they also improve their overall technique.  Typically when students experience difficulty with technical issues in learning their music it is usually because of rhythmic inaccuracy. 

These exercises are designed to include a variety of basic time signatures and rhythmic subdivisions of increasing difficulty.  A few minutes of working on reading and performing these exercises every class, with or without instruments (clapping, humming, sizzling, singing, etc), will pay dividends.  Work on them at a variety of tempos with a metronome. As you work on reading these rhythms, encourage your students to recognise where the rhythms land within the various time signatures.  It is more important and effective that students understand where the different rhythmic patterns land within a time signature as opposed to how long the notes are in duration. 

Having students demonstrate basic rhythmic subdivisions at various tempos prior to reading these exercises is also of tremendous value to their skill development.


Free Worksheets

Commercially Available Resources