Mike Lawson • Archives • October 1, 2003

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At Flower Mound (Texas) High School, which opened four years ago, the students in the concert band program have options. How well they play and how much time and energy they’re willing to spend in pursuit of musical excellence determine whether they will become a member of the Varsity Band, Concert Band, Symphonic Band or the Wind Symphony.



The students who are the most likely to seek a musical career work their way up to a chair in the Wind Symphony, where the most challenging repertoire is standard. Those musicians who are interested in the social benefits of inclusion in an ensemble but are not prepared to practice constantly find a place in the Varsity Band – or somewhere in between.

Director Mike Brown, who teaches both the Varsity Band and Wind Symphony ensembles, lauds this ability-based system as a flexible way for students on either end of the spectrum to reach their potential. The students at the various levels can move at their own pace, Brown points out, and each group presents different challenges to the director.

Placement into one of the four concert bands is by no means permanent. Students in the Wind Symphony have to continue performing at a high level, while students in the other three ensembles can advance at the semester break if they show noticeable improvement.

“It’s very competitive, in the students’ minds,” he explains. “They strive to be in the top performing group because they get to play, obviously, the most challenging music. For them, it’s a badge of honor, in a way, to be listed as one of the five best flute players in our school, when we have 45 flute players.”

Under Brown’s direction, the Wind Symphony has distinguished itself as an award-winning ensemble comprised of excellence-driven students. These students hold grand champion titles at major competitions and have been invited to perform at the upcoming Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago.

School Band and Orchestra: How is the band program structured?

Brown: We have four ability-based concert bands in our program. The students are placed by audition. All of our bands have grades nine through 12 in them. Every band rehearses every day and all the members comprise the marching band. We do have a jazz band that meets outside of the school day and begins rehearsing after the marching season. Our marching band rehearses before school each day for an hour and 10 minutes.

SBO: How are students assigned to the different ensembles?

Brown: Everybody auditions every year in our program. We continually make adjustments to the groups. We audition them in May for the next year. And then if, during the fall semester, someone in another class proves that they should be moved up or down, based on their work ethic and progress, we’ll move them at semester – to make sure that the groups stay ability-based throughout the year.

SBO: Do each of the ensembles have a set instrumentation or does it depend on how the auditions go each year?

Brown: It varies depending on the ability of the students.

SBO: What are the benefits of structuring a concert band program according to students’ abilities?

Brown: You can move at varying speeds. The kids in our slowest-moving ensemble don’t feel overwhelmed by the number of notes they have to play in a measure or in a specific range that may be out of their capability. We can work fundamental issues at the appropriate level to get them to play at a higher level individually, which, in turn, will move the group at a higher rate. And then we don’t bore the students at the very top end of the spectrum at the same time.

It’s very competitive, in the students’ minds. They strive to be in the top performing group because they get to play, obviously, the most challenging music. For them, it’s a badge of honor, in a way, to be listed as one of the five best flute players in our school, when we have 45 flute players. We don’t treat the kids any differently if they’re in the fourth band as opposed to the top band. Some kids are in band primarily for the social aspects and they don’t really want to practice much outside the day, so they’ll typically remain in one of the lower ability groups. That’s fine with us as long as they do what’s required of them in that particular class. Each of the directors is very active in hearing our kids on a weekly basis so it’s easy for us to tell who is really working, and improving, and who isn’t.

SBO: Which of the four ensembles do you direct besides the Wind Symphony?

Brown: I direct the Wind Symphony, which is the top group, and the Varsity Band,which is the bottom-level group. I get both ends of the spectrum. I really enjoy working with both groups equally; they just present a different challenge to me, depending on what rehearsal I’m getting ready to go into.

SBO: In what ways is the Wind Symphony different from the Varsity Band?

Brown: They’re different in the aspect of how quickly they can learn the material and how difficult the material is. We have the same expectations of the students in terms of behavior and improvement. We don’t expect the Varsity band kids to practice as much as the Wind Symphony kids, but we expect them to improve at a rate that’s proportional to all the other groups. The kids in the Varsity band like the fact that we push them at a high level so that they don’t feel like they’re being treated differently just because they don’t play their instruments as well as other students do at this particular point in time. We have had kids go all the way from our slowest-moving group all the way to the high group in their time in high school. Some kids just improve at a different rate or catch interest at a different rate, so we try to keep that moving so we don’t lose anybody. Once they’re there, it’s not like they’ve earned their seat for four years. Our goal is for everybody to move up if that’s what they desire to do. And we try to give them the skills to do that and teach them exercises and work with them to give them that ability. Some kids will move up after a semester. Some kids will move up in a year. And some it’ll take two to three years to move up. Our goal is to give all those kids the ability to play better individually. If they play better individually, they enjoy playing more.

SBO: What is your approach to teaching the Wind Symphony vs. the Varsity Band?
Brown: My teaching style for each group is not different. We go into rehearsals and we do fundamentals for about the same amount of time. We do scales, we do music – the rehearsals are structured very similarly but we concentrate on different things and different objectives.

I set a goal in front of them – it may be a goal of mastering a Bb scale for the Varsity Band, and it may be doing all forms of the minors for the Wind Symphony – but our expectation is: we give them a date, we show them how to practice it, we show them what to do and we work with them until they can accomplish that goal. We keep putting attainable goals in front of them so they can measure success and, in turn, they’re already a better player. They can look back a month later and say, “Wow. I’ve got six scales under my belt,” or, “I have all the majors and three forms of the minors under my belt.” We may set just a different goal, but they all have certain objectives that they should meet.

SBO: What are your performance goals for the Wind Symphony and what practices and/or philosophies help you to achieve them?

Brown: My goals for that group are, when we play concerts, to play high quality literature – both old and new at an extremely high level of accuracy and musicianship. We go about doing that by playing a lot of concerts. We have concerts in the fall during marching season. During typical marching season, we’re also doing concert band music. Our whole staff team-teaches all of our classes. We all look for new and challenging music – music that’s going to push not only the students musically and technically but also push us as teachers. We keep finding stuff like that and that’s how we notice our ensembles continually improving.

SBO: How would you describe the students in the Wind Symphony?

Brown: They are very intelligent. We joke around a lot in rehearsal and have a good time. They’re very comical. They’re very witty. They also have a very serious purpose in being in that group. They come into that room and they’re ready to go. They want to play really well. They know that when it’s time to buckle down, they’re going to buckle down. That doesn’t have to come from me. I don’t have to say, “Okay, guys, let’s get this learned.” They’re very devoted.

SBO: What characteristics make a good Wind Symphony participant?

Brown: First and foremost is playing ability on their instrument. And there has to be a level of dedication as well because they’re going to be expected to do a good portion of the learning outside of class. They have to be willing and able to do that. And that is really it. We have a variety of personalities in there. We have kids who play in Ska bands and we have kids who are getting ready to go off to conservatory to study music. That’s what I think makes the group really fun – the wide variety of personalities. They don’t have to fit a certain mold to be in that group. It’s basically playing ability and level of dedication.

SBO: Why do you think it’s important to have a wind symphony instead of expanding to a full symphony?

Brown: It allows us to go further with our very top-level players. The ability level between the very best player in the group and the weakest player in the group is smaller with 56 players than it would be if there were 90. Also, our second performing ensemble is really strong and we have a lot of very talented players in there who will probably, within the next year, be in the Wind Symphony, but they have the opportunity to develop good leadership roles in that group. And that group also plays very difficult music and plays it very well.

The smaller group also allows us to play some of the newer music that’s being written for wind ensemble. It allows us to play that in the manner that it was intended.

SBO: How are you and the students preparing for the Wind Symphony’s upcoming performance at the Midwest Band Clinic?

Brown: This is a first for us. The kids, parents, all the staff and our school administration are very excited for us. This is really neat and we’re looking forward to presenting our concert.

Basically, what we’re doing right now is we’re working on marching band
music as well as music for the Midwest concert at the same time. We have rehearsals during the school day, and then we have one additional hour-and-a-half rehearsal a week with the Wind Symphony to help get all this music learned. Our percussionists are not in our band classes right now; they’re in a separate class for the marching band. So that one hour-and-a-half a week allows us to put all the percussion with the winds.

SBO: What are some of the more challenging pieces the Wind Symphony has been/will be working on?

Brown: “J’ai Ete au Bal” (I Went to the Dance) by Donald Grantham; “Ballet Suite No. 4,” by Dmitri Shostakovich; “March Opus 99” by Prokofiev; “Dance of the Jesters;” “Molly on the Shore,” “Outdoor Overture,” “Divertimento for Band,” by Persichetti; “The Second Symphony,” by Charles Ives; “Commando March” by Samuel Barber.
There’s quite a variety. We try to do that so the kids can play some of the standard transcriptions but then we’re doing some new stuff, plus circus marches, plus concert marches, Sousa marches. When the kids leave here, they’ve had a diverse background in different styles of music.

SBO: What is the most challenging aspect of directing the Wind Symphony?

Brown: To continue to find new music that challenges the students – as well as me – that also fits the ability level of the group and showcases the particular strengths and will continue to develop the sections that are less strong than the others.

SBO: Is there anything you would like to add about your program?

Brown: We have two middle schools that feed into our schools and the middle school band programs do outstanding work there. The head directors at the schools are Kathy Johnson and Deborah Haburay, and they do fantastic work starting kids on how to play their instruments. When the kids come to the high school, we don’t have to do a lot of re-teaching and catching kids back up because fundamentally they know how to play well. That’s a real treat. That’s not particularly common – to have both of your middle schools teaching at the high levels that they do. They’re very much appreciated.

Mike Brown has spent his decade-long career as a music educator in the Lewisville Independent School District. For the first six years, he served as the assistant band director at Lewisville High School. Flower Mound High School opened four years ago, and Brown was hired as the director.

“Just under the wire,” as he puts it, Brown was named 2003’s Outstanding Young Bandmaster by the Texas Music Educators Association – an honor that is awarded to a director who has been teaching for three to 10 years.

” That was a huge honor. I was very flattered and honored,” he says of the award.
As a young saxophonist in Klein, Texas, Brown drew his inspiration from his high school band director, Robert Hastings, who continues to teach at the school. Brown credits Hastings with his career decision.

“He’s just a great guy and he inspired me to want to do what he does.”

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