What Real Band Directors Use

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 1, 2003

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This past year I was asked by MENC to respond to band director questions on the MENC Band Chat-Line. I found many directors were either looking for more money for their programs, or looking for answers to improve their teaching situations. It became apparent that most were just looking for programs and products that would be helpful to their ensembles. From that experience I then realized we as band directors need to do a better job at sharing ideas and products that really work in the classroom. Included in this article are some of the areas I covered as a mentor. For now we’ll leave finding more money for your program for another article.

Did you ever attend a music conference, attend a session on some new product or new idea on how to teach and leave wondering if anyone ever uses any of those products? Or, how many sessions have you attended where the clinician got so deeply into the subject area that you were left behind while you were still trying to figure out the first concept?

That happens to me, too. Computer technology sessions do that to me. I don’t know all the computer lingo. They leave me behind as soon as they use some computer word that I have no idea what it means. Meanwhile all the computer wizards in the room fly off on a tangent leaving the regular layman, or should I say lay bandsman, behind in the dark.

A few years ago I attended a jazz improvisation clinic. It started out OK, but about 10 minutes into the session, some of the jazz music writers in the room took off with the clinician, running through a myriad of jazz chords. Meanwhile, the rest of us were still stuck analyzing and trying to figure out the first chord. I was lost the rest of the way.

I think most of you know what I’m talking about. However, does anyone really use any of that stuff?

This article is not a product review, only a presentation of music products that work. This article only lets you know there is something out there to help you with all your teaching situations. It is important that you investigate as many similar products as possible. There is so much stuff out there that can make your teaching successful. You just have to go look for it. None of the products I reviewed for this article paid me a dime. I just know they work.


Jamey Aebersold has several CDs out now on how to learn to improvise, jazz styles, writing jazz compositions, etc. His CDs are great for those of us who are not really jazz musicians, and find it difficult to teach improvisation. Students can play CDs to a background group all they want, with the guidance of provided music literature. Jazz theory is not far behind.

A relatively new jazz product being sent out by Heritage Jazz Works not only includes full recordings of each chart purchased, but follows each recording with the solo section played, minus the solo for kids to practice their solos with. What a great tool for teaching. In jazz, it is important that kids hear how the work is supposed to be done. Listening is key in jazz. Kids can bring in a CD-R and record the backgrounds they are working on.

Sheet Music

Selection of music is probably my biggest concern every year. Back when I first started teaching, the selection of music was kind of “word-of-mouth” or “you-had-to-be-there-to-hear-it.” We spent a lot of time studying the scores to try to get an idea how the work might sound, and whether it would fit our groups.

Today’s music teacher has no excuse. We now have sample CDs. There really is no excuse for buying bad music, or music not built around the ability of your groups. Not only do we have a good recording of the work, but they are graded at the level of your band. Occasionally, the publishers miss on the grading. However, it is usually our responsibility to determine whether a piece will work with our bands. I’ve learned over the years that it is not the grade level that is most important; it is whether the work is teachable and exciting enough to catch the interest of my students.

If you are not getting these CDs, then get online now and request them. The publishers send these out free of charge. On top of that, many publishers now offer complete recordings of many of the concert works published today. There are many, many band and orchestra publishers, such as Hal Leonard, Arranger’s Publishing Company, Matrix, J.W. Pepper, Curnow, C.L. Barnhouse Company, Alfred, Warner Bros., Carl Fischer, Wingert-Jones, and many more. I mentioned these companies in particular because they send out sample CDs.

Computer Stuff

In my 30 years as a music educator, I have gone from ditto paper machines to complex Xerox copiers. From writing parts by hand to computer-generated music notation programs. From taking roll by hand to data-management programs. Today’s music educator must be computer-literate. If you don’t have a computer now, get one. Without it, you will be left behind. The better the computer, the better you can manage your music program.

Classroom Management. A few years ago, I purchased a classroom management program called RCI, designed for music programs, put out by Riden Consulting Inc. (www.riden.com). I knew the data programs from Microsoft or Appleworks really were helpful, but did not address the true music classroom. Chuck Riden has come up with a program that is designed to address all areas of music. As I worked through the program, I discovered an untold number of uses for the program. As most computer-literate people will tell you, programs become outdated once you have achieved the maximum that program can go. Wouldn’t you know it – I felt the same way. I wanted the RCI program to go further. Therefore, I contacted Chuck Riden, and wouldn’t you know it, Chuck had already updated it from 5.0 to 5.1. When I opened the 5.1 onto my computer, I couldn’t believe all he had added just for me, a typical high school band director. For example, you can now download a program designed specifically for the band (can also be set for orchestra, choir, performer, etc.) at the junior high, high school, or university level.

From this data program you can develop literally hundreds of lists designed from whatever situation you may run into as a band director. For example, I use the data to monitor fundraising, student checking accounts (it automatically does percents and tallies overall accounts, makes individual and group reports in various formats); build a performance schedule, grade books in various formats, attendance, a complete music library program, instrument inventory (it even figures depreciation on instruments), uniform inventory, concert attire, recordings; assign lockers, create letters and forms, seating charts, print labels, various reports, and much more. It even has a section for mariachi band. How about that! The RCI Program also includes literally thousands of music titles in band, orchestra, choir, and jazz to help build your music library program. The individual student information window this is all built from has a place for all the kinds of information a band or orchestra director might need to know on all of his or her students. It even has a place for each student’s picture. If you’re like me, it takes me forever to learn the new freshmen students’ names each year.

From that program I have even expanded. There is a place on the RCI program for e-mail addresses. From that I developed an e-mail band list in the address book on my computer. About three years ago, I discovered that more than 80 percent of my students and/or their parents were online and had e-mail addresses. I now send out all my band letters by e-mail. The response from parents, who are now just finding out what’s going on in my band, has been tremendous. In fact, due to the difficulty of my high school to get information out to parents, my e-mails give those parents more information about what’s going on at the school than what may or may not come home in school letters. Poll your students to see how many of their parents have e-mail addresses.

Music Notation/Music Theory. By now, most of you who have settled into a computer and use it for notation and arranging music have settled into one program (such as Sibelius or Finale). I spent this last summer really digging into one of these programs. I wrote out missing parts, arranged an opener for our field show and learned how to scan music for editing. It took awhile, but I have never been so happy concerning music writing. Now I truly believe I can write single parts out faster on a computer than by hand. May I point out I can do this faster now on a computer keyboard than on a MIDI piano keyboard. I even purchased the new upgrade and was surprised at the ease with which the newer program made my music writing.

Music theory (as well as jazz theory) is becoming a greater part of the high school band experience. My students, like many of your students, are very bright intellectually. They start asking questions about chord structure many times during their school years – especially the jazz kids. Alfred Music has a very good music theory program. It also works well if you are trying to establish an AP music theory class. This is also a great place to introduce your students to electronic MIDI piano keyboard sound. They have a lot of fun putting together their own compositions with such programs as Band-In-A-Box.

Handheld Palm Pilots. Handheld Palm Pilots are becoming the rage for band directors. How often do we keep a huge amount of information with us at all times? From band member phone numbers to important and often-called phone numbers, from today’s schedule to important dates scheduled months in the future. I also keep important band letters and information in one of the files for me to go over. How about keeping a reminder of tasks you have to complete today? I have so much information now on my Palm Pilot, I no longer take my briefcase home. Just my small handheld computer.

You can download a tremendous number of specialty programs. I purchased a program called MiniMusic, Mobile Software Pack for Palm OS. Not only can it notate music right on your palm pilot, but it can build chords, scales, guitar chords at the click of a switch, along with a great ear-training program, and has a program for percussion called Beat Pad. I wish I had that when I was in my college theory class. 
If you have come across something that you think works well in the classroom for music teachers, please take the time to share it with others as I have. I have only covered a small portion of the programs out there for music teachers. It’s your turn to share them with us.

D.L. Johnson is the director of bands at North Monterey County High School in California. A music educator for 30 years, Johnson is a past president of the California Association for Music Education.

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