Score Preparation for the Young Band Director

Mike Lawson • ChoralPerformance • October 16, 2007

How prepared do you expect your students to be at concert time? That’s exactly how prepared you need to be the first time you work on a piece. “Preparation” comes from the Latin praeparare, from prae •before’ + parare •make ready’. To make ready before (not during) rehearsal. To be 100 percent ready, beforehand, for whatever difficulties your chosen piece might present.

Experienced band directors may no longer go through each of the following steps to prepare every score; that’s most likely because they have worked on enough scores that they can spot many potential problems instantly. But one of the biggest deficiencies we see in young conductors has nothing to do with motivation, or education, or even actual conducting skill it has to do with lack of time spent in preparation for rehearsals. How carefully would you prepare if you were asked to conduct a national honor band? Do your students deserve any less? Here are some ideas to help you prepare each score thoroughly.

Finger Each Part
Though you may not be able to perform well on each instrument, you should be able to finger (“air-play”) each and every part in your scores. If you don’t know your fingerings, slide positions, and rudiments well enough to do that, you have even more homework to do than you thought. Meanwhile, find a mentor, colleague or friend who can do this, and have him help you.


Pay special attention to the parts that are not in your own area of expertise; and each time you conduct the piece, make an effort to listen for these instruments. Your ear naturally focuses on your own instrument and your own pitch range (for example, trumpet players naturally listen to the upper brass instruments first while sax players hear the middle-range instruments and the lower woodwinds first).

Note any places where a player might have to change instruments (for example, flute/piccolo, Bb/Eb clarinet).

In each woodwind part, note alternate and trill fingerings. The traditional sign for designating use of alternate fingering for woodwind players is an asterisk (*). Here are some of the things to mark:


  • Flutes places where thumb Bb is needed; places where middle-finger F# might be used instead of ring-finger F#. If you do not have a good flute trill chart, you will need to get one; the best one we have found is distributed by Gemeinhardt flutes because the fingers that move for every trill are marked in a different color, making the chart very easy to read.
  • Clarinets places where alternate B-Bb (chalumeau register) or F-F# (clarion register) should be used; F-F# chromatic fingering in the throat tones; alternate Bb (clarion) or Eb (chalumeau) fingerings (side key vs. 1&1 fingering).
  • Saxes places where F-F# or B-C should be played with the side key rather than cross-fingerings; choice of Bb fingerings (bis key vs. 1&1 vs. A+side).
  • Oboes various fingering choices for F.
  • Bassoons look out for movement from low or middle F# (Gb) to A# (Bb), low F to Ab. Some notes on the bassoon have a number of fingerings that can be used, depending on context and the particular instrument’s and reed’s intonation. Note if there is a change of clef during the piece.


In each clarinet part (including harmony clarinets), note places where the right hand should be left down (usually indicated by a straight line under the included notes), and places where pinkies must alternate (write, for example, L-R-L over the notes).

  • The notes included here are e-f-f#-g# in the chalumeau register (also low Eb for bass clarinet), and b’-c”-c#”-d#” in the clarion register.
  • Unless the student has a left-hand Eb key (rare), if there is a d#” (low g#) present, that will control the fingering used. In most other cases, students will be able to choose whether to start with their right or left pinky, but should choose only one fingering to use consistently, and mark it in.
  • Mark any place that trombonists should use alternate slide positions, for example, alternating rapidly between F and c.
  • If there are trills or other ornaments, make sure you know what notes are involved and what fingerings should be used.
  • Based on the genre and composer of the piece, will you start ornaments on or before the beat? On the main note or on the upper auxiliary?
  • Note any accidentals that might be easily missed by young players. Mark any notes that are outside your students normal playing range and be prepared to help with their fingerings.
  • Mark any notes that have a tendency to be out of tune for that instrument. Instrument intonation charts are widely available and you should always keep one handy. Be prepared to tell young players who else in the band is playing the same note, or another note they can tune to. Common problem notes include:
    • Flute/Piccolo: Open Db (both octaves), usually sharp.
    • All Saxophones: d” (fourth-line D), usually sharp.
    • Bassoon: e and f (second space and fourth line bass clef); also improperly played half-hole notes (f#, g, g# in the bass clef and then high f#’ and g’ above the staff).
    • Trumpet: low c’, c#’, d’, e’ and a’s – usually sharp; low g’ usually flat; d” and e” (fifth partial notes) usually flat.

Note any rhythms that might be difficult (for example, 3 against 2), or places where double- or triple-tonguing might be required. Mark cutoffs; mark breaths, catch-breaths, and places where no breath should be taken. Note the movement of each line, and where the tension/release should be.

Make note of any mutes or other special equipment required, so that these can be used each time you rehearse the piece. Students should get accustomed to using these, and hearing the sound they produce, right from the start.

Make a list of all percussion equipment the piece requires, including mallets, triangle strikers, even someplace to put the tambourine down (quietly) when they’re done using it, if necessary. Your percussion captain should be able to make sure all equipment is ready and all parts are covered before you begin each piece. Note timpani tunings and re-tunings, if any; make sure there is a pitch pipe handy.

Structure and Interpretation
Look at the harmonic structure of the piece. Mark octaves and fifths that can be tuning “anchors”; this is something that is second nature to good choral singers, but rarely utilized in instrumental music. Mark suspensions (who has the suspended note? Is it a 4-3 or a 7-6?) and any changes of tonality that will require special attention to intonation. Mark cadences, especially if there is hemiola that will require a change in conducting pattern (look for these primarily in Baroque and pre-Baroque music in triple time, right before the final chord of a cadence).

Look at the melodic structure of the piece. Mark sequences that might call for terraced dynamics. Mark pickups that should “pull” into the following measure, even if they are not “obvious” pickup notes. If your piece is one that has lyrics, sing through the lyrics and see how they affect your phrasing choices.

Make sure your interpretation of the piece is stylistically correct and historically accurate. Taking into account the composer and genre of the piece, mark dynamics and other nuances (for example, Baroque and earlier pieces call for a penultimate ritard as opposed to a grand rallentando). Historical accuracy is important; often overlooked by young band directors, it can help make the difference between a good performance and an outstanding one. If you are unsure about proper interpretation of ornamentation, Howard Ferguson’s Keyboard Interpretation (New York: Oxford Press, 1975) can be extremely helpful.

As you go through your score, develop an audialized “ideal” performance of your piece, exactly what you want it to sound like at performance time. Once you’ve examined the score in detail, set a metronome for the first designated tempo and “air-conduct” the piece until you are comfortable with it. Don’t forget the tempo changes, style, phrasing, dynamics, cues, and cutoffs. Your goal is to be able to keep eye contact with your group throughout the piece. In order to encourage optimal student achievement and on-task behavior, studies show, you will need to keep eye contact with your group at least 75 percent of the time. The last thing your students need if they are playing an unfamiliar piece is a director who is so buried in the score that he cannot conduct effectively (with adequate eye contact).

Once the first reading of a piece is over, it’s time to begin focusing on the specifics you have marked dynamics, articulation, fingerings and so on. If you wait much longer, parts may be learned incorrectly, and more so with each successive play-through. And once the human brain learns something incorrectly, it takes three times as many repetitions played correctly to re-learn for each one repetition played incorrectly or partially correctly. Often, you can use your section leaders to make sure every player in a specific section has marked his music properly; but every player should be responsible for marking in his own music any notes, accidentals, rhythms or other inaccuracies as soon as they he misses them more than just once. And once a concept is learned by your band, insist that it be played correctly every time. Don’t settle for “backsliding.” Move your group towards your audialized ideal, step by step.

Many young band directors fall into the trap of being overly negative, and then blame themselves for “expecting too much.” Usually, it’s not your expectations that are at fault here, but your classroom management skills. What is your affect on the podium? Are you as excited to be there as you want your students to be? Do you love music, and love the music you’ve chosen for your students? Or do you look tired and bored? Does your body language tell your students you’re not sure why you took this job in the first place? Smile, move around the room, look your students in the eye, act as though you have something special (the joy of a shared aesthetic experience) to share with them.

Research shows that a ratio of 80 percent approval to 20 percent disapproval is needed to maintain on-task behavior, maximize learning and foster positive student attitudes (that means, in essence, four positive things for every negative thing you say). By keeping the atmosphere positive and the rehearsal pace up-tempo, you will get the most out of your rehearsal, and your students will be encouraged to practice so that their next rehearsal will be even better. They will strive to please you and look forward to coming to your class.

On Fingerings
If you are not a woodwind player, you may think that my emphasis on fingerings is disproportionate. The truth is, a note fingered incorrectly is an incorrect note. I cringe just as badly when I hear cross-fingerings on a clarinet or sax as I do when a student misses an accidental and yes, one can hear it!

I believe the onus for this should fall on beginning band teachers, even though method books introduce very few fingering alternatives in the first level or so, and few teachers use method books past that point. And, only a small percentage of students take private lessons, where these fingering choices are more usually taught. Directors who are trumpet players themselves will insist that their trumpet students use their third valve slides from Day One; so why not insist on correct fingerings from woodwind players as well? Just as good beginning band directors listen to and correct tone every day, they must also listen to and correct (as much as possible) wrong fingerings every day. If these things are reinforced from Day One, and are taken seriously, and are a part of assessment, the long-term effect will be very noticeable. However, correct fingering habits like correct hand positions are often not taught in beginning band classes, so it behooves each of us to make sure that our students continue to develop these proper fingering habits so they can play with the increased agility required in the more advanced literature.

For some students, changing fingerings means a huge slow-down in terms of tempo, and a huge albeit temporary loss of “comfort.” However, as with any other incorrect instrumental technique, when fixed, the potential for additional facility and comfort greatly increases. In other words, in the long run, it’s worth it! Besides, the longer a student waits to learn fingering alternatives, the more frustrating the slowing-down and loss of comfort will be. So, why wait? (It’s only hard to un-do a bad habit if one has let that bad habit become a habit in the first place.) Unless these “new notes” (which is really what they are, a form of expanding one’s range, just not in the sense of a higher or lower pitch) are learned, the students’ precision and facility will never reach their full potential.

In English we know when to use is (“He is”) versus are (“We are”) and we must become equally able to use both when the syntax (grammatical context) so requires. In music, we must know when to play E and when to play Eb, and must become equally able to use them both when the tonal context so requires. In the same manner, a woodwind player must know the various fingerings for each note on his instrument, and be equally able to use each of them when the melodic/musical context so requires. There are specific parameters for fingering choices just as there are specific parameters for tenses, subject-verb agreement, and so on. For example:

  • Thumb Bb for a flutist should be used whenever the note values are short, and there is no B natural nearby. Regardless of the skill of the player, this fingering should be used because it means only one hand need be involved in the A/Bb or Bb/C movement rather than two. When a second hand is involved at that speed, in addition to the chance of poorer precision, there is always the risk of the instrument moving and the air stream being interrupted and/or the pitch being less reliable. This is as much a function of the mechanics of the instrument especially when we are talking about student horns – than the skill of the player. While some flute teachers may discourage using thumb Bb under almost any circumstances, the truth is that America is the only country that uses the 1&1 fingering for Bb on the flute as much as we do other countries use the thumb Bb almost exclusively, and the 1-&-tab fingering when a B natural is nearby.
  • With clarinets, moving a pinky from one key to another almost always creates a middle note “blip” and almost always disrupts the vibrations moving through the instrument it’s generally not considered acceptable, any more than pushing really, really hard against one’s lips is an acceptable way to play a high note on a trumpet. Therefore, deciding where and how to alternate pinkies is essential, not optional. And writing in one’s choice keeps the player from having to make that decision every time the passage is played. It also should not be considered optional to keep the right hand down when moving back and forth from clarion to throat tones, it should be second nature.

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