• Arranging Fundamentals: Reinventing Melodies

    Mike Lawson | August 5, 2009

    Some of the greatest experiences an arranger can have are the opportunities to lovingly "mess with" someone else's melody. I've found that it is also the one aspect of arranging which less experienced musicians are the most intimidated by. However, altering aspects of a song's melody shouldn't be looked upon as something that is taboo. Rather, the process can be thought of as actually paying tribute to what makes a work great in the first place.

    Selection and Approach
    When picking a melody I want to reformat, I always try to select a tune I feel a strong personal connection with. But even when working with lesser material, it is important to find something to love about the given tune and to deeply understand the song's structure and history. This will keep you inspired and informed, helping creative ideas come more easily.

    If the selected tune is one the average listener is generally familiar with, then the way an arranger treats it can act as a window into his or her creative thinking and personal style. Whenever possible, it helps to start by listening to a recording of the original version of the song, or at least a version done in the traditional manner. This will help make clear the tune's original intention as a composition. Assuming there exists plenty of freedom to alter various aspects of the song (melody, harmony, style, meter, et cetera), the most crucial choice the arranger first makes is with respect to the new overall "feel" of the composition. This decision should be allowed to evolve very generally, by choosing basic things like tempo, overall level of tension, and so on. Then, the arranger should pick a rhythmic style that best addresses those overall ideas. For example, if I want to turn a standard-sounding ballad into something "fast" and more "tense" in mood, I might select a samba for the groove, with a heavily syncopated treatment of the melody, perhaps adding some unusual re-harmonizations as well. Maybe I would also incorporate some kind of underlying rhythmic vamp figure, which could possibly enhance the feeling of tension. Not every change of groove or tempo is going to work for the arranger, personally. He or she must sit with the tune for a while and play around until something feels right. It's really a matter of taste.

  • What to Do on the First Day of Rehearsal

    Mike Lawson | August 5, 2009

    The first day of rehearsal can be the most stressful day of the year for directors and instructors. There are the new students who have to get acquainted, paperwork that needs to be handed in, drill to be handed out, music to be memorized, and so much more. The first day is also one of the most important days of the year, as it sets a standard for the rest of the season and lets the band members know what to expect. There are many considerations to evaluate when planning the first day of rehearsal, including:

    • How late into the summer should we start?
    • How many returning members will be there? How many new members?
    • How long have the students had the music to work on if any time at all? (Music should always be handed out by the end of the previous school year!)
    • How much time is there before the first performance of the season?
    • What level of performance will the students be at?

    These are the five main things I consider when planning a first rehearsal. My main rule of thumb is that earlier in the season, more time should be spent on basics and fundamentals of technique (visual or musical). Later in the season, spend more time on show aspects drill, show music, et cetera. Of course, foundations of technique must be applied and reviewed all season long. To further examine our considerations, let's go over the details and corresponding results for each one.

    How late into the summer is it?
    The later it is in the summer, the more pressure there is to get moving with the show. The first football game could be in as little as three weeks! At this point, teach your students everything they need to know to execute drill, and start teaching drill as soon as possible.

  • Growing Great Horns

    Mike Lawson | July 6, 2009

    Developing a good horn section seems to be one of the great hurdles that many band and orchestra directors have a hard time clearing. My visits to various band and orchestra programs around the country often reveal a lack of understanding for this beautiful but challenging instrument. I have observed many school ensembles that have weak horn sections, if there is one at all, or horn sections that are not playing up to their potential. Horn definitely can be treacherous, but giving attention to a few simple aspects of the instrument can make your horn players better equipped for success.

  • Effective Equipment Logistics for Marching Bands

    Mike Lawson | May 13, 2009

    The logistical challenges inherent with handling marching band equipment when met properly can positively reinforce the excellence and discipline necessary to stage an award-winning performance on the field. While every marching band program is unique, creativity and coordination are two valuable keys to success.

    Creativity: Sharing Ideas, Finding Solutions
    While competitive on the field, most marching bands have a collegial, team spirit off the field and are willing to share their creative ideas and advice. Other programs can offer invaluable insights.

    "Since day one, we've modified everything I don't know how many times after seeing how others do it," comments Wayne Ivers, band director at Marshall High School in Marshall, Minn.

  • Report: Designing A Marching Band Field Show

    Mike Lawson | May 13, 2009

    Whether for the halftime show of a high school football game or for panel of judges at a national competition, a marching band field show combines several critical elements to entertain, inspire, and engage audiences. The coordinated combination of music pageantry should be designed to create a unified presentation of a musical, visual, conceptual, or abstract theme.

    Every band director and his or her staff will have a slightly different process when it comes to building a show, but the basic steps of planning and design, implementation, and execution remain fairly constant. SBO recently caught up with three experienced and successful drill writers who shed some light on the process when putting together a field show, from conceptualization to the finished product.

    Charles "Chip" Richter, a freelance drill designer and associate band director at Alief Taylor High School in Houston, Texas, begins by brainstorming music. "The first step of designing a show isn't even a formal step," he explains. "We sit down as a staff and start listening to different music that we like. For next year's marching season, we already started listening last fall. Right after marching season ends, we get together and talk about what we liked from that year's show, how various things we did affected the audience or the judges, and come up for goals of what we want to do the following year. At that point, we can start putting those thoughts together with the musical ideas that we've got rolling around in our heads. Really, it's not until about January that we start getting serious about moving forward in a particular direction as far as what we're going to do the following year."

  • Simple Strategies for More Productive Rehearsals

    Mike Lawson | March 13, 2008

    When it comes to rehearsal techniques, there are as many styles as there are teachers. Success in the band room can be achieved in different ways, and although there is no clear-cut formula, the most effective rehearsals at all levels are comprised of three components: preparation, pacing, and participation. A great rehearsal is not a stroke of luck; it is the result of the skillful orchestration of these elements by the director.

    Great coaches possess a positive vision for their program, prepare for the season, then each practice and game; likewise, band directors must do the same. Preparation begins outside of the classroom with goal setting. Goals should be long- and short-term, broad and specific. It is imperative to have an idea of what is to be accomplished over a year, from concert to concert, or even on a weekly and daily basis. Through this, one can ensure there is direction in the program and in daily teaching.

    Once goals have been established, proceed to examining the physical condition of the band room. This is something that may easily be overlooked, but can greatly impact the quality of rehearsals. Not only does it affect the students' psyche, but also valuable time can be saved if the room is properly organized. Make sure there is a clear path from the doors to the instrument lockers or cubbies to avoid congestion. Check that all stands, chairs, and folders are in place, and instruct students to leave cases outside of the ensemble set up. Give all percussionists designated places to store instruments to avoid clutter in their section, which is often the messiest area in the band room. At the end of rehearsal, give your students a friendly reminder to leave the room in the same condition it was when they arrived, then dismiss them. A neat and structured room sends the message that the band hall is a place of business.

  • Teaching Four-Mallet Marimba Technique: A Sequential Approach to Repertoire

    Mike Lawson | November 27, 2007

    Although evidence exists of four-mallet playing in Asia as early as the 16th Century, on Western mallet instruments it is a fairly recent development. In modern times, a handful of different grips and approaches to playing have become standard, but a systematic approach must be used to teach beginning four-mallet players. All too often, it seems, students are assigned four-mallet solos which are too difficult for them, and are not given the technical tools to be able to play them well.

    We can attribute the standardization of the main stroke types and names used in four-mallet playing to Leigh Howard Stevens' wide-spread method book (which includes an introductory treatise on his approach to four-mallet playing) Method of Movement. In this book, Stevens explains and categorizes the main stroke types of four-mallet playing.

    In general terms, Method of Movement teaches technique through sequential exercises and is great because it provides students with exercises that work on the various types of motion required to master four-mallet technique. In addition to Method of Movement, I require my students to also work out of 120 Progressive Four-Mallet Studies, by Luigi Morleo and published by Honeyrock Publications, which is a wonderful collection of etudes organized systematically so as to work on the various stroke types.

  • Score Preparation for the Young Band Director

    Mike Lawson | 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.

  • Multicultural Music: Broadening Students’ Musical Horizons

    Mike Lawson | October 22, 2006

    By Dawn Allcot

    In a recent survey conducted by MENC, the National Association for Music Education, 95 percent of 364 music teachers polled reported that they teach multicultural, or world, music in their curriculum. Eighty-four percent said they include this music in their ensembles' performances.

    In a separate survey, 25 percent of the educators questioned said that their choices of multicultural music included selections from the represented ethnic and/or religious groups in their schools. An additional 29 percent said that the selections "pretty much" included choices from these different groups.

    While the MENC survey represented a cross-section of music educators - from instrumental music to choral and general music - the percentage of band and orchestra directors that actually incorporate world music into their ensembles could be much lower.

  • Surviving the Percussion Section

    Mike Lawson | October 21, 2006

    A Drummer’s Thoughts: The sun glints through the band room windows. Spring has finally arrived and what I would give to be outside right now. With this change of season, flowers bloom, grass needs cutting and of course the …man, I wish this stupid fly would go away. The fly lands gently on the pane of glass and I’m poised to strike. I pull back my bass drum mallet like Babe Ruth gearing up to crack another home run. Whack! To my amazement not only did I get the fly, but the mallet shattered right through the window. Cool!

    Management & Discipline

    Now this exact scenario, described in the lefthand column, played out for my predecessor at Tunkhannock Area High School, but I knew that this type of thing would never happen in my percussion section. I would make sure that the students behaved; after all, it is all about classroom management and discipline. I knew that students would get bored easily and, after all, they are drummers – how much should we really expect? So I started giving my students projects, things that needed to get done. Soon, I was spending more time finding these projects then actually teaching my kids. I finally relented and realized that I, too, was on the same path as that broken window…

  • Self-Adjudiction

    Mike Lawson | October 21, 2006

    Does judging your own band strike you as a silly notion, or could it actually serve a purpose? Try these techniques for some significant benefits for you and your band.


    How It Works

    Though nobody expects to attend a band festival and judge his or her own band, if you’ve been struggling to get better performance results and higher scores, self-adjudicating before the event can help achieve your goal. When you listen to concert recordings or rehearsal work tapes, place yourself in the role of an objective listener evaluating someone else’s band.

  • Percussion Section Management

    Mike Lawson | October 21, 2006

    Your percussionists probably represent the best-organized and best-behaved sections in your band, right?

    No? How odd, seeing as they are far away in the very back of the band, like to hit things, can't seem to sit still long enough for you to complete an entire sentence, and enjoy each other's company so much that all they want to do is talk about sticks, drums, CDs, and so on...

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