College Programs

Mike Lawson • Commentary • August 15, 2016

Getting Your Students Ready for College and University Band Programs When the Last Note is Played, Does the Music End?

There is a story of a legendary college band director who was working with a high school band. He noticed the band did not have an oboe player. After rehearsal he asked the director, “Why don’t you have an oboe player?” The director replied, “She graduated.” Without missing a beat, the clinician said, “You knew she was going to graduate four years ago. Why didn’t you do something about it?”

Making sure we recruit musicians to fill the seats of our bands and orchestras is important. But another important question needing to be addressed is what am I doing to prepare my students musically and mentally for the next stages of their musical lives? When the last note is played in your spring concert does the music end?

This question is easier to answer when the student moves from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school. What about that oboe player? What did her director do to help prepare her for the next phase of her musical life or did she just stop playing?

The next time you step on the podium take a look around and try to visualize what each student will do when they graduate from high school. These musicians will likely fall into one of four categories; they will attend a college or university and major in a discipline other than music, attend a college or university and major in music, enter into the military or find a job. Some will continue playing music while the majority will not. This imbalance needs to change.

Regardless of what a student plans on doing upon graduation from high school we need to emphasize the importance of continuing to be actively involved in music and music making. Students need to know of playing opportunities that exist in community bands and orchestras. Many churches also have music programs, and there may be jazz groups or chamber music ensembles that have a place for them. The work they have invested over the past three to eight years is just beginning to pay dividends. Encourage them to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Encourage them to continue to play their instrument. Students who plan on entering the military should contact the local recruiter before enlisting to learn about the opportunities that are available to remain an active musician in one of the armed forces.

Students who will be attending college and don’t plan on majoring in music need to know that most colleges and universities have a place for them. Although they may not make the premier ensemble as a non-music major, there are bands and orchestras where they can continue to play their instrument and they can also arrange to study privately. In addition to the fun of continuing to play music and perform, being a part of a musical ensemble will introduce them to a new circle of friends who share a common interest.

Don’t let them give you the argument that playing in college will take too much time. College and university ensembles usually take much less time than in high school. More importantly, playing in band or orchestra will be a great aid in adjusting to college and university life. Students who express an interest in being a college or university music major should be guided and have their interest fostered in many ways.

First, let them know how proud and excited you are that they are considering a career in music.

Students who want to follow in your footsteps to become a music teacher or chase their dream of being a professional performer should be encouraged. Never try to dissuade a student by even hinting (if you feel that way or if you are trying to be funny) that becoming a music teacher or professional musician is a bad career choice. Instead, take their interest as a compliment. These students either want to follow in your footsteps or you have played a major role in fostering the meaningful relationship they have with music.

It is important to have a realistic conversation with these students regarding their college and university choices as well as their major area of study such as music education, music performance, composition, jazz studies, etc. Be realistic in helping them to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Not all students are ready to attend Eastman, Julliard or Curtis. Some students are ready for a large university dynamic where others may need a smaller, more intimate environment. It is important for these future music professionals to find the right fit and select the college or university that offers them the best opportunities for acceptance, growth, development, and success.

Work with students to identify three to five college or university programs during their sophomore or junior year. Work with your school counselor to help arrange visits to each of these programs. Many music departments have scheduled audition and visitation days that provide a comprehensive overview of the school or department of music. Students should also consider attending concerts, recitals and arranging for a private lesson or consultation on their primary instrument.

Students should be encouraged to play on the best quality instrument they can afford. Beginner instrument models are usually not sufficient for advanced study. Students who play instruments typically provided by high school music programs such as tubas, euphoniums, horns, bassoons, cellos, double basses, etc. should try to purchase their own instrument, or at the very least, check with potential college and university music programs to see if they are provided or can be rented.

Although every student should be encouraged to study privately, students who plan on majoring in music will benefit greatly as they will be able to work on developing their musicianship and technique. This is also the time to work to correct problems in specific areas such as embouchure, hand position and bowing. Percussionists in addition to drumming, should study mallets, timpani, and drum set.

A basic knowledge of music theory is also very helpful. Being able to read notation in various clefs, understanding the construction and sounds of major and minor scales, key signatures, intervals, chords and simple harmonic progressions is invaluable. Counting rhythms in both simple and compound meters and the ability to clap, tap and count a steady beat and at least two divisions of the beat is a must.

Encouraging students to develop keyboard skills will aid their understanding of theory and help them prepare for the minimal level of piano proficiency that is required of every music major.

On their major instrument, students should be able to play all major and minor scales and arpeggios as well as the chromatic scale, over the full practical range of their instrument. These scales should be learned fluently and performed evenly and musically. Speed is less important than quality sound and accuracy. All three forms of minor scales should be learned and all scales and arpeggios should be performed from memory. Playing scales and arpeggios using a variety of articulations or bowings is a plus.

Private instructors or high school teachers should work with students in selecting and preparing a set of audition material. This material should include both technical and lyrical selections, etudes or excerpts. Some schools have required audition music that students must prepare. If a student plans on auditioning with a solo that uses piano accompaniment, arrange to have the piano player travel with the student to the audition. If the college provides an accompanist it will help to send them the music ahead of the audition (but keep a copy of the piano part just in case it gets misplaced along the way). If it is possible to run through the work with the accompanist prior to the audition, do so.

Providing “mock auditions” prior to auditioning at a college or university can help students become more fluent and confident in their presentation. During this process have the student perform several scales, their prepared work(s), and have them sight read. When the student has finished playing, conduct a short interview. Questions could include having them talk about themselves, their musical experiences up to this point, their motivation for wanting to major in music, their favorite kind of music, composer…the list is endless.

Another great activity for future college music majors is involving them in a chamber music program and encouraging them to participate in solo and ensemble recitals and festivals. If the student (or a student group) can prepare a 15 – 20 minute program, encourage them to perform it for various community groups and service organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis and Optimist Clubs or even your local nursing home. Experience in playing in front of a live audience helps to alleviate performance anxiety and provides for greater development of confidence in their abilities.

If a student plans on a music education major, they should also consider learning a secondary instrument, serving as a tutor for younger students, and assisting the director as a music librarian or instrument inventory manager.

As music teachers, we have spent our lives learning an instrument, developing our craft and sharing the beauty of music with our students. Our real trophies are those students who have given us the gift of their participation in our classes. It is time that we return the favor and give them the gift of music for the rest of their lives.

Preparing Students – A Reflection…

Thirty years ago while I was a high school band director, I always seemed to have more to do than time allowed. I would read articles like the one I wrote and would do my best to prepare my students. Working with the students who I knew were interested in studying music was the easy and fun part.

Every year I would get the obligatory letter from college or university directors asking me to identify my graduating seniors so they could contact them. This is before technology and usually resulted in my hastily filling out the paper or simply ignoring it and letting it find its way to the trash. In retrospect, I was not doing a good job of promoting music to all my students beyond their high school years. Then one day I had an idea.

I spoke with every senior member of the band (usually somewhere between 40 and 50 students) and asked for permission to send their name, contact information and major instrument to college and university music programs. Stressing my hope they would continue to play after high school, I let them know there was a place for them in college or university ensembles and they did not need to major in music to continue their participation.

About 85 to 90% of the students usually agreed and I compiled a list of their names, addresses and instrument. I wrote a letter that introduced them to the college director and let them know that some of these students are considering majoring in music and some are not. But many of them will be attending college, were great contributing musicians in high school and I wanted them to continue to play.

The letter and list was photocopied and sent to every college and university in the state, about 20 – 25 regional colleges and universities that had fine music programs and about 10 national programs. The results were amazing and the benefits were more than I anticipated.

Within a short time, college and university band programs from across the country began sending these students letters and information about the opportunities that awaited them should they decide to attend their institution. Students soon began to talk with each other about their receiving a letter from a college director, commenting on the viewbook, or the displaying the cool bumper sticker they received on their instrument case or music folder.

This energy was transmitted to the parents and a hot topic at band parent meetings was how colleges from all over the country were recruiting their student to continue to play in the college or university band. Parents immediately began to show an increased level of pride in their child and our program. I found that my recruitment numbers from junior high school to high school were on the rise and there was an increase in the retention rate.

I had no idea these unexpected benefits would occur. Simply trying to save some time and not have to fill out those forms that would appear in my mailbox every week or so resulted in more students and happier and prouder community.

In the end, students who had graduated from our program were participating in over 20 colleges and universities. It was a source of great pride to know that these students were continuing on playing their instrument after high school.

Charles T. Menghini is president, professor of music and director of bands at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, Illinois. He began his teaching at VanderCook College in 1994 and is an educational member of The Music Achievement Council, an action-oriented nonprofit organization sponsored by the National Association of School Music Dealers (NASMD) and the International Music Products Association (NAMM). MAC is committed to helping teachers succeed and to create more music makers. Teachers will find materials online at

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