Fabulous Middle School Band Rehearsal Techniques

Mike Lawson • ChoralRehearsal • August 11, 2017

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The following is an article that encompasses middle school band rehearsal techniques, specifically how our staff at Waukee Middle School, Iowa, collaborates on teaching students how to get into the details of the music to create the most fulfilling musical experience.

This incorporates everyone involved in the music making process, while maintaining the highest musical standard.

Growing numbers, increased band classes, thriving interest in jazz ensembles, and managing lesson groups are normal aspects of the Waukee Middle School (WMS) band program in Waukee, Iowa. WMS is one of two middle schools in the district to exclusively house sixth and seventh grade students. We do our very best to meet the needs of our band students through differentiation of lesson groups, progress through method books, solo and ensemble repertoire, rehearsal techniques tailored to large ensemble music and jazz ensemble offerings before and after school. Developing young musicians who thrive on improving themselves and have a love of performing music drives us to make everyday a meaningful, learning experience for all involved in the music-making process.

Like most teachers (of any subject area), establishing classroom procedures and setting routines are essential to the start the school year in both sixth and seventh grade band. Practicing our routine is essential to running an efficient rehearsal:

• how to enter the band room

• where to store books/binders/instruments/cases

• where to unpack instruments

• how to find assigned seats (name cards or sheet music labeled with student names are on chairs)

• how to start class (students do not play a note until the student leader of the day steps on the podium and gives the

“signal” to play a Bb concert pitch)

• students look for the “Music Order of the Day” on the white board and proceed to organize their music accordingly

The routine may be simple, but efficiency is key!

Rehearsal techniques introduced in the first semester help to establish solid fundamental playing throughout the year, creating optimal results during second semester in preparation for spring concert and festival performances. Initial rehearsals entail fundamental playing in unison with and without the band method book. Learning how to “breathe together to play together,” while starting to train young ears to utilize the Pyramid of Sound (adapted to our instrumentation) is part of our core curriculum from the onset.

We incorporate the following into our rehearsal structure, followed by concert literature preparation:

Lex’s – Lung Exercises (Breathing Techniques)

Breathing like “Darth Vader”

Around the Band, page 2 – Fundamentals of Superior Performance, by Jeff King and Richard Williams

Learning the art of breathing together to play together

Training young ears to play unison in sections and full ensemble

Utilizing the “OH” vowel creating unison ensemble sound

Instilling steady pulse, 72 bpm

Function Chorale, #2 – Basic Change, by Stephen Milello

Pyramid of Sound – Balance and Blend

Dynamic Level Chart (dynamics are assigned a numeric value)

Changing tempos and style through conducting techniques

Band Dominoes – plugging in each student’s sound with their neighbors’ sound around the entire ensemble

Fundamental Rhythm Drills directly correlating to the pieces being rehearsed

Each repetition adds a new focus for students: clarity of style, dynamics, tempo, balance, and blend

The success at WMS could not be achieved only through the above fundamental teaching strategies. A pivotal key in concert literature preparation is due to a strong collaborative teaching partnership with my colleague, Mrs. Deb Dunn. We strive to have all students perform at their optimal potential, as well as to have them understand how their part fits into the bigger picture of the music being prepared. The “how” and “why” are important factors to individual student achievement which ultimately affects the large group band experience. This increases the importance of taking time to actually notate the following in each student’s part: phrases, dynamic levels, pitch tendencies (how to negotiate them when they arrive in the music), fingerings, tempos, syllables for articulations; and level of importance (melody, counter melody or accompaniment figures). Actually, having students see the notated areas in their part is necessary to their own musical understanding, development and execution. Ultimately, our students will use their performance not only as a tool of communication with each other within the ensemble, but with an audience as well.

Mrs. Dunn and I incorporate sectionals within the full band rehearsal during the school day. One of us will conduct the full band rehearsal, while the other conducts a sectional outside the rehearsal room. A smaller group setting can pin-point areas of concern by taking time to correct note errors, practice stagger breathing, dynamic contrast, and tuning within the section.

The time spent in sectionals maximize individual musical output so everyone can be positive contributors in the ensemble and have a positive experience.

Before school sectionals are treated as a collaborative effort between both teachers and students. Questioning techniques are used in all rehearsals to increase student awareness of musical concepts:

What could you hear happening in measures 5-19?

How can we improve on that section?

Was there a moving part that you could not hear?

What section has the melody?

What notes in the passage were not quite in tune?

How can we correct rhythms?

We engage students in the music making process through non-traditional ways as well. For example, introducing a new piece is a perfect time for creative writing. Students choose a literary avenue to describe on paper what their ears are hearing. Short stories, poems, jot lists and even cartoons are acceptable. We recently introduced, Phasing Thunder, by Brian Balmages through this exact way. This type of stimulation helps to unleash a sense of freedom and establishes the opportunity for students to take ownership from the onset of learning a new piece of music. The same exercise can be done near or after a performance. Comparing the initial and secondary writing can be an indicator of student growth in literary and musical content knowledge.

Every band student in the Waukee Middle School Band program receives a 20-minute lesson per six-day lesson cycle. Band lesson assignments include: instrument specific warm-ups, scales, clapping, and counting aloud rhythm lines, method book exercises, concert band music and solos (spring). Smart Music is utilized to assess student progress in method books and band music when accessible. Student lessons may be in the form of single or small group lessons (2-8 students), depending on student schedules. We make lessons a high priority for every student. Individual skill development is necessary for improving the band as a whole.

Lessons harbor a positive learning environment for our band students. When students see a positive score on Smart Music, complete a scale assessment with a standards-based grade of “secure,” clap and count a rhythm line to perfection, or perform an ensemble piece without teacher direction, they gain confidence and a sense of accomplishment that carries over into the large group band experience – an experience where they are truly apart of something bigger than themselves.

Deb Dunn (6th Concert Bands) and Mary Crandell (7th Concert Bands) are colleagues at Waukee Middle School, Waukee, Iowa. Deb, a Luther College graduate – BME (Decorah, Iowa) has been in the Waukee School District for 24 years. Mary, a University of South Dakota graduate – BME, MME (Vermillion, SD) has been teaching with Deb for the past 13 years.

Both collaboratively teach the 7th & 8th grade jazz ensembles as well as their prospective concert bands. Waukee Middle School Concert Bands have consistently been awarded runner-up or first place in the annual Adventureland Junior High Festival of Bands, Adventureland Park, Altoona, Iowa. Jazz Bands have earned consistent division I or I+ ratings at district jazz festivals and in 2011 was chosen to perform at the State Iowa Bandmasters Conference, Des Moines, Iowa. Deb and Mary have presented sessions on “Embedding Jazz Into the Beginning Band Program,” at state conferences and most recently at the 2016 NAfME Conference in Nashville, TN.

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