Guest Editorial: Honor Bands

Mike Lawson • Commentary • September 17, 2014

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Organizing an Honor Band

Dr. Michael Buck conducts the NE Minnesota Band Directors Association 2014 9-10 Honor Band.

Honor bands are a rewarding experience for students, clinicians, teachers, and families. They represent an opportunity for motivated students to come together and create something special in a short amount of time. During the honor band experience, learning occurs in several ways: students learn from each other, students learn from a section coach, students experience a new director, and students perform new music.

When getting a brand new honor band off the ground, there are a lot of details to consider. Each situation is unique, but let’s consider the three main phases in the organizational process: preparation, the day of, and wrap-up.


Four Months Before the Performance

First, ask yourself, “What is the target age or ability level for the students?” This will help narrow down some of the specifics, like who to hire for clinicians, how to handle nominations, which repertoire to select, and so on. Young students today have many more opportunities for honor bands than existed just a few years ago. Likewise, jazz bands, small ensembles, and soloists have more opportunities today than in the past. Once these parameters have been established, find a clinician. College faculty, retired local directors, and master teachers who are still actively teaching can all bring a unique perspective that can positively influence students. The clinicians should be adequately compensated and clearly informed of expectations early on in the process. Their duty is to provide a list of five or so pieces which they will study and then teach to the students.

Dividing the workload can help you keep your sanity. A board of approximately five band directors can divide up the tasks. Resist the urge to control all the details – two heads are better than one, as the saying goes The host director may only provide hosting assistance, for example to let you know what percussion they have, set the stage and sectional rooms, manage the performance venue, clear the stage, and those types of tasks. One board member may handle most of the paperwork, like mailing the initial information and nomination forms, reviewing nominations, printing name tags, preparing the roster, and preparing the program. Another board member may handle all sheet music needs: purchasing or finding donors, scanning parts, copying extra parts for the day of, and preparing folders and/or pencils. One board member could handle all snack/lunch details, take photos, and assist the clinicians with any of their needs. A final board member may handle all the finances: student fees, paying the clinician and section coaches, paying for snacks, and so on. Some groups find it helpful to be fluid and adjust to the input of each board member. Others may function better with direction from one lead member. Both hierarchies can be very effective.

Be sure the host school consults with the activities director and the school offices in order to avoid as many conflicts as possible, especially if this is a first-time event. Make sure the date and times are clearly advertised to all invited schools. With younger students, keep in mind they will have more skills and be more independent closer to the end of the school year. Date and time can also impact which rooms are available, so the host may want to check on specific facilities like the cafeteria, a large room for storing cases and personal belongings, rooms for sectionals, and a director’s lounge. Depending on location and time of year, it is not unheard of for honor bands to have a “snow date” in the event of inclement weather.


Three Months Before the Performance

Mrs. Carol Fillafer works with the NE Minnesota Band Directors Association 2014 2nd-Year Honor Band.

Now that you have some groundwork laid, it’s time to find the students. Consider size and instrumentation of the band. Sixty to eighty honor band students can be manageable by an experienced teacher. Can you find enough schools to send multiple students to fill out the band? Give yourself enough time to mail information and nominations to area schools. Following up with a phone call or email will add a personal touch. Especially if this is a first-time event, you may not want to be overly selective. Nominations may serve more as a way to determine part placement or chair placement rather than decide if a student is accepted. Being too exclusive at first may limit your honor band’s size and potential future growth.

A word about fees and compensation: a small fee, for example 15 dollars, may help generate enough income for you to cover the costs involved with the clinician, section coaches, snacks/lunch, and other minor expenses. Asking local businesses for food to be donated or sold “at cost” can help. Grants and local businesses may help make your first event free to attendees. Be sure to acknowledge local donors in concert programs and on your posters.

When drafting the schedule for the day, keep in mind that students need small breaks to rest, move or stretch, use the restroom, and get a drink of water. A few small breaks during the day will help increase their focus. Likewise, percussion students will likely be standing for several hours. It’s a good idea to provide chairs for them during rehearsal, even if this is not standard practice in your usual band rehearsal.


One Month Before the Performance

One month prior to your honor band, you will want to have section coaches picked. A small stipend can help entice those directors who would be at the honor band anyway. To encourage directors to be present on the day of the honor band, one could offer incentives. I know groups that draw names out of a hat to give away the music performed that very day. Publishers or music stores may donate a copy or two of each piece to organizations such as your honor band, perhaps because of the large size of the honor band and the number of participating schools. Be sure to thank them publicly and with a thank you note for their gift of music or discounted purchases.

Sharing information is easier now than ever before. Share with all participating directors the roster, which includes part assignments, if applicable. Percussion assignments should be carefully proofread to make sure students rotate parts and that all instruments will be covered. Scans of individual student sheet music are also easily shareable. Be sure to adhere to copyright guidelines. This would give students a chance to prepare their music with their own band teacher. Clinicians may choose music which students can practice at home with tools like SmartMusic. This can be boon to the quality of your final performance. This may also be a good time to share directions on how to get to the host school, and maybe even a map of the school.


Leading up to the Big Day

A few weeks prior to the honor band, check that arrangements have been made for any snacks or meals, communication has been made with local media, and that the concert program is in progress. Advanced preparation of nametags, hanging signs for the rest rooms, and notifying the custodial staff can also help make the event run smoothly.

On the day of the honor band performance, have signs clearly marking important areas like sectional rooms, rehearsal rooms, rest rooms, and storage. Have a well-organized registration table with several helpers to minimize student congestion through the area. Plan where you want students to start the day so you can easily make instructions heard and point out important areas and important people. It may be best to instruct students that there will be no playing during the breaks – this will help instructions to be heard and help prevent excessive fatigue.


The Honor Band Performance

Mrs. Susan Potvin and the NE Minnesota Band Directors Association 2013 grades 6-8 Honor Band.

The day is underway and all of your preparations are paying off! Students are learning, having fun, and making music. Board members should circulate and put out “fires” when they pop up. Make sure you have checked all the light and sound specifics. A recording can be a nice touch and a great keepsake for participating students. (Be sure to check licensing and copyright guidelines before you distribute those recordings, though.) Having ushers will help add to the professional atmosphere of the day; they can keep doors closed during the performance and hand out programs as the audience arrives. Other band students or booster parents from the host school might be recruited to help usher – they will know the school and can help any lost audience members. For enough extra credit, band students will help throughout the day as “runners” to assist with the small details, such as keeping an eye on the room where cases are kept – especially during break time.

A board member with public speaking experience would be a good choice to welcome the audience and remind attendees to silence their phones. A brief synopsis of the day will help unfamiliar audience members understand the importance and accomplishments of the day. This could be an opportunity for the board or the guest clinicians to provide a brief advocacy message regarding the importance of music in education. Inform students that when they leave the stage they should return their photocopies. Lastly, the board member should offer some acknowledgements and welcome the guest clinician to the podium.

Photos of students enjoying the day will be great publicity for all participating band programs and for all students. Be sure to invite your administration and fellow staff to the concert. They’ll be impressed with all the time and energy you put in – and the final product which students can create in only one day!



Follow up with thank-you notes to your clinicians and other prominent people involved in the success of your honor band: donors of music, section coaches, lights and sound techs, custodians, and so on. Students enjoy signing thank-you notes (especially younger students!) and it teaches the importance of writing them.

A brief survey to the participating directors can help provide feedback to help make your next honor band even better. I have assisted at honor bands where the clinician passed a very brief survey through the rows of the band – these passionate educators wanted to know what the students learned and what they thought could be improved.

People in the audience of your honor band may consider becoming involved next year. Plant the seed of recruitment in the minds of future clinicians, section coaches, and hosts and board members while basking in the concert afterglow. It may make it that much easier to plan the next year’s honor band with one or two details already finalized.


Advanced Honor Band Planning

Let’s say your honor band has become a tradition. Is it time for two honor bands on the same day? Be sure to consider the more advanced logistical challenges; multiple large rehearsal rooms used simultaneously, double the need for music stands and percussion, possibly two separate lunch times – who rehearses in the performance venue and at what times, and so on.

Many honor bands offer activities for the participating directors; is a local music store able to set up a room of materials? Would a colleague or college faculty member like to present a lecture on a particular topic? Or maybe a round-table discussion moderated by a board member?

Many honor bands also offer t-shirts to participants. The t-shirts could be the concert attire for the performance, as well as a memento of this exciting day. Take into account what your total student fees amount to and what your total expenses are. Some event t-shirts do not include the date; leftovers could possibly be used the next year to help limit costs. A different shirt color for each band would help you quickly identify students who are wandering the halls lost.



There are many unique challenges to organizing an honor band, but the rewards are many, both for you and your students. Each year, the tradition will become stronger and the routine will become easier for everyone involved. Honor bands help directors become more visible in the community, better connected to one another and more appreciated by students and parents. Honor bands also strengthen the passion students have for music. They help create unique memories, develop new friendships, and help students grow and learn in new ways. A well-run honor band is a great experience for everyone.

Nolan Hauta is currently a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota-Duluth working on Master’s degrees in Music Education and Instrumental Conducting. He taught 5-12 band for five years in Minnesota. Nolan has assisted with planning and carrying out honor bands with the University of Minnesota-Morris, the Northwest Minnesota Band Directors Association, the Northeast Minnesota Band Directors Association and the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Over one hundred of his students have participated in honor bands throughout Minnesota.


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