MAC Corner: April, 2014

Mike Lawson • Performance • April 16, 2014

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It’s Time to Play Ball

With spring right around the corner, boys and girls from all across the country will soon be signing up for summer fun, like baseball and Little League. Were you also thinking about Little League? Wait a minute – this magazine and its articles are supposed to be about school band and orchestra programs! Well, read on.

We would all be well advised to borrow a page from our sporting friends when it comes to our beginning band and orchestra programs.

When a child wants to play baseball, that is exactly what they want to do: play baseball. When a child joins band or orchestra, they want to play in a band or orchestra. Students don’t join band or orchestra to learn how to play an instrument; they join band and orchestra because they want to play music. The instrument is the vehicle, not the goal!

As baseball has “tryouts” for certain positions, the purpose of joining the Little League team is not to learn to become a shortstop, first baseman, or pitcher. The purpose of joining the team is to play baseball. In band and orchestra, we have “tryouts” as well, trying to find the instrument best suited for the child who wants to play in the band or orchestra. In sports, some kids will arrive with a preconceived idea that they want to be a catcher, and in music some students will have a preconceived notion that they want to play the violin, or trumpet, or drums. And as difficult as these students (and their parents) can sometimes be, these are mostly exceptions that we have to deal with and not the rule.


Building a Balanced Roster

It is very important during these tryouts that our band and orchestra coaches – oops, I mean directors – recruit enough students to fill every position. Assigning too many students to the outfield means that nobody is going to be covering second base. The same is true for school music ensembles. Directors must have a plan so that a sufficient (and not an excess) number of students are playing all the instruments.

When visiting school band programs, I am often amazed at the excess number of saxophone and percussion personnel, and the shortages in the clarinet and trombone sections. Although not a problem while students are engaged in their beginning method book, it certainly becomes an issue when they begin to play full band arrangements, as they get ready for their next game – I mean concert. Directors are encouraged to track instrumentation from year to year. Keeping records of how many students begin each instrument and how many continue on in the program can greatly assist in perfecting that plan to ensure a full and complete instrumentation from beginning band through high school.

There is a legendary story of the college director who was working with a high school band. When he noticed the band did not have an oboe player, he asked the director, “Where is your oboe player?” The director told him that the oboe player had graduated last year and immediately the college director said, “You knew the oboe player was going to graduate four years ago. You didn’t plan ahead!” Proper planning for good instrumentation begins on the first day.

Another wonderful story is of a gentleman who served as a state senator for 30 years. When asked how he did it, he replied, “Simple: I just campaigned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for 31 years.” The metaphor for us here is that recruiting for band and orchestra programs doesn’t happen during a week or two in the spring or fall; recruitment for band and orchestra programs happens each and every day.


Practices vs. Games

As the baseball season begins, teams usually have three, four, or five practices and then they play their first game. Teams may play one or two games a week and then have practice once or twice as well. But as a rule, young people do not join Little League for the practices; they join because they want to play baseball games.

Students in band and orchestra are no different. Certainly there is a lot more that goes into learning how to play an instrument for the first time. Whereas many children have played “catch” with a parent, sibling, or friend in the back yard with an occasional “pick up” game along the way, most children have never played “viola” or “tuba” in the back yard, nor have there been any “pick up” concerts along the way. It does take longer to teach basic instrument position, hand position, embouchure, and tone production. And it will take a little longer to teach the first few notes, but after that, it really is no different.

Once those first few notes are learned, let the concerts begin! Now the concerts of which I write about are not concerts in the auditorium (although they well could be). The concerts do not require you to reserve the gymnasium, they do not require you to print and produce a beautiful program, and they don’t require you to get all fancied up. They require you to put students in a position where they can demonstrate to others what they have and what they are learning.

When thinking about these events, don’t think about it being a concert. Think about it being a short presentation – an “infomercial,” if you will. Think in terms of small groups and think in short  blocks of time, never more than 30 minutes. It would be very easy to do three of these in one evening.

As the teacher, you now become the “coach,” and not the director. Carefully script out each and every step. Your very first event could be called “Meet The Violin Night.”


The First ‘Concert’

Students arrive with their parents and take their seat in the music room or designated area. The students should be seated facing the audience. The instruments remain in the cases.

Each student has a particular role to play, and there is a script for each student that has been provided by the director. If there are 10 students then the script has 10 parts. If there are 15, then break the script into 15 parts. It is important that each student has a part. So here goes.

Student One: “Welcome to Meet the Violin Night. My name is (student says name) and tonight we are going to introduce you to the members of the 2014 (or appropriate year) violin section. Our director, (say director’s name) has been working with us for the past two (or correct number) weeks.”

Student Two: “Hi, I am (student says name), and I was excited to be selected to play the violin this year. The violin is a very important instrument and tonight we are going to show you how much we have learned in such a short time. We are glad that you have joined us tonight. Thank you.”

Student Three: “My name is (student says name). The violin is a member of the string family. The other members of the string family are the viola, the cello, and the bass. Together we make up the members of the string orchestra that you will hear at our first performance later this year.”

Student Four: “Hello, my name is (student says name). The first thing we have to do is to remove our violins and bows from the case. It is important that we keep our instruments in the case when we are not playing or practicing. We realize that these instruments are very expensive and fragile, and we need to protect them.”

Student Five: “Hi, I am (student says name) and now we will get our instruments out of the case. We begin with by carefully setting the case on the floor (or table, or lap) making sure the latches of the case allow us to open the lid of the case. Opening the latches and lifting the lid of the case correctly prevents the violin from falling out of the case and getting damaged.”

Student Six: “Hello, my name is (student says name). Once we open the case, we carefully lift out the violin and bow (and any other accessories you may need or be using), and then we close the case and place it to the side of our chair (or designated area where you stow the cases during class). We are almost ready to start playing for you.”

Student Seven: “Hi, my name is (student says name). The next step that we have to do is make sure our violins are in tune. Our director (say the director’s name) will now quickly check to make sure our instruments are in tune. As we continue to play, we will learn how to do this step ourselves.”

Student Eight: “Hello, my name is (student says name). The violin has four strings and each string is tuned to a specific pitch. The lowest string is the G string (pluck the string), next is the D string (pluck the string), then the A string (pluck the string) and finally the highest string is the E string (pluck the string).”

Student Nine: “Hello, my name is (student says name). Using our index or first finger on our right hand, we will demonstrate a technique called ‘pizzicato.’ When we pizzicato, we are basically ‘plucking’ each string. Starting at the lowest string, we will now play four notes on each string. Ready everyone? One, two, ready, play.” (Students pluck four notes on each string).


Hopefully, you get the idea. From this point, maybe you have the students introduce the bow, play on some open strings, and maybe play a few lines from the method book.

It is important that each student in the class has the chance to introduce themselves, and each of them gets to tell the audience a little bit of what they do in class. As a director, you simply become a “coach” and the let the students “play the game.” You give minor instructions and support as necessary, but you are not the focal point of the evening. The students are the stars of the night. At the end of the demonstration, having a plate of cookies and some soft drinks for everyone to enjoy on the way out is a great way to end the event. This also gives you, as director, time to thank each of the parents for attending and to let every student know how proud you are of the great job they did. Remember, you continue to recruit each and every day.


Other Early Concert Ideas

Other special performances along the way can be the Cafeteria Concert, or Custodian Concert, or Secretaries Concert, where you go to their areas, or invite them to your room and perform a couple of lines from the method book for them. It is important that students realize early on that in addition to playing for their personal enjoyment, they are also playing for the enjoyment of others. Inviting other teachers or the principal to visit the room and then playing a line or two goes a long way in affirming students’ decision to participate in the band or orchestra program. Be creative! Make every day a special day and give them a reason to perform their very best.

Once students have been playing long enough to learn their first five notes, it is time to have The First Performance. Available from your school music dealer or through the Music Achievement Council, the First Performance is a concert, complete with music, a script, a program template, and sample posters. It is the blueprint for a short but informative event that is sure to build support among parents, community and your school.


Dr. 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.

Menghini has written for numerous professional journals and magazines and is also co-author of the Essential Elements 2000 Band Method, published by the Hal Leonard Corporation, where he serves as an Educational Advisor. He also frequently serves as a national and international conductor, clinician and adjudicator. An active performer, Charlie played lead trumpet in the Kansas City Chiefs Professional Football Band for 15 seasons.

Menghini is an educational member of the Music Achievement Council of the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation.

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