Middle School Bands and Secondary Instruments

Jr. • CommentaryJune 2024 • June 9, 2024

Fun! Challenging! Exciting! Rewarding! Advantageous! Do your middle and high school band members double on different instruments?  I have found through the years that with my band program, having kids who play multiple instruments can really benefit your bands while keeping things fresh and exciting for your students. 

I teach in De Soto, Kansas which is in rural Johnson County, Kansas with a town population of approximately 6,500. My middle school, Lexington Trails Middle School (grades 6-8), has 341 students, and I have 145 students in my bands. I currently have a third of my band students playing secondary instruments. If students are musical and passionate, they will gravitate toward the opportunity to learn new instruments if it is offered!

I have established this culture by providing my band students with an opportunity to come in and practice in the band room 30 minutes prior to the start of the day. This open practice session normally has 15 to 25 band kids each morning and is the perfect opportunity for band students to come in with a peer who plays a different instrument and work together. I am supervising and walking around the room, helping where needed.

Most band directors will have a trumpet player switch to horn, or alto sax to bari sax, flute to oboe, baritone to tuba etc… but do you encourage most of your students to learn multiple instruments?

Kansas City Tuba Christmas I first came up with the approach when I realized I had instrumentation problems and did not have enough low brass students. In Kansas City, there is a very successful Tuba Christmas, modeled after the original one established by Harvey Phillips. This was the perfect opportunity for me to have some of my trumpet players and woodwind players learn another instrument. At this time, I did not teach my fifth grade elementary school feeder and my incoming sixth grade band was at the discretion of their band teacher. I went three years without a trombone, baritone, or tuba joining band in my middle school. I decided to “grow my own” and difficult times forced me to become creative if I was going to be successful at this school.

Solo Ensemble Festival I host a mid-level solo ensemble festival at my middle school and encourage all of my band students to perform solos or ensembles on primary and secondary instruments. This is our third quarter performance, so we focus almost entirely on this literature. This also allows me the opportunity to encourage and help students learn more than one instrument. I had a Kansas Sousa Honor Band student (Kansas Mid-Level All–State Band) eighth grade student named Aryn, who performed a triple tonguing solo on his cornet, played mallets with the percussion ensemble, played euphonium with my low brass ensemble, and played saxophone with our eighth grade sax ensemble. This talented eighth grade musician also excels on the drum set and blows improvisation solos in my advanced jazz band on trumpet and alto sax.

Unexpected Medical Situation Prior to Contest This year, my best eighth grade tuba player had back surgery just prior to our winter break. Having him unavailable to perform with us at our league band festival was a huge loss to our band. I approached eighth grader Silas, who was also a trumpet player in the Sousa Honor Band and without hesitation, said he would be willing to learn to play the tuba. He now plays the trumpet, euphonium, and tuba and can double tongue on each instrument.

Double Tonguing on Secondary Instruments I am preparing to take a bus load of my top students to Kansas State University to present our Lexington Trails Middle School Band demonstration. I will have my students perform our warm-up, full range examples, and scales. Additionally, I will have each woodwind and brass student (sixth-eighth grade) demonstrate double tonguing for the KSU band staff and music majors. Once we finish performing our unison double tonguing song, I will have more than half of the students pick up their secondary instruments and perform the same song.

My middle school band students have so much fun learning new instruments and taking on the challenge of learning several instruments. This is a great way to keep your band kids’ interest and at the same time, you are cultivating a passionate and life-long musician.

Robert E. Foster, Jr. is a third generation band director. He was a three year starter and varsity letterman on the University of Kansas football team and signed a free agent contract with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons in 1987. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas and the University of Illinois, and has completed additional graduate work at the University of Kansas and the University of North Texas. He has taught for 31 years and has been a band director at the University of Maryland, Texas Christian University, Haskell Indian Nations University, and Tennessee Tech University. He has also taught secondary band in Eudora and De Soto, Kansas.

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