Pre-Band Instruments: Opening New Opportunities for Everyone

Mike Lawson • News • October 28, 2019

Beginning band instructors spend a lot of their time at the end of the school year recruiting future ensemble members.

Some tour to elementary schools to perform or invite the younger students into their classroom. However they choose to do it, the goal is usually the same; to get students excited about the opportunity to learn a wind instrument in beginning band. But what if the recruitment actually began in elementary school general music?

Starting Recruitment Sooner

The recorder is the standard elementary wind instrument and it has its benefits and drawbacks. The recorder is more difficult than many people give it credit. The openings are tiny requiring a high level of precision and fine motor skills. The amount of air needed to make a sound, or rather a squeak, is hardly more than the faintest whisper. What sounds like a simple instrument by definition actually has many frustrating nuances that can put students off wind instruments.

Get a student to actually try beginning band, and they suddenly realize that the transition from the recorder to the large, heavy and complicated metal instruments is a big leap. This can discourage many students, and a certain percentage drop out after only a year.

What if there was another option? A bridge of sorts that helped more students be successful. Cue the pre-band instruments.

What is Pre-Band?

Pre-band is an opportunity for all children to experience – and be successful – playing a wind instrument before joining beginning band. Pre-band strips away the notion that instruments are only for a select few. No longer is band limited to the talented, the students who already take lessons on another instrument, and those who can afford it.

Pre-band instruments provide an easy transition from playing recorder to being in the band. Unlike plastic instruments of the past, today our options include well-designed instruments that look and sound much like traditional band instruments. Nuvo Instrumental’s line of pre-band instruments begins with the Recorder+, a recorder with silicone keys that makes learning the recorder a much more tactile experience. The Dood and Toot instruments use recorder fingerings but extend learning through new embouchures. The Dood teaches single reed embouchure while the Toot teaches flute embouchure. Then there is a collection of instruments including the jFlute, jSax, Clarinéo and jHorn that use true instrument fingerings but are all pitched in the key of C eliminating the confusion of transposition. All Nuvo instruments respectfully preserve the musicality of traditional instruments while adding modern innovations that make learning more effective, especially for children. When students are ready, the transition to full sized instruments is seamless and they have a huge head start over students who come into band having only played recorder.

In conjunction with the Nuvo pre-band instruments, there is also an emerging pre-band curriculum called WindStars that provides a terrific foundation in basic notation reading, breathing and tone production. It is a fusion of elementary general music and beginning instrumental instruction revolutionary in the music education field. WindStars is a flexible program that features books along with free online supporting materials such as backing tracks, instructional videos and print files. It is a three stage program which can be easily adapted to fit into existing programs.

  • WindStars 1 “Sound Before Sight” is for the Dood and Toot instruments. This level stresses the importance of rote learning. WindStars 1 offers student books in iconic or standard notation.
  • WindStars 2 “Instrument Essentials”  is for the jFlute, jSax, Clarinéo and jHorn. This level teaches standard music notation in addition to instrument skills that are directly transferable when students progress to beginning band. The jHorn student book is available in treble and bass clef editions.
  • WindStars 3 “Pre-Band Ensemble” is an extension of WindStars 2 and features multi-part music in a variety of styles arranged and composed by Robert Sheldon.

Provide Time to Succeed

Have you ever tried something for the first time that you were really excited about, only to have a “less than stellar” experience? Sometimes it takes a few tries, other times it can take a few hundred minutes of practice before we can see any progress. It is very rare where you meet instant success with any new endeavor.

I have been involved with many “petting zoo” events. On these evenings, students eligible to join beginning band come to try a variety of instruments to see what they would be most interested in playing. These nights are also an opportunity for the teacher to assess if the instrument the student picks would be a good fit for them.

I have worked at the flute station many times. Students come for 2-3 minutes each and try to make a sound on a headjoint. I saw many students get frustrated when they didn’t get a sound right away and based on this one experience, many students decided the flute just wasn’t for them. This breaks my heart; 2-3 minutes is just not enough time to decide if you really like something. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a few tries and other relevant experiences with different instruments to make a more honest evaluation?

Reaching ALL Students

Educators know how difficult it is to create a classroom environment that supports, but also challenges, every student at the various levels they are at. Not to mention that it seems classroom sizes only continue to grow and teacher support can be difficult to find.

As I have become more involved with pre-band classrooms, I have witnessed incredibly creative and resourceful teachers. Some teachers use pre-band instruments, like the Dood and Toot instruments, as incentives in their recorder classrooms or replace their recorders all together. Students find the Dood and Toot to be a wonderful challenge to learn a new embouchure and build more breath support than a recorder requires. These instruments use recorder fingering making it a breeze for teachers to adapt with their current curriculum.

In other situations, some students may be struggling to cover all of the openings on the recorder or have some mobility restrictions. A new instrument called the Recorder+ finally presents another option for these students. This recorder with silicone keys allows a student to press anywhere on the key and the opening will seal. Many teachers are finding great success with their students on the Recorder+ when used as an adaptive instrument. Some schools are even using these as the new recorder for the entire class as it benefits all students and helps them progress more quickly through the planned curriculum.

There is also the difficulty of recruiting brass players in the beginning band. I am very excited about Nuvo’s latest instrument release, the jHorn. This revolutionary brass training instrument has a full, resonant brass tone and can be pitched in either B flat or C (both sets of tubes included). It comes with a unique multi-cup mouthpiece to enable experimentation with low, middle or high brass embouchures. You may also try standard trumpet, tenor horn and narrow bore trombone mouthpieces. The patented rotary face-valve technology provides a solution that looks and feels like piston valves but needs little to no maintenance apart from an occasional wash down with warm soapy water.

Creating A Global Community

Pre-band instruments are also an appealing option for low-income communities, Title 1 schools and community organizations because of the lower initial investment than traditional band instruments. Perry Ditch, a high school band director in North Carolina, approached me with an idea that shook up my current view of the possible applications with these instruments.

His idea? To partner with an elementary school in Nairobi, Kenya and teach their students music lessons online! He created a whole project to fund their school’s internet installation in addition to a progression of pre-band instruments for the different grades. He chose pre-band instruments because they were a lower price point, could handle the travel half-way across the world and would require very little maintenance once they were in use.

Once the school had Internet and instruments, my favorite part of the project came into play. His high school students took turns teaching the lessons to the students in Kenya. It still gives me goosebumps thinking about it. What a wonderful example of a global community made possible through small instruments and a generous heart.

Regardless of where you find pre-band instruments, chances are they are opening up new opportunities for educators and students alike. I’ve even seen a few elementary marching bands equipped with pre-band instruments participate in their community parades. As music tends to do, it seems these pre-band instruments are creating more community connections.

Don’t Replace – Enhance!

There are so many wonderful teaching methodologies and materials out there that it can almost be overwhelming for a new music educator. It is exciting to see new opportunities in instrumental instruction over the past few years, such as ukuleles.

The moment pre-band really clicked for me is when I realized that it doesn’t replace anything an educator is already doing, but rather enhances their program. Some pre-band instruments, such as the Nuvo line, are pitched in C and can be easily combined with xylophones, ukuleles, Boomwhackers and recorders in addition to percussion. Imagine the concert opportunities with such a mixed ensemble. This ability to mix instruments also allows for easy scaffolding to create simpler and more complex parts.

However you choose to use pre-band instruments, I hope that you find it to be as rewarding for you and your students as I have.

Why do Band Directors love Nuvo’s Pre-band Instruments?

Learning to play an instrument is like learning a new language – the younger you get started the better. Nuvo instruments enable kids to start developing real instrumental skills as young as 4 years old. This means more motivated and skilled kids turning up at band classes. This in turn means higher recruitment and retention in band programs and a faster track to a higher level. 

“Nuvo instruments provide an easy transition from playing recorder to being in the ban,” says Robert Sheldon, composer, author and band clinician. These well-designed instruments look and sound much like a real band instrument, and the online curriculum provides a terrific foundation for young music students, setting them up for success when they join band after their WindStars training. Any band director would be thrilled to have a class of beginners who already have the basic reading, breathing and tone production experience that the Windstars program provides.”

Brittany Bauman is the music education director for Nuvo Instrumental. She is the team lead and project coordinator of the WindStars pre-band curriculum and is actively involved in sharing the pre-band teaching practices through clinics and teacher trainings around the world. Brittany also collaborates with other music educators to implement outreach initiatives at schools and community centers on a local and national level. Previously, Brittany taught K-5 elementary general music/chorus in Massachusetts. She has training in Conversational Solfege, Orff Schulwerk, Dalcroze, Music Learning Theory and Music Together which collectively still influence her work with pre-band students.


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