Preparing for the All National Modern Band

Mike Lawson • Modern Band • February 6, 2020

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In last month’s issue of School Band and Orchestra, we looked at the amazing students that made up the All National Honors Ensemble for modern band and had them tell us their insights to what they gained from the experience.

Since the window opens in early February for this year’s ensemble, we thought this month we would discuss how to best prepare your students for applying.

There are many ways that the application for the Modern Band ensemble differs from its peers in concert band, mixed choir, jazz ensemble, orchestra, and guitar ensemble. First off, since there are currently no all-state ensembles for modern band, the national group does not have the requirement of performing in your state ensemble. Secondly, there are no recommended pieces for repertoire requirements, and in fact, the selections are left entirely to the applicants. This is by design, since popular music is very broad and the repertoire for the ensemble itself will be built by the participants, so their musical choices in the audition helps us get a broad view of their interests.

Here are some key things to think about while selecting and performing their audition pieces:

Versatility – The music for the concert will cover a wide variety of popular styles so choosing two contrasting pieces is very important. Student submissions should show that they can play in different genres and feels, rather than submitting two pieces that highlight similar skills.

Back to Basics – First and foremost, be sure that intonation, notes and rhythms are fantastic. Pick songs that are familiar and reference the original recordings in as much detail as possible. While technical virtuosity can be great for soloists, this ensemble is more interested in highlighting their ability to play well together to achieve the best performance.

Expression – Demonstrate your range of dynamics and timbre. When in doubt, reference the original recording to be inspired by the sounds, effects, etc. that you can play with. A visual or physical connection to the music (stage presence) is also encouraged. Record in a comfortable space so that you are able to sway or even dance if the mood is right! Great student videos will show us their performance personality and can go a long way towards pushing their application to the front.

Ensemble Mindset – Make sure to demonstrate the key function of your instrument. In other words, all instruments need to demonstrate exceptional groove and comping in addition to any solo elements. Vocalists should perform harmony as well as melody. While it was briefly mentioned before, the musical quality of someone’s playing is much more important than pure barrage of notes. We would much rather hear great phrasing and musical execution than the hardest passages from the trickiest songs you know. The goal is to have one unified ensemble, not a collection of soloists.

How to prepare for the ANHE for modern band:

Students will be coming from all over the country with a variety of backgrounds, skills, and personalities, so it is very important to make sure you do your best at being flexible, friendly, and collaborative. Everyone in the room is there for a reason and has something to learn as well as something to share.

Good rehearsal skills are perhaps the absolute most important aspect of being a professional. This ensemble won’t have much time working together so being prepared to work hard and run through the music is of the utmost importance. Come prepared by learning as much as possible before the show and ready to listen as much as play.

Be ready to contribute and lead! This ensemble really is an opportunity to put your musical stamp on the performance and interpretation. Have ideas for how to potentially arrange and add to the music.

Students can apply at honor-ensembles.

Dr. Scott Burstein is the director of teaching and learning with Little Kids Rock and was the ANHE modern band ensemble director last year. Mary Claxton is the Colorado director of programs for Little Kids Rock and is the 2020 director of the AHNE modern band ensemble.

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