SURVIVING THE BEGINNING BAND CONCERT
By Randy Navarre
This article is an excerpt from Instrumental Music Teacher's Survival Kit by Randy Navarre copyright ©2001. Reprinted with permission of Prentice Hall Direct/Learning Network Direct, as part of Learning Network.
Performing a beginning band concert as soon as possible is crucial for retaining interest in the band and retaining students in your program. The first concert may be a simple performance of songs from the beginner book. Stock arrangements are not necessary for this concert. As soon as the students can play the first half of the beginner book, they are ready to perform.
The beginning band concert is designed to be educational for the parents as well as a reward for the students' hard work and progress on their instruments. Also, there will be some students who have lost interest in playing their instruments and may be ready to quit the band. There is something special about getting up on the stage with your friends, producing music, sounding good, and getting a great round of applause from very enthusiastic parents. The result may be that many of the students who were going to quit will change their minds because it is now fun, and they want to continue playing their instruments and performing.
For the first concert, you may decide to use songs from the beginning band method book. The first song played by the band does not have to be a familiar tune. Many contemporary methods have put a name to every line in the book. This is important because it allows the exercises to be more fun for the students, and it can sometimes indicate what is being taught in that lesson or particular line. It is also very convenient for performance purposes. The reason for choosing the first line in the book is because it is the easiest "song" for the students to perform. There is only one note to play, and everyone has the same rhythms at the same time.
After the applause has died down from performing this first song, explain to the parents the accomplishment involved in performing this very simple song. You may tell the parents, "Though this sounded very easy, believe me, it did not sound this well the first day we tried it." (There may be chuckles when you say this. Do not interrupt the audience's laughter. Let them finish and then continue.) "There are several factors in learning to play an instrument. The students not only had to learn what note to play, but when to play it. There are dots and wiggly lines that instruct the students when and what to play. So the students are having to learn a new language as well as play an instrument for the first time in their lives. And that is not all. In addition to learning what and when to play, they have to learn to play it together. So, in addition to looking at the book, holding the instrument, and trying to play the right notes at the right time, they also have to watch the conductor all at the same time in order to play together. And, as if that is not enough, we have to learn to play in tune. Just pushing the buttons will not necessarily make the notes we play sound the same. The students have to learn to listen to each other so they can match the pitches by tightening or loosening their lips so the notes have the correct sound. So, as you can see, there is much more to playing an instrument than just pushing buttons, hitting a drumhead, and blowing air into an instrument. It takes concentration and discipline to make a song sound good and sound easy." The parents have probably never thought of it in that manner. After this has been explained to them, they will have a higher respect for what their own children are accomplishing. Also, because the song was easy, you have just built up the confidence in the students. They played their first song, and it sounded good. The students are feeling good about themselves, and they are beginning to have confidence that this is going to be a good concert.
The next song should be a very simple tune. In the concert provided here, I have selected a song similar to the second line of the second lesson, "Up and Down." It involves only two notes and it is warming them up for their first real song. After the students perform this song, explain to the parents that the students have now learned to read more notes, and they must move their fingers in order to play the right note at the right time. "The students are developing coordination while having fun playing music."
Usually, the third song the students play may be "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Before the students play the song, explain to the parents that the students have learned three notes and a rest, so they can now play "a very famous song" we have all heard before. You may wish to ask the parents if they can name the tune after the students play it. This provides for audience involvement and is more fun for everyone. A formal concert, where the conductor says nothing during the entire concert, is not ideal for this situation. The audience wants to hear from you. You will make the concert more interesting as well as increase the parents' appreciation for the children's accomplishments. If you get the audience involved, it will be more fun for everyone, and the students will relax and play better.
After "Mary Had a Little Lamb," have the students play solos, duets, trios, or quartets. They may pick any song from the book, or any source they wish. The director should audition the students' songs, to make sure they can play them well enough to stand in front of an audience and play them. It is not necessary that they play perfectly, but you should make sure that they play well enough not to be embarrassed in front of their parents. Students may wish to play the same line together. Even though the students are playing unison, that is acceptable. Going out in front of an audience and showing off to their parents and friends can be the biggest morale booster some of these children may ever have. Give them this moment. It will lengthen your concert while giving the band a chance to rest before playing the next song. If you have a huge beginning band, you may have to limit the number of solos and ensembles. You should limit the students to four solos or ensembles between the songs the band plays. For the sake of variety, tell the students they may pick any song except those the band is performing.
After the first group of solos and ensembles, have the band play another song together. It is advisable to pick something that is very easy but involves all the notes they have learned in the first two to three lessons. The concert included in this resource uses the song, "Over the Hill." This song starts on an easy note and moves stepwise up to the highest note, and then back down. It is easy, and allows the parents to hear all the new notes they have learned. It also allows the parents to hear the progress in which one learns to play a musical instrument. When introducing this song, inform the parents what is involved in playing it. It is up to the band director to educate the audience on the accomplishment of their children.
After the band has played "Over the Hill," allow more solos or ensembles to be performed. Introduce each student and announce the name of the song. Do not keep the audience guessing, especially since many of the songs from the beginner books are exercises and not familiar songs.
The next song should still be easy, but maybe a little bit trickier. Most beginning books will have a song with a rest that changes position in the measure. This is important, because you want to keep the children counting. In the song, "Watch Out for That Rest!," if the students do not count, someone will play an unintentional solo. Announce to the parents that the next song is a bit trickier than the previous songs the band has played. "It is very important that the students know when not to play as well as when to play. When not to play is indicated by what musicians call 'a rest.' In the next song, everyone plays together, but the rest is not always where we may expect it to be. If we do this right, we will play as an ensemble. If we goof, there may be an unexpected soloist." And this solo could very well take place in the concert. Practice this line often enough so the students know what to expect. Also, your conducting gestures will pull them through this song together. Your concern is not how you look to the audience. Your job is to get the students through the concert playing as well as possible, so if big gestures are needed to show when to play, and small gestures to show when not to play, use them. Gesture in such a way that the band can easily follow you. And, if a student gets nervous and plays in a rest, it is not a big deal. The audience will give him or her an extra big round of applause for trying. The point of this song, however, is to keep the music progressing in an orderly and slightly more difficult pattern to the end of the concert.
After this song has been performed, allow more students to play solos or ensembles. Two to four such performances between band songs is an adequate break for the band.
Before playing the next song with the entire band, discuss with the parents what new accomplishments the students had to learn before they could perform the next song. "So far, the students have learned to play several different notes and have played several songs, but all the rhythms have been the same. In order to play the next song, they had to learn to see and play notes that last twice as long as the notes and rests they had played before. Also, the students had to learn to read a symbol that means to play the entire song again, called repeat dots. So, now your children are looking at a page with all kinds of symbols meaning to hold notes and rests for one or two beats, and to play a song again. At the same time, they are tapping their toes, pushing and lifting fingers, listening to each other, and watching the director. They are doing a lot of things in order to make music for you, and the wonderful thing is, they are making it sound easy." Usually the next song to play is "Hot Cross Buns." You may choose to introduce it before or after the band plays.
Allow a few more students to play solos and ensembles after the completion of the previous song. It is a good idea to have different instruments play between the band songs. You do not want the parents comparing sounds of one flute player to another. Have a saxophone student play a song, then a flute, then trumpet, and so on. It will keep a variety of instruments in sight, and prevent parents or students from realizing that one student plays better than another.
A familiar song in most books is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." The students like this song, and because the notes all progress stepwise, it is very easy to play. You may, of course, choose any song from the beginner book, but it would be advisable to choose a song that is easy, sounds familiar, and continues to build confidence in the students.
Continue to have more solos and ensembles after each song. A good program plan will have the students who play well play their solos first, then the weaker students play their songs in the middle of the concert, and the best students play last. The overall impression of the concert will be much better. First impressions are very important, but people also remember best what they heard last. So, give them a good first impression and save the very best for last. At the end of the concert, the parents may declare you a miracle worker.
The next song you may choose to play is one a little longer with more skips or leaps in the intervals. Students love to play "Jingle Bells." Even if it is not Christmas, the students enjoy playing this song. It is easy and familiar to everyone. You may wish to explain to parents that playing this song involves longer notes and a longer song, so more concentration is needed to perform it.
The final song of the concert usually involves some harmony. Most of the contemporary methods have some very good beginning band arrangements throughout the book. If your students are ready for such an arrangement, you may wish to program it. However, if they are not ready, play a simple duet such as "London Bridge."
At some point during the concert, be sure to acknowledge the cooperation of the principal, teachers, staff, custodian, parents, students, and anyone else who may have helped you during the school year and in the planning of this concert. Let the students know how proud you are of them. At the end of the concert, have the students stand and take a bow. Get out of the way so the parents may take pictures.
Do not wait until the end of the school year to perform this concert. Perform as soon as possible. The longer you wait for the beginning band concert, the more students will drop out of the band. The students do not have to play perfectly. However, they should play well. If you have been tuning the students at every lesson and rehearsal, they will play fairly well in tune during the concert. When rehearsing, if you have demanded that they play together, and worked on ensemble performance, they will play well. As soon as the students can perform, play this concert. Then perform as often as possible. Ask your principal if you may start assemblies with the band playing a song. You do not want to take up a lot of time - just have the band seated at the bottom of the stage, play one song, and return to the audience. The exposure will be a great morale booster, and it is a great recruiting tool.
Randy Navarre, DMA (University of Maryland), has been active in music education since 1973, when he began his career as a music teacher in the Philadelphia Public School system. His experience ranges from developing instrumental music programs at the grade school level to directing clinics for high school band directors. Dr. Navarre is the founder and director of Northeastern Music Programs Inc., which provides general and instrumental music programs to schools in the Mid-Atlantic region. He is also a classical saxophonist and performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
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