The cohesive sound of a chamber ensemble – musicians sitting down and making music together – is the essence of what directors strive for with students in the larger group setting. Whether the ensemble has three players or fifteen, the experience of deciding how to interpret a piece elevates the abilities and musical growth of each participant. Unfortunately, most directors are possessive of their rehearsal time and fear losing even one moment of the time they have in front of students. The idea of sending young musicians off on their own to rehearse chamber ensembles seems unrealistic. Well, it is not.
Chamber music is an essential part of the band program at Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio. This January, more than 100 ensembles from Lakota West participated in the Ohio Music Education Association’s (OMEA) Solo and Ensemble Contest. Through the years the improvement I’ve seen in students’ performances, their music education, and the band program in general, is a marvelous thing. I believe that much of this improvement can be attributed to our chamber program.
The Band Program
Lakota West has four levels of bands, including three evenly matched 9th-grade bands at the school’s freshman campus and four leveled bands for students in grades 10-12 at the high school main campus. Participants in Concert Band have studied at least two to three years, have moderate abilities, and play Ohio Music Education Association Class C literature. Students in the two Symphonic Bands have had at least four years of instruction and perform Class A literature, while members of the Symphonic Winds can handle Class AA repertoire and usually have had five to six years of private lessons, in addition to playing in various ensembles.
Students have to be in the concert band program to participate in one of five jazz ensembles that rehearse during the school day or the marching band, which is a co-curricular class held after school. There are four band directors on the faculty at Lakota West overseeing a band program that has grown from 250 students when the school opened in 1997 to 500 students today.
I have always believed in the solo-and-ensemble process for developing musicianship in students. Years ago in January and early February the other directors and I encouraged as many students as possible to enter the OMEA Solo and Ensemble Contest. Every year following the contest, I was pleased with the improvements I heard in each band, realizing that the students’ work, whether they polished a solo or participated in an ensemble, had a direct, positive influence on the overall sound of each band.
Students learned to listen more intently to one another as they adjusted pitch, turned a phrase, and added dynamics to their performances. The increased improvement through chamber playing was all the more inspiring because the students did it with a minimum of coaching from the staff. After years of preparing and polishing ensembles for chamber performances in just two months of the school year, I was curious to see whether the level of achievement would increase more if students prepared chamber music throughout the school year.
Developing a Plan
I was uncertain that a year-round chamber program was the best idea for all seven concert bands, so I limited it to the Symphonic Winds, the top performing band. In hindsight, this was the right decision because of a lack of senior leadership in other groups. After some encouragement from several of my college-level colleagues, I devised a plan to place every student in Symphonic Winds in a chamber ensemble. In the spring of 2001 I reviewed the instrumentation of the band for the following fall and met with students to explain the new program.
I asked each student to place himself in one of eighteen ensembles – brass quintets, woodwind quintets, clarinet quartets, percussion ensembles, and more. Before the first rehearsal in September each student was to select one piece for the group to play. For five students in a woodwind quintet, the ensemble had five works to rehearse. In September, each ensemble chose a group leader to help with rehearsals, purchase music, and find gigs; each group was to perform somewhere in the community once every nine weeks. It was that simple.
As the new school year began and the chamber program was in place, the reality of my plan set in. I worried about losing a day of rehearsal time, but I realized it was too late to turn back. There was no second-guessing at this point.
We are fortunate at Lakota West to have 75-minute band rehearsals every day in addition to an abundance of practice rooms. For the first chamber rehearsal of the year, I held a brass sectional in the band room for the first 35 minutes of the period while the woodwind and percussion ensembles dispersed to the other rooms for chamber music rehearsals. After 35 minutes, the woodwinds and brass switched, while the percussion continued its rehearsal. While the chamber groups rehearsed, a great amount of in-depth work took place in sectionals, including individual playing tests.
For community performances, students can visit any number of elementary and junior high schools, retirement centers, churches, or various clubs in the Cincinnati area. Before each appearance the ensemble plays its music for peers in class, giving directors time to critique the performance and, if necessary, help the group prepare for a public performance.
During rehearsals staff members check on the progress of each ensemble and provide needed instruction. At times this can be somewhat informal. I may be walking down the hall and overhear students suggesting ideas. I’m compelled to stop in and ask for further explanation. “Let me hear this.” Many of the ensembles gain additional assistance from private teachers, college faculty, classmates, and even solo-and-ensemble adjudicators.
The faculty at Capital University’s School of Music has worked with our ensembles before contest season, and in March, the Lakota West Symphonic Winds visited Youngstown State University for a joint concert. In the afternoon the ensembles played for the Youngstown faculty and and received further feedback.
Last year the Boston Brass was here for a performance, and afterward its members heard some of the chamber groups. It was beneficial to listen to their comments about the student ensembles and thoughts about performance etiquette, such as how you should stand and present yourself to an audience. To be honest most directors don’t think about such details. Getting this advice was especially helpful for students because the Boston Brass players are amazing musicians who easily connect with audiences.
The ensemble members usually select a broad range of music, from easy arrangements, especially before the Christmas holiday, to advanced works selected by the Ohio Music Educators Association. Often the music is too difficult, so we encourage everyone to be realistic about what they can play well. Each student selects a work, so of the five pieces a quintet learns, I hope only one is difficult.
Ideally, the groups should have a varied repertoire for each performance and with enough material to play for a half hour. They find the most success performing fun pieces that include everyone’s musical decisions, played for the sheer enjoyment of it.
Some students have begun to compose or arrange their own chamber music, which became a pleasant surprise and added a entirely new dimension to the music education taking place. Several well-crafted compositions have been performed for community audiences, much to the delight of the young composers.
Becoming Better Musicians
I’ve found that the different groups vary in their talent and dedication to excellence. In some, every player works diligently, developing their part and performing at a high level. Peer pressure is wonderful in this regard. Each player takes responsibility for the success of the group and this produces better musicians. When a third clarinet shares a part with five others in full band, the world doesn’t change if he misses a phrase nearly as much as when a solo player misses a phrase in a clarinet quartet. Individual counting and listening across the ensemble become important in every rehearsal; group dynamics and interpersonal communication also rise to the fore.
Students quickly learn that each part is critical to the entire group and that attending each rehearsal is vital. We preach that students who perform in public are representing the Lakota West band program and that what they do, and how and when they arrive, is important. One of my favorite adages is that the best way to be on time is to be early. If only one person does not show up, the time of the entire ensemble is wasted. This is another instance where peer pressure is helpful.
The percussion ensemble in-cludes at least eight individuals working to make music and learning more about the world of percussion. Fortunately the high school has a percussion instructor who knows how to carefully direct young people. In fact, mallet playing has skyrocketed in our percussion ensemble, with the top group performing a seven-part mallet ensemble this year at contest that was just amazing.
Performing in ensembles has made the percussionists more well rounded because they no longer just sit in the back of the band room waiting for a cymbal crash. I’ve even seen the improvements extend over to marching band. In years past everyone wanted to be a snare drummer and now I hear, “Hey, I’d really like to play mallets in the front line.”
The point of scheduling chamber ensembles during band rehearsals every week is that it greatly increases each student’s musical maturity by leaps and bounds. Much is accomplished with advanced players as well as students who show leadership and discipline. However, it takes a strong student leader and the careful watch of directors for every group to advance. It could be deadly to combine several students who don’t have a good basic tone, don’t read well, and lack in social skills and expect them to advance through a year of ensemble work.
Benefits for All
One result of chamber group membership is that some students practice more outside of school, ultimately helping the band make greater strides. Perhaps the greatest benefit is that students listen more across the ensemble – listening to hear the melody and how their part fits into the larger band sound. Intonation is another area that dramatically improves. When a student practices on his own, intonation is not always paramount, but for balancing chords in a chamber group, intonation becomes crucial.
Communication in music making is another benefit of playing chamber music. Certainly students benefit from the social aspect of getting a group together and going out to make music. Instruction time in many high schools across the nation is now being used to foster social interaction in the hopes that it will bolster students’ achievements. Of course, music educators have always known this to be true. We often boast that the best and brightest students in school are in the music program because of the intangible results.
Through the ensemble program I’ve found that most of the mature musicians are helpful in coaching younger students for solo-and-ensemble performances in January. They help the freshman ensembles to prepare for contest after school as well as share their insights about the high school program.
Students genuinely seem to enjoy rehearsing chamber music and having the chance to make their own musical decisions. I often receive requests from churches, weddings parties, and other venues to provide music. It is wonderful to have so many ensembles ready and willing to play, sometimes with only a few days of notice.
Both the students and the band program have earned money from many of the performances, which I turn over to our boosters club for band projects. Sometimes these funds go directly to the students. For example, General Electric had a Christmas party last year and asked a chamber group perform. To show their appreciation the company gave each student a gift card for Best Buy.
As goodwill ambassadors of the band program, the chamber ensembles have been great for recruiting, especially when they play for elementary and junior high students who will soon be attending Lakota West. After hearing a performance and talking with the high school students, incoming freshmen are encouraged and motivated to practice. The older folks in the community are always excited to hear young people making music.
Some Practical Advice
When colleagues ask my advice about setting up a year-long chamber music program, I reiterate the importance of having enough practice rooms and places to send students to rehearse. You don’t want students practicing in a hallway. If a school doesn’t have enough rooms to rehearse during the day, then one solution is scheduling rehearsals before and after school. Being enthusiastic and encouraging to students will make this happen. It is also important to have group leaders who communicate well enough to make the program work.
If I were still at my job in a rural Ohio school where I had one band for grades 9-12, would I do this? The answer is yes. In that situation I would have enough seniors to work with and inspire the younger students; however, a freshman band is a more difficult situation. In that case I would schedule chamber ensemble rehearsals for only two months, not nine, because freshmen tend to be immature and would have no student leader to look to up to and respect.
It takes thought, coordination, and good student leaders to develop a chamber music program that has students winning awards at contest and performing in the community. The result – a larger band and more musical program – is well worth the effort.
Last year I had a remarkable sax group. The members liked playing together so much, they would practice all the time and come in to perform for the band. Their arrangements were always 10-15 minutes long, not the two-minute variety. They would play and play and play. Finally I would have to say, “Sorry guys, we have to go to lunch.” One of the students is now a college composition major.
Actually, the group went to contest asking for comments only, because Ohio students have to select repertoire from a prescribed list, and the composition student had a newly composed piece that wasn’t on it. They decided that there are more important things than just getting a rating.
That is one of many stories that I associate with the chamber music program. No band is perfect, but I have heard the bands at Lakota West get stronger every year, with a great deal of the improvement coming from the chamber program. Obviously, a chamber program alone does not make for a stellar band program, but in combination with private lessons, participation in honor band, support from the administration, and a daily plan to strive for the best performances, great bands are possible.
Although some schools have more resources and a great numbers of students, most students want to be pushed to be the best they can be. Making music in different settings and various-sized groups contributes to students becoming more engaged and focused, and many times they become more interested in music for the rest of their lives. As music educators, this is what we all hope for.
To read more about Greg Snyder, check out this interview that previously ran in The Instrumentalist.
How are you using chamber music in your music program? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.