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Beginning Band, College Style

Thomas G. Evans | August 2016

    When I arrived at Kalamazoo College in 1995, I inherited two courses, Woodwind Methods and Brass Methods, left over from when the college had an education department. Enrollment was around eight students in each class, so rather than meet with each class separately, I combined them. Little did I know that I was planting a seed for one of the most popular classes on campus.
    Enrollment in what is now called Band Methods, offered each spring, held steady at around 18 for the first few years. Then it began to climb. By year four, enrollment jumped to 24, then to 32. The following years saw the class grow to 54, then 76, then 89. At this point I considered an enrollment cap but wondered how big the class could grow and still be successful.
    What may have accelerated the course’s growth was the end-of-term afternoon concert given outside, in a place where students, faculty, administrators, staff, and parents could watch and listen. The band students took the concert quite seriously, and everyone marveled at how the band progressed from learning how to assemble instruments and make a sound to sounding like a good middle school band in just nine weeks.
    With an increase in enrollment came additional logistical concerns, namely finding enough instruments for everyone. I settled on a three-pronged solution. The first approach was to request that students find instruments by asking friends and family to loan them instruments. Second, at my request, the college initiated a lab fee that allowed me to purchase instruments for the class. The final part came from the Kalamazoo Public Schools, which have a well-stocked instrument inventory from which I could rent the remaining instruments. Between borrowing, purchasing, and renting instruments, I was able to provide all the instruments I needed to equip the growing band – and the band continued to grow. Enrollment numbers climbed each year: 103, 107, 112, 124, 127; this year set another new record at 134, which is 10% of the total enrollment at Kalamazoo College. Here is how a class of 134 college-age beginners works.

Finding Mentors
    During the first class meeting, I ask the students to describe their music background, specifically what, if any, instrument they play or have played and for how many years. Historically the class divides into three categories: those with no musical background, those who started in middle school but quit after one or two years and have limited musical ability, and those with six or more years of experience on an instrument and a relatively advanced level of playing. The purpose for asking is to determine which students have a sufficient background to serve as mentors. Although students in this last group are required to choose an instrument in a different family for the class (a student competent on the clarinet may not play the saxophone but must choose an instrument from the brass family), I use them as mentors on their original instrument.
    During class, these mentors take struggling students into practice rooms and work with them individually or in groups. Rarely are they gone from the class for more than 20 minutes. Usually the mentors can identify and fix the problem rather quickly. Problems that go beyond the mentor’s abilities are brought to me so I can work with struggling students at another time.
    Identifying those students who need additional tutoring can be tricky in a large ensemble. To keep everyone progressing at the same rate, I first encourage students to advocate for themselves. That is, if they are having difficulty with any aspect of their instrument, they either raise their hand in class or see me before and request to work with a mentor. Either way, they are permitted to leave class for individual attention.
    I also have a quick playing exam on the first five notes during the third or fourth meeting. The exam is given during class time with up to five students performing as a group. This helps me find students who would benefit from the assistance of a mentor or, if necessary, individual instruction from me at another time. Additionally, when I see a student not playing, struggling to keep up, or displaying other poor performance practice, I ask if they would like to work with a mentor. If they say yes, then the student and mentor are excused to address the problem.
    Mentoring continues throughout the term as students could be thriving in the beginning but then encounter a hurdle later in the term that causes them to stumble. Crossing the break on the clarinet is a common stumbling block. Consequently, I frequently ask, “who needs a mentor?” Sometimes as many as 15 students will leave for nearby practice rooms, accompanied by the appropriate mentor, to get the help they need.

Choosing Instruments
    During the first class meeting I also address the need for an ensemble to have a good balance and blend – not everyone can play saxophone, trumpet, or percussion. Historically, those are the instruments most students want to play upon entering the class, presumably because of media exposure. Many students are unaware of such lesser-known instruments as the oboe, bassoon, and euphonium.
     To convince students of the importance of a balanced ensemble, I have the class sing “Happy Birthday.” First, we sing it as a group (as there is safety in numbers). While students are singing, I ask them to focus on how the female and male voices blend to produce the sound they hear. Then I have just the women sing while everyone focuses on the sound. Then, the men sing, and after that, everyone sings again. While each group has distinct and pleasing tonal properties, there is no denying the depth of sonority with the full range of voices. Having demonstrated the necessity of a balanced ensemble, we then begin instrument assignments.On the board I list all the band instruments in score order from piccolo to percussion including oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet, horn, and bass trombone. Next to each instrument I place a Roman numeral with ‘I’ representing the easiest instruments and ‘V’ representing the most challenging ones. I know this is rather subjective; any instrument takes a lifetime to master. Nevertheless, few would argue that the oboe, bassoon, and horn are justified in receiving a V rating under my system. Finally, I place the number of instruments I need for each section to achieve a balanced instrumentation. The table below shows how this looks for a 135-piece band.

    Not everyone gets their first choice, but eventually the class arrives close to ideal instrumentation. My 2016 class of 134 had 1 piccolo, 17 flutes, 3 oboes, 1 bassoon, 34 clarinets, 9 alto saxes, 4 tenor saxes, 1 baritone sax, 20 trumpets, 3 horns, 13 trombones, 13 baritones, 10 tubas, and 5 percussionists. I had four students interested in playing the bass clarinet but, this year, I was unable to find any to use.

Getting Started
    Distributing instruments to 134 students in one class period is challenging. To accomplish this, I create a series of stations in the rehearsal room with two scribes assigned to each station. The scribes take down the student’s name, instrument ID, and book ID. This system works quite well, and in short order the students are back at their seats with their instrument and books. Once everyone is in place I talk about the importance of instrument maintenance along with taking pride in safeguarding an instrument. No one is allowed to open their cases until I can guide them.
    I go section by section, starting with the woodwinds, describing how to produce a sound on their mouthpiece, detailing the essentials of reed placement and embouchure formation. It is possible to address the clarinets and saxophones at the same time, but the other woodwind instruments require individual instruction. Fortunately, mouthpiece placement and buzzing can be done with all the brass instruments simultaneously – a big time saver.
    The first assignment is to go home and practice for two days in front of a mirror with only the mouthpiece – no instrument playing is permitted. I explain that if you cannot get a proper sound from the mouthpiece, it will be impossible to get a good sound from the instrument when it is assembled. I tell students that all sound for wind instruments begins at the mouthpiece. All the instrument does is shape and amplify the sound.
    Assembling the instrument occurs at the next class meeting after everyone demonstrates proper mouthpiece sounds. I again cover the importance of instrument maintenance and care. The first thing I mention is to be sure the instrument case is right side up, explaining failure to do so may result in your instrument spilling on the floor. Ideally, I would have students open their cases on the floor, but with 134 people in the room, we are hard pressed for open space. No section is permitted to open cases until I am prepared to work with them.
    My next tip, one that applies not just to band but to every life encounter, is never force anything. If it becomes necessary to force an instrument together or force the lid closed on the case, something is wrong. Stop, analyze the problem, and correct it. At this point, I go section by section describing proper assembly and playing position for each instrument. After I explain this procedure to each group, I have the mentors for those instruments assist them while I move to the next section. At no point yet is a student permitted to try the instrument; making a sound on an instrument is strictly forbidden.
    Once all the instruments have been assembled and are held correctly, we are ready to play concert F. First, I have students determine the proper fingering based on the diagram in their book, then I have them bring their instrument into playing position, and then sing concert F as sounded by me on the piano. Students are so eager to play at this point that they never stop to think about singing. We play the first line in our method books several times as the mentors and I look for and correct mistakes. For each successive line we sing and play. At this point, the idea of singing is so firmly imbedded into their playing that it becomes a natural part of the process. At some point, however, I repeat the old refrain, “if you can sing it, you can play it” with some explanation.
    From the first day, and for the next few meetings, I emphasize that the classroom is a safe place. Everyone is a beginner, and there will be some  squeaks, squawks, goose sounds, and elephant calls. It is okay to laugh at the sound but not the person, and we do laugh in the beginning because a well-timed squawk is funny. It only takes a few meetings for the barnyard sounds to disappear. By then, students know they are in a safe place and that we are all beginners. As such, we must be patient as we find our way.
    I leave time at the end of this class session to discuss the importance of cleaning an instrument before storage. I tell students, “There are three things required for bacteria and similar unpleasant things to thrive: warmth, darkness, and moisture; all of these are in abundance inside your case.” Students learn the discipline of swabbing out their instruments and emptying the water keys before packing up.
    We cover two pages from our method book at each class meeting. This pace gets us all the way through the book by the end of eighth week. The mentors are helpful here, too. When not working with other students, they lead by example. Unlike those with minimal musical knowledge, the mentors do not have to struggle with note reading or breath control, which, of course, are only two components that contribute to playing an instrument. The mentor simply focuses on fingerings and sound production on their new instrument. Thus they guide the band internally by demonstrating the basics of accurate pitch and rhythm. In this way, the novices can learn by hearing and imitating.

    Without question, singing is the pedagogical bedrock of this class. Before a new note is ever played, it is sung. We regularly rehearse the several chorales in the book by playing, singing while fingering, and then playing them again. I am always impressed with how much better the chorales sound after we sing them. Intonation, rhythm, and phrasing all improve through singing.
    Another aural skill used is singing concert F (the first note students learn) at the beginning of each class before any note is sounded. This tests aural memory, an important component for beginners. It always astonishes me to hear a large group of beginners sing an uncoached concert F, usually with spot-on accuracy.
    Having the class sing has never been a problem; the key is not giving students a chance to think about it. I say, “I’m going to play a pitch on the piano. I want you to listen to it carefully.” After playing an F, I continue, “Do you hear the pitch in your ear? Good. Now sing that pitch.” Then I quickly breathe and give the downbeat. If students are paying attention, they have no choice but to sing. People respond to clear directions.

The Details
    Throughout the class, I stress the importance of daily practice. My mantra is, “It is much better to practice five minutes a day every day then to play for 30 minutes on Saturday. Repetition and frequency are essential to musical growth and development. And yes, practice does make perfect.” Although I state that 20-30 minutes per day is preferable to five minutes per day, I would rather have a student practice daily regardless of how little than have a student practice once a week regardless of how much.
    This class meets three times a week for 75 minutes, which is a lengthy for a beginner. Consequently, there are numerous breaks. It is during the breaks that I cover a variety of topics. Some are nitty-gritty details such as proper swabbing techniques, breathing, use of the tongue, various practice methods, note reading, acoustics, finding the sweet spot on your horn, music terms, oiling valves, and learning the harmonic series. Other times topics are esoteric and include a discussion on how the remnants of the six primary holes of the simple-flute system discovered by ancient man can be still seen in today’s modern open-hole flute, synesthesia (seeing colors stimulated by pitch), Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, the Fibonacci sequence, the Guidonian Hand. Other topics include pop music, rhythmic hooks, earworms, perfect pitch, how the interaction between the audience and performer can shape a performance, why opera originated in Italy, and why jazz originated in the United States. It makes for a fun and enlightening class, and although there are a lot of laughs, we also work hard. It seems to be the right blend of learning and fun, and if making music isn’t fun, then why bother?

The Concert
    The course culminates in a highly anticipated concert. The entire campus looks forward to it. We begin working on our concert music in the ninth week, after finishing the method book. The program is the same each year and includes the following works.
    (C1) Mission: Impossible Theme by Lalo Schifrin, arranged by Paul Lavender, includes mixed and asymmetric meters, trills, and a rhythmic ostinato. The piece also introduces new notes. (Hal Leonard)
    (C1) Can-Can by Jacques Offenbach, arranged by John O’Reilly. This piece pushes students to learn range extension and additional notes and introduces the concept of D.C. al Coda. (Alfred)
    (C1) Dancin’ on the Bayou by Ralph Ford,demonstrates that musicians can be required to do more than play their instrument. In this case, the players clap and vocalize party sounds. Additionally, I have the percussion section ad lib during the percussion break. (Alfred)
    (C2) Beverly Hills by Weezer/Rivers Cuomo, arranged by Paul Murtha. The arrangement introduces sixteenth notes and rests, relies heavily on the concept of syncopation and feeling a rock groove, and introduces some new notes. (Hal Leonard)
    (C2) The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein, arranged by Jack Bullock. There are multiple solo sections for each instrument, and call-and-response and modulation are used. There are three parts each for clarinets and trumpets; the latter also extends the playing range. (Alfred)
    Each of these provides different challenges and learning opportunities, but this music was also selected for its familiarity and ease of use; we only have three rehearsals to get these tunes concert ready. The remainder of the concert program is selected from the band arrangements from the method book.
    We use posters, flyers, social media, and personal invitations to generate an audience. Because it is held outdoors, people can be seen lying in the grass, dancing or swaying to the music, and cheering loudly for their friends in the band. In addition, every year several parents approach me to thank me, saying, “I always wanted my child to play an instrument and today, my wish came true.”

    After the concert, the students return to the rehearsal room to complete course evaluations and return instruments and books to stations staffed by two scribes to record the return. I also have students identify instruments in need of repair by placing a piece of paper identifying the problem in their case. They then place their instrument in the center of the room under a big Red Cross sign. These instruments will be taken to a qualified instrument repair technician over the summer in preparation for next year’s use.
    I continue to be baffled by the popularity of the course. Students say it is fun, they learn a lot, and they enjoy the camaraderie of making music together and having a shared experience. Many see the class as a rite of passage, and a number of heart-warming stories have unfolded over the years. One student saxophonist learned to play Blue Danube on her own. She then sent a YouTube video of her playing it to her mother on Mother’s Day because it brought back a shared memory of their time in Budapest. Another student took the class because she wanted to learn how to play her grandmother’s trombone and play it at her grandmother’s birthday party. I teach this class for those moments. It doesn’t get any better than that.