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Producing Bands That Sing: An Interview with Todd Zimbelman

Dan Blaufuss | February 2014

    Todd Zimbelman is the director of bands and co-director of the symphony orchestra at West Salem High School in Oregon. He has previously held other director of bands positions at both the high school and college levels. During his five-year tenure at West Salem High School, Zimbelman’s bands consistently have excelled and won top awards at state and regional competitions. Competition results are not the real goal for Zimbelman and his groups, however. Rather, he strives for musical excellence and works to develop with each of his students a greater knowledge of technique, theory, and history.
    In his work with several music programs over the years, Zimbelman has given considerable thought to what creates success with his groups. Zimbelman attributes success to specific techniques, like the use of extensive solfège practice. Beyond this, Zimbelman has learned the importance of having high expectations of excellence, and he requires a strong work ethic from everyone involved in his groups. “Students will do what you expect them to do. This is a motto I have lived by since I started teaching. If the bar is high, students will do everything they can to reach your goals. This is also true as a negative statement: if you don’t expect much, they won’t give much. I push students to play beyond their expectations while still enjoying the journey along the way.”

What are some of the techniques you use to try to make music programs better?
    I try to break everything down to work on pitch and rhythm separately. For pitch, I teach singing solfège in all of my bands. I find that solfège practice leads the ensemble members to understand and hear the music before they play it. This practice also gives students sound anchors in any key, so they can know what do or so will sound like in any key. Do is always the home pitch, but I use a moveable do, so it is not a fixed note. Every scale that the students play we also sing in solfège. Every articulation exercise that the students play on a scale we sing in solfège. The students also sing chorales in solfège. I find that solfège practice helps students tremendously with their listening skills and refines the ability to hear pitch.
    I also like to break down the diatonic chords that are built upon each scale degree in a major scale. Then we will sing those chords and analyze them by asking, for example, “that’s a minor ii chord, how does that sound, how do we tune that?” This process helps students to hear the music better before they try to play it.
    Over the years I have developed a set of wind technique exercises, a series of scale patterns that the students sing in solfège. These exercises are about twelve pages long for them, fifty pages long for me. I have used these exercises with every program I have taught. It has always raised the group’s sense of intonation and pitch awareness, their ability to hear music, and their ability with intervallic tuning. This technical work has produced magical results for us, and I have not seen anything like it used in most band programs. With my groups, we sing every day. We play the scale pattern. Then we sing it, and then we play it again.
    We also use a rigorous technique book that goes through long tones, slurs, articulations, scale exercises, chromatics, and chorales. This is similar to a typical chorale book. In all of the solfège training we do, chordal cadences appear at the end of every exercise, so I can teach the common chordal cadences that you find in music. The technique book we use contains some of my stuff along with exercises like Remington’s that everybody uses.

What is your approach to teaching rhythm?
    For rhythm, I teach a simple, traditional counting system. I have a huge 58-page rhythm packet that starts very easy and gets quite difficult. Students have to write in the counts, count it in class, play it in class, and then turn in those sheets an average of once a week. These assignments are graded and passed back. If we get to a difficult line in the music we are playing, we always count it.
    I also teach subdivision. Often we will take a piece of music and turn everything into eighth notes or sixteenth notes. I teach students to internalize the pulse, which is sometimes overlooked in music education training. Bands across America use metronomes, and that is fine. I use metronomes sometimes, too, but the ability to hear the metronome in your mind without tapping your toes is important. I teach foot tapping at first and then move on to learning how to internalize the pulse. My hope is that this practice will transfer to an ability to maintain tempo without any external device.
    From there it is simply a matter of picking appropriate music to support the development of fundamentals. When bands pick music that is too difficult, they struggle all semester and never enjoy it. Music that is too easy gets boring. Picking the right music is a huge part of our job, and college training does not really prepare everyone to do this. To learn and know the literature takes time. Much of the educational literature is rarely discussed or played in college. Colleges play more some great new works and excellent standards, but the music for younger bands remains a big mystery for a lot of new directors as they finish college. There is a lot of paper plate music that comes out, is played for one year, and then is gone. There is also so much new music that is great, but as a teacher it is hard to keep track of it all. You have to be a student of the art form and really work to find great pieces for your band.

Beyond work on fundamentals and your focus on choosing the right pieces, what else do you think is essential to improving a music program?
    I think it is important to focus on teaching elements of music generally, not just the band music we are playing at the time. I want students to understand musical form, harmony, structure, melody, cadential points, expressiveness, and phrasing. Students should be able to make decisions about the direction of a line, or about what note should be given more weight to bring out more character and style. We can talk about all of these elements by discussing a great work like Lincolnshire Posy. When we do this we are not talking about how specific things like making the rhythms line up better. Rather, I try to focus on the basic elements of the music, so our students can develop a better musical understanding and knowledge. My hope is that if a stranger were to walk up to my high school seniors and ask them to explain a I IV V cadence, they would be able to explain it. That’s a specific example, but with whatever set of musical concepts I want students to know, I want them to leave here with that knowledge. I may not achieve that with every student, but it is the goal.

Can you tell us about your views and experiences with regard to competitions?
    To me, competition is a secondary concern in developing a good program, although success at competitions may be a carrot for some students. My motivation is the artist who composed the music and the music itself, and my focus is on getting the students’ knowledge of the music to a high level. After that the competition performance usually takes care of itself. Our bands have been pretty successful in recent years. We won the Northwest Championships for marching band for the last two years, and we won the Oregon 6A wind ensemble award in each of the last five years.
    Competition in Oregon is pretty healthy, but the spirit of competition probably is not as contentious here as it is in other states. All of the directors here are friends and colleagues, and we all support each other. The competitive aspects are fine, but we have a philosophy going in that it is all about the music, not about where you finish. We want to have great bands performing onstage all day long, representing all of the regions of Oregon. Only twenty 6A bands are accepted each year. Every once in a while a young director will come in and try to be very competitive, but that director will quickly learn that that’s not why we are there.
    I think that the students probably want to be recognized as one of the top bands in the state, but we do not talk about that in class. I try to downplay the whole thing, and keep the focus on the composer, the music, and our group’s potential. I tell students the only reason to ever be upset at a competition would be if you don’t perform to your potential. If you perform to the best of your potential, either on stage or on the field, it does not matter where you finish. I want to make sure our students stay away from the wrong mentality. We are here for music education, not for the plastic hardware to be displayed in the band room. Along the way, students learn such qualities as responsibility, dedication, and the importance of helping each other in the process of being good members of a band program.

You have talked about wanting to do something special with each of your programs. What does a special program look like?
    To have a special program, I think a director has to treat the members of each ensemble with the same expectation that they will reach a high level of excellence. I try to approach every ensemble, even if it is just the basketball band, as if we will be making a recording of the piece we are preparing. I want the group to focus on what that recording should sound like. The goal should be to try to get things as close to perfect as possible with every piece and in every context.

You have said that the first requirement for turning around a band program is work ethic. What do you mean by that?
    I have found when I go into a program that many of the first adjustments that need to be made are about how hard everyone is trying to succeed. So my first questions are about how hard are the students working as individuals and as an ensemble, and how hard are the parents and boosters working. Much of the time you can make some major improvements just based on how hard you are working. This does not necessarily mean putting in more time; sometimes changes in how efficiently you rehearse can make a big difference.
    Improving the rehearsal etiquette of the ensemble and increasing the individual effort that students put into the ensemble can lead to much improved results. Adding sectional rehearsals is a major adjustment that can help quite a bit.
    The need to make changes in work ethic also does not necessarily mean that there were problems with the expectations or the effort of the previous director. But the amount of work and the kinds of work that we put in are usually the first things I address when I take over a program.

What problems do you notice in inefficient rehearsals?
    Talking is the first one. We all as directors deal with the problem of students talking when the director is not addressing their section. It is critical to ingrain with students as soon you walk into the rehearsal room the reason why they all are there. They are there to be better artists. Being inefficient means you get less done. If you talk, it just takes up time. I find that as students get more comfortable with the director, it is necessary to continue to address the problem of talking. My rehearsals are not completely silent, of course. There is a good rapport between me and my students. If something funny happens, we can laugh and then refocus.
    Another key to efficiency is developing a good rehearsal process. I have a warm-up technique book from which I draw a variety of exercises each day. It is not the same daily warm-up each day, which can become monotonous. Also, my students know that at each rehearsal they have to be seated and warming up one minute after the bell. We start with the warm-up packet and rehearse all the way to the ending bell. There is never any downtime. My students know they should be ready to play any part at any point in front of each other in class.

How do you get to the point where students understand you are serious about being ready to play any part at any time?
    It is harder to put my finger on it in talking about how I work with my bands, and sometimes I think it is easier to identify when I observe other bands.  When I observe other teachers who are successful in leading their groups, I can see an intrinsic sense that a natural leader brings to the classroom. When I see this in others, it is obvious. With my groups, I can say that I do not have any problems with classroom management, and I do not have any problems with students believing me. Some students might find me a little intense at first, but they also see the softer side in time. When I step on the podium, I am going to be prepared with a clear rehearsal plan. It is a fast-paced rehearsal. Students have to be on because I am on. I have seen this in other teachers I have observed, too.
    To have students ready to play their parts at any time, I will sometimes call for daily testing on the music. Usually at the beginning I will give students a few weeks to prepare the piece. Then I find different sections of the piece that the students must be ready to perform in front of the class. We also sometimes use the file-sharing website Dropbox as a way of testing students on their parts. Using this program, students must record segments of the work at home and post them online. Only students in their section can hear what has been posted, and I will often ask the students to evaluate each other and turn in those evaluations to me. Then I can log on to Dropbox and listen to those segments myself and evaluate them for a grade. I find that the internet offers the most efficient way to do this because it does not take up any class time. It is also a good way to help students to overcome the fear of playing for their classmates.
    This method is also a great motivator. As soon as a Dropbox assignment is given, the practice rooms fill up. It provides an extrinsic motivation that produces a great result. Eventually students begin to motivate themselves. I use these assignments more with the younger bands because the older students should already understand the importance of putting in practice time. I allow students to redo many of the assignments I give. The aim is for students to know the material, and I prefer that they keep trying until they get it right.

You mentioned that you try to teach music theory and history in rehearsals. Why is teaching music theory and history so important?
    I think it turns students into better players. This was true for me as a trumpet player. When I first studied solfège, my knowledge of pitch in my trumpet playing improved 1000%. I told myself coming out of college that I would try to put solfège in my program because of the difference I saw in my own playing. The same is true with music history. The approach I take with Baroque music on the trumpet is way different than how I approach Romantic music, because I understand the composers, the performance practices, and the musical elements of those different styles of music. With a classical piece or a modern work, I approach the music differently based on knowledge of those eras. In band, for example, there are certain keys to playing a march correctly. If you were unfamiliar with march style, you might play with no articulation markings at all, in a connected and legato style because you did not know any better.
    I look at my own experience with history and theory and know that students need to learn these things to approach the music correctly. Any master teacher that I have ever seen teaches elements from one piece of music that transfer over to the next piece. Much of what I have learned has come from doing. I am still learning every day.

What advice would you give to new teachers?
    I would tell new teachers to be a student of the art form. Always be inquisitive. You should always be looking for new knowledge and new ways to become a better teacher.
    I would also say that teachers should try to be as prepared as possible before ever stepping in front of a class. The teachers I have seen fail are those who were unprepared for the situation. They did not have enough tools in their toolbox. So I would advise new teachers to never be settled with who you are and to always strive to learn more. At West Salem, we are very eager to get better, and the program has grown a lot in the past five years.