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Consistency Is Key with Middle School Bands, An Interview with Douglas Akey

John Thomson | January 2012

Douglas Akey teaches band and music technology at the Mesa Academy, a school for students in grades four through eight, and also composes band music, especially for middle level bands. He began composing after teaching for about six years. “I started preparing scores for my band because I had some experience with arranging and wanted to try my hand at composing. The Barnhouse works of the mid-1980s by Jim Swearingen and Dave Shaffer were what I was most familiar with, so I followed their example but in my own voice. One summer while studying up in Canada, I wrote a piece of music in my free time.” Akey has taught middle school band for over 30 years and has composed 50 band works. He received an undergraduate and a master’s degree in music at Arizona State University.

Of your own works, which is your favorite?
   The best technical and musical piece that I ever wrote was A Tallis Prelude in part because the original had so much potential to  develop. The form of the piece hangs together well, and the writing for the various instruments is both characteristic and interesting. I absolutely hated Peregrin: A Traveler’s Tale when I wrote it. When it was picked up on a number of concert and contest lists, I took another look at it. Much to my surprise, there was a lot more to it than I originally thought.

Why are so many of your works written for grades 2 and 3?
   Although I pride myself on writing from beginners all the way through harder grade 4 pieces, I write quite a bit for the middle levels because I teach that level. In the beginning my writing was exclusively for my bands. Once I started writing commissions, people asked for works in other levels. I really enjoy writing beginning works but do not have time to do much of it yet. I usually do two commissions a year, three if I feel like burning the candle at both ends. I have two for this year and one for next year.

How do you balance your various roles as composer, teacher, and player?
   I often don’t balance it well at all and become frazzled and close to the edge of burnout. This is one of those overly busy years, so I  have a rule that I can only say yes to a new project if I stop something else. Learning to say no is an important career survival skill. If I write late at night when it is quiet, I make sure I do not work too late because of school the next day. I try to keep my life compartmentalized and do not take on more than I can do well.

Do you compose during the summer?
   I do write in the summer a bit, but I find as I get older I need the summer as down time when I am not thinking about music. I find that the break actually makes me a better musician and teacher when I come back to it in the fall.

How do you build a program capable of performing at the Midwest Clinic or similar events?
   Young conductors often ask that question. I advise them to not make a convention invitation the goal. Focus on creating a strong and musical program and do not worry about recognition. Young directors who aim for a high-visibility performance tend to focus on just a few pieces of music and neglect the general development of their students. The right motivation is to develop students who understand and love music. When that happens it shows in their playing, and outside recognition occurs naturally. For years people suggested that I send in a tape to Midwest, and I always said no. I was focused entirely on how musically my students could play.

What pieces have you put into your core repertoire?
   I try not to get into a cycle but there are pieces that I play again. I always look for pieces to replace them, however, because I will not repeat them within four years. Although no student will play the same work again, I will eventually come back to them. I always enjoy pieces with depth. One is David Holsinger’s On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss. It has so much musical expression. Robert Sheldon’s West Highland Sojourn is another great work. I could work on that piece every day for a year and not plumb everything in there. Another I often come back to is Liberty Spirit March by Patrick Wilson. Few people know it, but it is an interesting concert march. It has counterpoint and interesting rhythmic figures; all the independence is quite remarkable.

What are the ingredients of a successful middle school rehearsal?
   Many people advise switching things up every day to keep rehearsals interesting. That may work for them, but I think middle school students need consistency. All of my rehearsals are structured identically. We start with the scale for that week and go on to rhythm studies and then a chorale. I focus on tone production, balance, and listening. We might go into a technique book next and deal with technical issues. The last half of the rehearsal is spent working on performance music. I sometimes change the balance of time we spend in each area, but that is the basic plan. If students have solid fundamentals – tuning, balance, rhythms – then you can spend less time rehearsing performance music. Students learn to solve problems on their own.
   At this level the director should keep all of the students involved in the rehearsal at every moment. If I want to work on flute vibrato, I ask the other instruments to listen and assess how well the flutes are doing. If I work on a rhythm with the sax section, the other sections clap the beat or count subdivisions. When students are engaged and busy, they don’t have time to misbehave. A more important reason for doing this is that when they become involved in what other sections  learn, they start to pay attention to the rest of the band. That bleeds over into their playing.

How do you approach discipline in your rehearsal room?
   I do not have many discipline problems in rehearsals. If somebody acts out, the other students shoot them a look. I don’t have to say more than a word or two. I rarely turn my back on a section for more than a few seconds; they are always in my gaze. When I started teaching, my approach was similar to that of my band director growing up. He was a strict dictator in his approach to conducting. Over the years, partly because Arizona is a rather laid-back area, I have come to use more humor and outrageous analogies to explain how someone is playing and how they ought to be playing. Once students key into that, they find the rehearsals entertaining. My style is a personal choice, and any director has to do what works well for them. I tend towards sarcastic humor, which they told me in college had no place in the classroom but it fits with my personality. I have had student teachers who tried the same approach with my students and did not succeed. Everyone has to find their own way.
   I keep my classroom very organized, and I know what I am going to do before I come in. I do my best not to get caught off guard. After three decades of teaching middle school, they can’t surprise me with much.

How do you motivate middle school students to practice and do their best?
   I am a firm believer that intrinsic motivation is the best. I do not give my students candy if they practice 15 minutes a day. I do not offer pizza parties or trips to an amusement park, and I do not give students the day off after the concert. We are there to accomplish a goal. If I make the goal rewarding enough, performing excellent music at a high level, the music itself becomes the reward. I have never had a problem with motivation. If students want to play a piece of music really well, they will practice it.

How much sightreading do you do?
   I never pass out a piece of performance music that we do not intend to play on a concert. On the other hand, my students are presented with something new every day. I have come up with a huge set of warm-up chorales based on Protestant hymns. They have various keys and rhythms and different types of phrasing and balances to figure out. We read a new chorale every day or two. I also have a sequence of rhythms that we practice. Every time we get to a new set of rhythms, that is sightreading. Although we do not play music to practice sightreading, the further we get into these chorales and rhythms, the more successful we are at sightreading. There is always a first time through with a piece of music. I also spend time looking at a new piece with students before we start to play. Students should have a mental checklist of things to see and imagine before they put the instrument up to play.

What are the basic principles you address in teaching rhythms?
   When I was taught, we were instructed to show students how to count rhythms in the standard way, and then have them clap and play the rhythm. There is nothing wrong with that system, but it does not always work for every student. Just as in other subjects, music instruction should vary. I thought about how I read rhythms when playing. With some rhythms I count them, but on a jazz or rock chart, it was more a visual recognition of the rhythm. I see it and know how it is supposed to sound. I concluded that the most important part about reading a rhythm is how it aligns with the beat. If my students have trouble with a rhythm, they write a little hash mark over every beat in the measure. Then I put on the metronome or have half of the students clap as the others play this rhythm. I tell them that every time they come to a note or a rest under a hash mark, make sure that they are aligned with the beat. Ninety percent of the time that approach solves the problem.
   Another element that I discuss is what students should do during rests. They are often very good at playing the notes, but rests become a formless, unidentified silence of undetermined length. I come up with something physical to fill the rest. For a short rest, for example, they might take a breath. I try to make what happens during the rests just as rhythmic as the notes. I do not have a complete solution for teaching rhythms, but as I add each of these elements, students reach greater levels of success. I try to have an arsenal of approaches that I can apply to any situation, until I find the approach that clicks.

How do you teach tone?
   My number one priority is characteristic tone. I tell students that you could probably teach a bunch of chickens to cluck the 1812 Overture but nobody would think it was great music. When I teach beginners, I show them the fundamentals of how to produce a tone and then listen to what they do. If a student produces a good tone naturally, then I do not talk about it anymore. One of the worst things a teacher can do is work on something that students already do well. I do not want to have them think about something that they do well. I wait until I hear a problem.
   I play the instruments for beginners all the time. I play along with them and show them how a tone should sound and then ask them to play. We will discuss how the two tones are different, which tone is better, what I am doing differently to produce my tone. I want them to evaluate sound right from the start. Next to the podium there might be eight instruments on a given day. Whenever I hear a poor tone, that is the instrument I pick up for demonstrations that day. I have seen too many beginning band teachers who do not demonstrate characteristic sound on the instruments and then wonder why students play the way they do.

How important is skill on secondary instruments?
   It is absolutely critical. If you have a math teacher who says to a class, here is how you do long division but I can’t show you with a problem on the board, that teacher would be fired. A band teacher who cannot demonstrate a characteristic tone on clarinet is just as unprofessional. If you lack proficiency on the clarinet, do something about it. Sometimes a student will ask if I play all the instruments, and I answer, “of course, I teach them all.”
   It may not be realistic to come out of college playing all of the instruments well, but new teachers should play several instruments, and in the first few years of teaching they should work over the summer on the others. I am a horn player, so woodwind instruments were a bit of a foreign language. The process of learning to play a clarinet or flute well makes me an infinitely better teacher because I understand what students are going through. 
   When I graduated from college, I thought I knew everything, and by the second day of teaching, I realized I knew very little. I always tell first-year teachers two things. First, promise you will not quit when the year is over, no matter how discouraged you get. The second year will be so much better, you won’t believe it. Second, don’t think for a moment that you have any idea how to do this job. What they taught you in college gave you some tools, but until you have to put it into practice in front of students, it is all a bunch of words. You can talk about surgery all you want, but the first time you pick up a scalpel is when you start to figure out how it really works.

How do you work on tuning and intonation?
   Directors approach tuning in two ways. One is to tune the band the way a piano tuner tunes a piano. The band will sound in tune, initially, but the intonation begins to drift from the moment they finish tuning. On a concert the first piece might sound in tune, but as the instruments warm up, the intonation suffers. I use a different approach and teach students how to listen and adjust intonation as they play. I start with an initial tuning, but from that point students learn that they have a toolkit to correct tuning problems. Bands schooled in this approach start a concert in tune and play in tune throughout. The tuning may actually improve and get tighter as they go along because it relies on student perceptions of intonation and adjustment. I have a sheet that I hand out to students when they reach the appropriate level that explains how to adjust pitch with air, hand position, and embouchure. I explain that at any given moment they should find the best tools to solve a tuning problem.
   To help students hear intonation problems, I ask a student to play a note as I play the pitch extremely flat and slowly slide up to the correct pitch. Students raise their hands when the intonation beats disappear. After some practice, students do this with their eyes closed so their perceptions are not influenced by others. Next I ask a pair of students to play a note and have one student make the adjustments I prescribe to eliminate the intonation beats as the other students raise their hands when the intonation is perfect. This is always a great lesson; students are astonished when they notice intonation beats for the first time. 
   I focus on teaching students to listen to each other. The least important thing I do is give the beat. I tell students that once the beat is started, that is no longer my job. My job is to make a correction if something goes awry with that beat. If the band starts to get off track, I make the beat smaller or even stop conducting. The solution is not to watch me but to listen to the other players. I take away the visual cues, so they are left with only the aural cues to fix the problem. When working with an unfamiliar band, they might stop playing when I stop conducting. I tell them that when I want them to stop, it will be obvious.

I don’t conduct that much in rehearsals. I might walk behind a section and talk to students while the band plays. Students should learn to use their ears and synch with the rest of the players. I want the focus to be on the music, so my conducting has gotten smaller and more discrete. 

What is the curriculum you have developed for your music technology lab?
   I teach in a school that is only five years old and was designed as an international baccalaureate school. As part of the IB curriculum all students take a music class each year. Students may play in an ensemble or take a music technology class. The first year is a one-semester class called notation and theory that starts at the beginning with the musical staff and whole notes. In this lab we have MIDI keyboards hooked up to iMac computers. Some students find the basics boring and cover material they already know, but it quickly becomes more advanced. I basically take a freshman college theory course and simplify it. The class includes the fundamentals of notation, major scales, chords, how meters work, and the characteristics of good melodic writing. By the end of the semester we have reached two- and three-part counterpoint.

Do the students compose?
   Sometimes to apply theory lessons, they will write four and eight-measure compositions. The second-year class covers arranging and composition. They take pre-written music in SATB form and learn to orchestrate it for all band and orchestra instruments. That takes about nine weeks. For the other half of the semester, they work on composition assignments that start very simply and become increasingly open ended and complicated. Many band and orchestra students would love to take this class but the school schedule makes this impossible. I would like to see that change in the future.

What other advice do you have for new teachers?
   Whatever budget you get from the school, be sure to spend every penny by the end of the first semester. If you ever leave any money, you are just asking to have your budget reduced. I also advise new directors that whenever you hear from an irate parent, respond as quickly as possible. The longer you wait, the angrier they become. If you call back within five minutes, you completely disarm them. If you avoid a difficult encounter, it will only become worse.
   At rehearsals, students should play their instruments more than they listen to you talk. If you are talking, make your point in a sentence or two and then have students apply it. Lecturing is the best way to waste time in rehearsal.

What have you learned along the way that you wish you had known sooner?
   It is possible to make everything in rehearsals about the music. My high school director was quite stern, and if he hurt your feelings, too bad. I started out that way, and it was not until 20 years into my career that I realized that I should be more interested in these young human beings in front of me. My mannerisms, words, and approach affect them as people, not just as musicians. When I changed my approach, so many things got better. The job became more meaningful, and students started responding better to suggestions. In the end the band played more musically because the rehearsal atmosphere encouraged them to take a more personal interest the music.