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Getting Down to Business, an Interview with RoAnn Romines and George Hayden

Marshall Forrester | October 2008

George Hayden and RoAnn Romines teach instrumental music in the fifth and sixth grades at Maryville Intermediate School in Tennessee. A few years ago I heard their band for the first time at a festival. Their sound amazed me as the tone quality, intonation, and phrasing were better than many high school bands I had heard. The commitment to excellence shared by Hayden and Romines culminated with an invitation to the Midwest Clinic in 2007 ­­­– ­the first sixth grade group ever invited. Recently I invited them to direct at summer camp and caught up with them between rehearsals to ask how they produce such incredible results.

What is your most important advice for directors of beginning bands?

Hayden: The best advice is to teach the instrument, not the book. Certainly we teach tunes to our students, but we emphasize the musical skills that allow students to play any piece well. Students will learn to play the right notes and rhythms eventually but such fundamentals as posture, horn position, tongue placement, and embouchure are taught from the beginning. There is no point in withholding certain information until students have played for several years. If they learn the right way to play, a beginning band can sound good after two months; within two years they can play great literature.

The only difference between fifth grade band and older groups is the difficulty of the music. Everything about how to play well is taught every year. We have checklists on the board and signs around the room that provide directions on how to play each instrument properly. These skills become ingrained and pass through students’ minds every time they pick up the instrument. Until it is habitual we frequently recite these lists of skills.

Romines: When directors learn to teach and play every instrument well, they have a better understanding of the obstacles faced by each student. While living in Germany I noticed that all of the community bands sounded great. These were adult musicians who hardly touched their instruments and rehearsed once a week. The pitch, tone quality, and balance were great because they learned to play correctly in school. Our students can enjoy the same life-long involvement in music with the proper training. We pair students in groups of two or three and teach the tendencies and faults of each instrument. They learn the faults and tendencies of the instrument and how to fix their playing and that of others in the section. Likewise, every rehearsal of ours is geared toward developing players who have the skills to perpetually adjust their playing to what they hear around them.

Every day we work on ear training and matching pitches. The group will hold a single pitch for two to three minutes. Small groups of players are asked to match pitches. Once all players in a section can match pitch, we work on how to match the pitch of other sections. During these exercises certain rules apply. Students are told not to disturb the balance, tone, and pitch when entering after a breath. Students are also asked to keep the correct mouth and tongue placement while playing the pitch. We watch to make sure that students maintain proper breath support and continues to hold the instrument correctly, especially when exhaustion sets in. I learned this technique from three Texas directors, Stacey Dunn, Willie Owens, and Paul Flinch-baugh, who built some of the best middle school programs I have ever witnessed.

Do you focus more on the music than playing fundamentals when concert time approaches?

Hayden: We use the music to teach the instrument. When there is a portion of the music that requires improved tonguing, we examine how each student is tonguing and fix the problem. Instead of simply playing the passage repeatedly we work on the skills needed to play it well. Sometimes before a concert we might work on all of the skills used in a piece but not rehearse the actual piece until the last five minutes of class. We have found that the music improves much more this way. We do not neglect notes and rhythms, but that is the easy part. I would much rather put up with missed notes or rhythms for a while than suffer through intonation and sound problems all year.

Romines: The list of skills that students can learn through one song is endless, and leading up to a concert is a perfect time to improve their skills. They develop the endurance to breathe, tongue, and match pitch correctly under the exhaustion of playing several pieces. We learn quite a bit about students’ strengths and weaknesses and this helps us plan for the next semester.

What is the rehearsal routine for the wind ensemble?

Romines: When one of the directors steps to the podium and points to the first clarinet for a Concert F, that is the signal that the rehearsal has started. We then begin the three minute long tone exercise, followed by work on scales, rhythms, and single pitches. At this stage we double-check the pitch of each instrument or section. Students have learned how to adjust their instruments for tuning after a 20-minute warm-up and any other change that must be made with the embouchure or airstream. After this we begin rehearsing the music, usually starting with a march to because these are perfect for teaching tonguing, breathing, balance, and chord progression. A march holds all the secrets to a great band sound.

Hayden: We never put students to sleep with 20 minutes of announcements. Students rush in ready to play. Our classes last 45 minutes and at the beginning of the year we may spend 35 minutes on tuning before reducing that to 10 minutes later in the year. Starting the class with the tuning pitch teaches students to get down to business. The habit conditions students that it is time to start and we do not have to coerce them to their seats.

We have three 5th grade classes and three 6th grade classes with 35 to 45 in each. The wind ensemble is drawn from the 130 6th grade students by audition. That group meets two days a week after school for two hours each time. Our wind ensemble students generally study privately, as do many of the other students.

We used to begin wind ensemble in January of 6th grade and attend festivals in the spring. The year we auditioned for Midwest, we began in November, knowing that the application was do in March. After receiving the Midwest invitation in April, we began work almost immediately.

When is your first concert for beginners and what do you play?

Hayden: The first concert is usually in early December. The fifth grade students usually play a few pieces out of the book such as Crusader’s March and Ode to Joy. We sometimes will feature sections that have worked particularly hard on a piece. We generally have begun sheet music by that time and will play arrangements of holiday songs.

Romines: During the fall beginners play in three separate classes so the Christmas concert is the only opportunity for them to play as a full band. The concerts gives us a chance to observe balance and pitch problems that will need attention in the second semester, but the real joy is watching eyes light up as students discover how many more people are in their section.

Why are you so rigorous in your approach to correct playing?

Romines: Students should be taught correct skills from day one. We do a disservice to students if we expect them to somehow just develop good habits and skills later on. Unfortunately, the norm is to leave beginners alone regarding embouchure, tongue placement, air flow, hand position, and body position, and instead concentrate on notes and rhythms. We believe that notes and rhythms are easier when the instrument is played correctly. Students are eager to practice because they have the knowledge to correct most problems they may encounter. Our players learn how to recognize and fix physical problems that keep the instrument from sounding good. This focus on the instrument over the music is what built the great bands of the 1950s and 1960s.

We are entrusted to teach students how to succeed and our focus during every minute of class helps tremendously. The student should have no choice or free will on how to play the instrument.

Hayden: We try to correct everything. It’s obvious when a student is sitting incorrectly – that’s easy to fix. If students practice out of tune, they will get really good at playing out of tune, so we tune every day. We have a sign in our rehearsal room that says “It is not mean to tell a student how to play correctly, it is just right.” Somewhere along the way the education establishment got the incorrect notion that correcting students would damage self-esteem. Students who are wrong are not bad, they are just wrong. Students in our classroom feel comfortable making an honest mistake. I work camps and clinics all the time where students tell me how much they appreciate learning how to fix a problem.

Why don’t you list daily objectives for each class on the board?

Hayden: We list the compositions for that day or specific skills the students should think about but want students to trust us and follow our instructions. The checklists of playing skills for each instrument serve as an ongoing target for all students. I have heard some directors spend ten minutes explaining what will happen during class. That is a lot of wasted time that could have been spent teaching. Furthermore, we do not want students to feel as though they have failed or the class is a failure if we do not meet a particular objective. The objectives are for teacher reference only.

Romines: We try to develop a system that teaches discipline and high concentration. We use the podium only for rehearsing and never for lectures or announcements. This gives the podium a meaning and reminds players that rehearsals are a time to work. They know exactly what the warm-up will entail and know that we will step off the podium and allow them to rest or change reeds periodically. When we step back up on the podium, students should behave, think, and listen as young professional adults.

To run a program with such precise discipline takes considerable love and respect. In some ways our system reflects a military approach. Our classes learn that they are expected to behave as ladies and gentlemen at all times, and everyone has a job along with performing. Students may be enlisted to help each other to play well, maintaining discipline, or even just be a friend to another student. We show our respect for students by adding Mr. and Miss to their names. All throughout class we ask them to make choices; they are treated as if they were on the job.

What arguments do you use to persuade the community about the importance of music programs?

Romines: Research shows that students who study music may improve their performance in math, science, and comprehension. Music is the one subject and skill that uses both hemispheres of the brain. The skills necessary to play an instrument require analysis and evaluation skills from the left brain. Later, students acquire theory and listening skills that also use the left side of the brain. The right side is activated by the emotional side of music. The fact that music study helps develop the student as a whole has been recognized in Western Europe and Asia for centuries.

Hayden: We know the study of music can help with math and language skills and try to help students realize when this happens. A huge part of music is teaching such skills as cooperation, persistence, work ethic, responsibility, organization, and leadership. We work to instill trust from the beginning because some of these students will be in our ensembles for the next eight years. Sometimes small groups are sent to the practice rooms to work on a specific skill. When they return that must report back on how they accomplished the goal for this session.
Some directors just send players out to sectionals and hope that leaders in the group will emerge. We work to demonstrate strong teaching and leadership skills in class so that when students are on their own, they know what to do. Once students know what is expected, it is amazing how much responsibility they will accept for the group. Some students rush into the room to make sure that their section is properly set up and that everyone has a pencil and tuner. Witnessing the development of young
leaders is one of the most rewarding aspects of our jobs.


RoAnne Romines has taught instrumental music for 24 years in such places as Germany, Texas, and now, Maryville, Tennessee. She graduated from Indiana University and maintains a large private clarinet studio in East Tennessee.

George Hayden is in his 13th year directing bands in the Maryville City Schools in Tennessee. He also runs a school of conducting for drum majors and earned degrees from the University of Tennessee and Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.

Hayden and Romines will present a clinic titled “Beginning Band 101: You Have No Free Will” at the 2008 Midwest Clinic.