Strike Up the Band

Part One: So You Want to Start a Band?

You have just been appointed as the sole music teacher at a school that has either no music department yet or one that has been neglected and consists of 2 old guitars, a 3 piece drum kit and an old trumpet. You inherit a band that has spent all of the previous year bashing out a Pearl Jam song (not that there is anything wrong with Pearl Jam, they just aren’t supposed to be an entire music curriculum).
Before you start down this path to “band-hood” you need to ask yourself the following questions:

1. Why do you want a band?
2. Do you have the energy and commitment to run and maintain a band?
3. Is your school and most importantly, your principal, supportive of a band program? 

Having a school band gives students a creative outlet and creates an intrinsic motivation to study music with your students.

These seem to be obvious questions, but you will be surprised how many schools and teachers I have encountered over the years that have never thought of asking themselves these questions and as a result have run into major problems almost from the start. Let’s look at these three questions:

1. Why do you want a band?

Seems like the most obvious question in the world but you can be sure that when you set foot in your principal’s office and enthusiastically say “I’d like to start a band program in the school” that’s the first question he or she will ask you (followed by “How much is it going to cost me?” but we’ll come to that later).
Firstly, having a school band gives students a creative outlet and creates an intrinsic motivation to study music with your students. I can never see the point of schools that want a music program but don’t want a band. It’s a little like doing art or woodwork but not being able to make anything, just learn the history and theory of it. Practical and band programs go hand in hand with a classroom music program, you cannot have one without the other if you want a successful music department.
Secondly, it can increase the school’s profile within the local community. Having the school band playing at community events gives your students a fantastic experience but also shows the community what your school does. That can increase enrolments and improve the school’s reputation. You can also establish your school as the music “hub” of your area (more about hubs later too).
Thirdly, it will inspire your students to excellence. It never ceases to amaze me how band can change a student’s outlook of school. I remember a student I had called “Peter”. He was my star trombonist, he would practice everything and was one of my best students. At his first school concert a teacher came up to me and exclaimed “I can’t believe you have him in your band. It must make rehearsals hell for you.” to which I replied “Absolutely not, in fact, he makes rehearsals easier for me. Why do you say that about him?” she looked at me disbelievingly and responded “He is one of the biggest trouble makers in the school, he’s always in detention.”  As “Peter” got older he became a mentor in the band to younger students and by the time he reached his senior years he was nominated for School Captain. The principal at the time remarked how it was the band that saved him and made him into the success story of the school.

2. Do you have the energy and commitment to run a band?

A lot of new teachers make the mistake of thinking that setting up a band is just a weekly lunch hour or after school rehearsal. Sorry folks, it’s not! You will need to commit time every day to your band program. There will be charts and arrangements to re-write (trust me, you will need to customise), there will be promoting the band in the school community and getting students to start learning instruments and join the program, there will be making sure students are getting to their instrumental lessons, practicing, paying for lessons on time (more about that later) and communicating with parents and other staff. If that doesn’t scare you and you like a very rewarding challenge, then read on!

3. Is your school and particularly your principal supportive of a band program?

OK this is a big one. It’s the difference between having a good band and a great one. If you convince your principal of the need for a band and he/she agrees to it and then does not support you any further, it is going to be an uphill battle getting the resources you need to make it work. If the school has a culture that sees band as being a “soft” option or something frivolous again it is going to be difficult for you. It will help though if your principal is behind you, both of you can change a school culture together, just you by yourself changing it, is a bigger challenge. If the school wants a music program, they need a band- bottom line. So how to convince? First thing is to do some digging, not literally, unless gardening helps you concentrate. Research other schools who have successful band programs in place. Contact the Head of Music and see how they got started, what worked and what didn’t. Find out how it affects the whole school community. Use these success stories to help convince your Principal. They next question you will be asked is “How much is it going to cost us?” Well that depends. You can either use your music budget and buy everything, or offset the cost and spread it out. More about this later!

OK. So I have answered the three questions, how do I get started?

  • 1. Start with expressions of interest. Send home a newsletter to parents of all students informing them you are about to start a school band. You may be surprised to find that there are already students at the school who learn out of hours and can help get this off the ground. Remember to put into the newsletter the benefits of studying music and how studies have shown that children how learn music do better in maths and problem solving exercises, they also concentrate better and are more focused and responsible. (see http://www.childrensmusicworkshop.com/advocacy/12benefits.html and http://www.menc.org/information/advocate/facts.html for studies done with music students.)
  • 2. In your general music classes, spend the first few lessons of the year discussing bands and band instruments. Concentrate on flute, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, guitars, bass, piano and drum kit, they are the core of your new band. If you can get local musicians or instrumental music teachers to visit the school to give demonstrations that’s even better! Remember most of your students will have had a lot of exposure to rock instruments, so at first they will all want to play guitar or drums. Band instruments don’t get the same media exposure, so they seem strange and hard to play.
  • 3. Spend a lesson giving every student a standard music test, there are many around, you can decide which best suits your students. These tests are for your eyes only and can help you get a better idea of the natural musical strengths of your students.
  • 4. Organise a “Demo Day” either during their lesson time if you can demonstrate the instruments yourself or as a school event. Make sure that the students are able to try out the different instruments and keep a record of which ones students can make a strong sound on almost immediately. Half the battle is won for a student who can already make a sound, there is nothing more demoralising than spending the first 5 lessons just trying to get a sound out of your instrument. Get in a brass and woodwind teacher to help demonstrate instruments.
  • 5. Give extra priority to the following instruments, flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and trombone and set a quota for each. By giving yourself a balanced band from day one also will help with motivation. You will also find that at first most students will want to learn guitar or drums because they are the instruments they are most familiar with. It is important that you encourage students to learn wind instruments first before selecting your rhythm section. You may find that your rhythm section will end up being the students who learn outside of school.
  • 6. Balance, balance, balance! When selecting students you also need to keep in mind the balance of your band. Ideally you should be trying for 6 flutes, 6 clarinets, 4-5 saxes, 4 or 5 trumpets, 4 trombones and a rhythm section. Of course this is an ideal but it gives you a goal of where to get your band to. You will find that brass instruments are harder to get students for at first, so people that blow well on brass first time should be encouraged to play brass. Everyone will want to learn sax, the cost of hiring or buying will whittle that down somewhat. This is the time of year when you are salesman and marketing manager.
  • 7. Make sure you keep a list of how students blew the different instruments, that way you can refer to this later when making instrument selections. It can just be a tick box list, so it is quick and easy for you to complete.

Part Two: So You Think You Can Band.