Strike up the Band Part 2

In part one we asked three important questions about starting up a band program in your school. 1. Why do you want a band? 2. Do you have the energy, time and commitment to run a band? and 3. Is you school supportive of a band program? Having answered these questions you have gone through the six points to starting your band program, you have sent out expressions of interest to see in you already have students who learn an instrument, you have spoken about concert bands in class and played concert band music to your students, you have done demonstrations of the various instruments and let your students have a play to see which suit them best. What’s next?

Goal Setting.
Set yourself a goal for the number of instruments you want. I usually aim for 30 new musicians, that way if you lose some along the way, you still have a decent sized band.  Plan ahead to when the first practice of your band program will be and also the first performance.  Yes, believe it or not, you are already planning your first performance! That way from day one, every member of your band and their parents know what they are aiming for.

Getting students to sign up.
I always say that being a music teacher is 75% teaching and 25% sales.  You new band program will succeed or fail on how it is delivered to your students and this is probably the hardest task of all in your quest to have a band.  There are two major hurdles you will encounter when starting up your band program. The first is convincing students that they can actually play a band instrument. This can be quickly remedied by giving students the opportunity to blow a flute, clarinet, sax, trumpet and trombone. They will be able to make a sound on at least one of them and once they realise it’s not as difficult as they imagined, you have won them over. The second is the cost. This tends to be the larger of the two hurdles, but can be overcome.  The cost of learning a band instrument can be a turn off for a lot of parents. When they factor in buying/renting an instrument and the cost of private lessons and they wonder will their son/daughter actually even continue after three weeks or give it up just like they did with dance lessons, judo lessons and underwater origami classes?  Here’s how you deal with this:

Learn a Band Instrument for Free.
What? I hear you ask. The cost of something unknown will give most parents cause to pause. You need to bring down that cost as much as possible at the beginning until your band has proven itself to the parents.  Try this when setting up your program.

  1. Contact a local musical instrument supplier and tell them you are about to start a band program. Let them know how many instruments your goal is to include and say that you will direct all the new students to them if they do you a deal. I have found music stores very open to this and in most cases they will reduce the hire cost because of the number of instruments they are leasing and even do a special package deal on purchasing new instrument. I usually ask for them to have a complete package deal, instrument, music stand and book.
  2. See if there are any band instruments hidden away in a storeroom at your school or if anyone in your school community has one lying under a bed somewhere that they would like to offer the school. This way you can also loan instruments out to students who have trouble paying for hire of a new one.
  3. You can also offset the cost by reminding parents that students will be learning the instrument in a band situation (we will talk more about this later) all together and this will cost them nothing. You can invite your woodwind and brass teacher to come along to practices as well. This will benefit both them and the students. They can see which students are doing particularly well and also start to pick up private students. Eventually it is hoped that all students in the band will be learning privately, but at the start this is the most effective way of getting them going. Once parents see their child is enjoying the instrument and progressing, most will opt for private lessons to supplement the band. This way you can advertise that students can learn an instrument for free. This way the only cost to parents is that of the instrument. People love free things.

What if I don’t play a band instrument, how can I teach a band?
This is the most challenging aspect of setting up a concert band in your school. You play amazing piano or guitar but never have touched a wind instrument in your life. Here’s how you do it.
Step one:
Don’t Panic!
Step two:
Get band books. The band texts I use have very clear conductor scores that show every aspect of how to play each instrument.  I recommend Essential Elements 2000 or Standard of Excellence as your texts. These books also come with play along cd’s and an instructional DVD. Playing the cd along with your band really helps to hear how each song goes and develops a sense of time and tone.  There is also an excellent teacher text book, The Teaching of Instrumental Music (3rd Edition)by Richard J. Colwell and Thomas W. Goolsby. This has everything you need to know about wind instruments in it.
You could also challenge yourself by learning an instrument with your band. This is a great way of bonding with them and at the same time learning firsthand what it’s like to play a wind instrument.
Step three:
Make sure you also use your greatest resource- your instrumental music teachers. Talk to them, ask them questions and get advice. In the long run the band program is going to benefit them, so anything they can do to help you will ultimately help them too.

Preparing for the First Rehearsal.
Purchase a set of band books, one of each instrument and the score.  Send a welcome email to the parents of your new band members and include the contact details (and hopefully person) at your local music supplier and also the name of the book you are using.  Give the date of the first practice. I have found it best to offer two practices per week, each for about 45 minutes- 1 hour.  Most students are so busy with extracurricular activities, I found it best to offer a before school practice and an after school practice. Students can opt to come to either one or both, obviously coming to both would benefit them more. I teach the same content at each practice so that if they come to both, they get to really learn any new content and if they can only make one, they haven’t missed out.
The first rehearsal is all about making a sound and I have written a great little tune that only requires the band to play for two beats, every few bars. That way they are learning about producing a sound and breathing and not having to worrying about fingering in the first week.  This is a great introduction to playing as students can get a copy of the song and play along at home. More about getting hold of this tune below. Write yourself a 5 week program using the band books as a guide and include a chance for the band to play what they have learned by themselves. You will find some students will be playing anything they can get their hands on and want to show the rest of the band. I offer Excellence Cards to students in the band who demonstrate a great solo, being most helpful, best improvement over the week, best tone quality or control and best mentor.

At the First Rehearsal.
This is where everything you have planned hopefully comes together. Start by setting the ground rules for the band. Mine are:
1. Listen First.
2. Only play your instrument when directed to.
3. Make music not noise.
4. Keep hands away from others instruments while they are playing them.
5. Only positive comments.

Start by asking if any students have already been playing their instrument and can play anything yet. You will find some have and are dying to show off. Next demonstrate putting instruments together and go around helping students who are stuck.  Talk about breathing and diaphragm. Get your band to practice doing some breathing from the diaphragm and to hiss air as you time them. Make it a competition. Next move to producing a tone on the instrument. Any note is fine, for as long as they can hold it. Again time the band, last person standing (still playing) is the winner. Give them a break and show them a video of a good concert band or wind ensemble playing (just go to YouTube). Tell them this is what they are aiming for.
Now it’s time to try out a song. I use my song that only requires them to play two notes every few bars. It’s fun and it gets them counting and playing. By the time you have done this a few time, you will find lips are starting to wane.  Just like any physical activity, embouchure (mouth) muscles are not used to playing an instrument and will tire quickly. I usually find the first 2 or 3 rehearsals are about 30 minutes long before everyone finds it hard to play. Gradually extend the length of the rehearsal up to one hour and break it up by talking as well. Talk about the composer of the piece, about areas of technique, anything to give their lips a rest.

After the First Rehearsal.
Send home an email explaining to parents what happened at the rehearsal and what your expectations are for that week. Remind them of finding a regular practice time at home and to encourage their son/daughter while they are practicing.  I send a weekly email home to parents as an update in the first 5 weeks to keep them informed of how things are going. You will also get a pretty good idea with about 3-4 week of who is practicing and who isn’t. I also send personal emails of congratulations to those who are practicing and email those that aren’t encouraging them to do so and also giving their parents advice on how to help them.

There you have it!
You have a band. Expect to lose a couple of students in the first few weeks, this is normal. Even with all the information in the world before they start, some students are still surprised that they have to commit to the instrument and practice. Most though will love it and word of mouth about how much fun it is will increase your membership. You will very quickly find the pace of your band and how fast they can be taken through the books. Get them working in sections too and helping each other learning songs.

Band texts:
Essential Elements 2000 for Band Book 1. Publisher Hal Leonard
Standard of Excellence book 1 by Bruce Pearson. Publisher Kjos Music
Teacher Texts:
The Teaching of Instrumental Music (3rd Edition)by Richard J. Colwell and Thomas W. Goolsby. Publisher Prentice Hall
Teaching Instrumental Music: Developing the Complete Band Program by Shelley Jagow.  Publisher Meredith Music

Band Set up templates, letters to parents, testing charts, posters, teaching program and First Song ( including mp3) available from myself $30 for e copy, hard copies available also for $30 not including postage.
“How to do Band Instrument Testing” and “How to Play Workshops” for teachers are also available upon request.