Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Small Band Tip 4: Starting High School Players

I'm going to write about something a little different today. Instead of writing about performance aspects of a small band I'd like to write about beginning band. Specifically beginning students at the high school level. 

At my school I have an unusual situation. I teach junior high and high school band, which in and of itself is not that unusual. However, what makes my situation different is the fact that the high school is on a 4x4 block schedule while the junior high is on an eight period schedule. To further muddy up the waters there isn't a seperate band class for junior high. Instead they pull them out of PE. 

So, what is the result of this jumble? Well, the result winds up being 7th and 8th grade crammed into one class. Did I mention that there is a new sixth grade only school that I don't get kids from?

Now, I'm not complaining, just painting a picture. It's tricky building a program with a shaky feeder. So, how do we work around this? We start most of our kids in high school. 

This is where the block schedule comes in handy. I was able to convince my guidance counselor to make me a first block beginning band class. Usually the class runs between 5-10 students. That doesn't seem overly large but we'll see that you can build a program very quickly this way. 

On a 4x4 block a student takes the same four classes for an hour and a half each day for a semester. We are on a 9 week schedule. How do I use that to my advantage? A student enters beginning band one semester and the next semester we move them to the performing band class. 

I prefer to use Ed Sueta's Premier Performance for my method book. It's fairly no frills and straight ahead which is what I need with such a time crunch. The first nine weeks I aim to finish book 1, the blue book, which we are easily on track to do this year. 

Now, I don't follow the book straight through, but really who does? As a general rule I cycle through the book three times. I go through it the first time focusing on technique exercises and unison pieces. I skip all duets and full band pieces for the time being. That typically takes 6 or 7 weeks with high schoolers. Next we cycle back through and play all of the duets that we skipped. That takes about a week at the most. Then we usually take a week to play full band stuff to get their feet wet so to speak. 

I said that I focus on technique. I mean religiously. Every day I strive to finish at least one page a day. That's an easy pace to maintain and focus on technique. For our warm up every day, for the first several weeks at least, we play through any and all previously learned technique lines. That gets monotonous fast but it really reinforces solid playing. When we reach our first scale we switch to using a Rhythm of the Day and scales as our warm up. 

After we have worked through the blue book we move on to book 2 or the green book. Book 2 is seventh grade material but it's hard not to be intimidated by it at first. It is night and day to the blue book and it typically does not go as quickly. Particularly since I start introducing sheet music as we go. My goal is to have this class perform at least 3 tunes with the advanced band on whatever end of semester concert is coming up be it Christmas or Spring. To this end we often wind up "cherry picking" our way through the book introducing new concepts and such. 

Every teacher has their method of teaching a class. Mine has evolved to suit my situation. With limited numbers I often lead the class by playing my guitar. Why guitar? It allows me to vocalize instructions such as counting while I demonstrate music. I use a very simple: "I do, You do, We do" structure.

We start every exercise by identifying the Time Signature, Key Signature, Tempo and Dynamic Level. Next I demonstrate the music. After that I give my students a minute or two to practice it on their own. I resisted this for a long time. Even when students are actually working it sounds like complete chaos. But I've given in to practicalities. After a minute or two has passed we play it together. Often times I give them another moment to fix any mistakes made before we try it again. 

Eighteen weeks. That's how long I have to get kids ready to be part of a performing group. At the end of that they're rip roaring ready to go right? Don't bet on it, but they are ready to be part of something bigger and they usually get the hang of it quickly when given the opportunity. Using this system I almost doubled the size of my program in a years time. I anticipate at the current rate of growth having a 45-50 piece ensemble by the end of next year. That does not take into account any junior high students who do actually make it through the program. 

I have actually considered adding an intermediate band at the high school level and attempting to work through book 3, the dreaded red book. Of course this would mean giving up on Jr. High altogether and I'd hate to do that at this point. So, how do others deal with situations like this? What methods do you use?

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