Part 1: Instrument Selection & Fitting

Submitted by Josh Langston,
Band Director,
Millennium Middle School
Seminole County Public Schools

Instrument selection and fitting is one of the more daunting tasks for the directors of the Beginning Band, and this can be especially true for new band directors.  While there are many paths to determining the ideal instrumentation for your beginning band, it is most important to pick an approach and proceed in a manner coherent to the director, students, and parents. The following suggestions are areas to consider as you prepare for the upcoming school year.

I) How does Beginning Band fit into your curriculum?

How the beginning band fits into your comprehensive band curriculum will determine the best method for instrument fitting.  If your beginning band is part of a comprehensive band program, then you will want to be more specific about your instrumentation.  If your beginning band is exploratory in nature, then having a balanced instrumentation might not be a priority. 

Your educational philosophy and approach to classroom instruction will influence how you perform instrument fitting and selection. It is important to note, however, that a well-balanced concert band instrumentation is necessary for students to experience the widest variety of literature written for middle school bands and to create a band sonority.

II) Consider your resources, and how you will use them

  1. Time
    1. What is your timeline for having this process completed? 
    2. Are you limited to class time for this process, or do you have time outside of the school day? 
    3. How many instruments do you expect each student to try?
  2. Available Instruments
    1. The number of instruments you have available to you for testing will influence your approach.
    2. How many of each instrument do you have?
    3. How many instruments will you fit at a time?
  3. Expertise
    1. Your level of expertise or the experts you have available to you will help determine how you approach instrument fitting. 
    2. If you are comfortable with your level of expertise you might be perfectly comfortable doing this process yourself.  If not, and there is an expert available, then you might bring in specialists to test each instrument.


III) Approaching the fitting

The approaches listed below use the above resources in different ways. These are not exclusive prescriptions, but successful approaches I have used in different environments.

Over the years my philosophy on Beginning Band has evolved into this statement: The focus of beginning band is to build age-appropriate ensembles that align with FBA/FSMA standards. This philosophy entails building a band with balanced instrumentation and attempting to match a student's abilities and interests to an instrument on which they have the highest chance of success.  Students, and often parents, will come into band with preconceived notions about which instrument to play.  The point of the instrument fitting is to measure the natural aptitude of a student to make a characteristic sound and demonstrate the appropriate physical characteristics necessary for success on the instrument.  At the conclusion of this process, student and parent will have an idea of "what comes naturally" to the student. (e.g. If they can't make a sound on the saxophone, they shouldn't play saxophone.)

Approach 1: Test the students yourself during class.

Using this approach, students have "their" instrument in their hands at the beginning of the fourth week of the school year.  This allowed me to test on a wide variety of instruments, and it appealed to my inner "control freak".  To do this effectively, you will want to have an activity for those students not testing while you evaluate others, otherwise, you will spend more time employing classroom management strategies then you will instrument testing.  As I had access to a wide variety of instruments, I was able to test students in groups of ten at a time on a variety of instruments. This is a time-consuming method, as grading the written activities in addition to instrument evaluation can be cumbersome.

Approach 2: Test the students yourself outside of class.

This approach, can only be used where transportation is not a problem; this is why I don't use it.  To use this approach, you will need significant time outside of the school day, and to be confident in your pedagogy of each instrument. You must also make a concrete schedule for when you will conduct the instrument fittings.  Some band directors arrange consultations that involve families making appointments for instrument fittings.  During these consultations, which last an average thirty minutes, directors are able to test three to five students at a time.  They also demonstrate the process to parents, establishing relationships that will grow the program stronger as the year progresses.  The benefit of this approach is demonstrating why a student might be more suited for one instrument over another.

Approach 3: Have guests test the students during class.

To make the fitting process faster, I began to bring in guests.  Bringing in specialists to aid in evaluations not only speeds up the process, but allows for higher level of expertise. For this, you need access to area private teachers, spaces within your classroom to put them for testing, and a clear communication of your expectations.  It is also a bonus if you can get these specialists to donate their time.  Do not be ashamed to call in your musician friends, or call upon your feeder system to come in and assist.  Sometimes, private teachers will provide this service for free in hopes that they can gain some new students for their studio. Otherwise, plan to compensate these specialists in an appropriate manner.

Approach 4: Have guests test the students outside of class.

The quickest way that I've completed the instrument fitting process is by having an instrument fitting night.  At this event, I bring in guests to evaluate students on all of the instruments.  I typically devote two to three hours to this event. At the end of the event, approximately 90% of my students have been evaluated. Students not able to attend the event make individual appointments to complete evaluations before a set deadline.  The two primary benefits to this approach are: 1) the majority students are tested by experts, and 2) evaluations are done in one evening.  This approach requires the most amount of planning. This includes securing adequate facilities, evaluators, and compensation, not to mention communicating the details of the event to families. Resources for this approach include securing a convenient time for families, a staff of dependable specialists, and adequate instruments for specialists to perform evaluations.

Again, these are not the only ways to perform the instrument fitting.  However, it should provide the inexperienced band director with some ideas on how to proceed, and, perhaps, provide the experienced director some ideas on how to tweak their process for maximum effect.

In an article to follow, methods for performing instrument fittings will be explored. This will include what to observe while evaluating each of the specific instruments.