Balancing Your Curriculum toward a Healthy Band

As a music educator, it truly is YOUR curriculum and YOUR choices which shape the direction of YOUR band program.  Some might argue the most important decisions you make all year occur when programming for each concert, public performance, or MPA.  We are blessed with the unique opportunity not afforded our colleagues in other content areas.  That opportunity also carries great responsibility and shouldn't be taken lightly.  A balanced "diet" will help ensure that your band program remains healthy and viable for years to come. 

I believe there are three important factors that affect our curriculum decisions as band directors.  Each of them is important and must be weighed carefully.  They are essential to provide a healthy balance for our students now and in the future. 

Academic Course of Study vs. "Activity"
The first factor to consider when selecting literature for your band should be the content.  Does the piece or exercise I'm going to teach make my students better musicians?  What is it going to teach them?  What concept or skill does it require/introduce?  This principle will help distinguish band as the academic subject that we strive for as opposed to the "activity" that many administrators and non-musicians see it as. 

For many, the first concert may be a Veteran's Assembly and patriotic in nature.  For others, that first public performance may be a Holiday concert.  Regardless, your choices for literature will begin to form the scope and focus of the ensemble for the year.  Choosing music that will develop a certain skill will show your students what you value and seek to bring out in them. 

A sample program might include:

  • An Opening Fanfare/Technical selection
  • A March (traditional style or 6/8)
  • Lyrical/Expressive
  • Light/Fun work (Maybe showcase a particular section or soloist)

In a way, you've provided the audience and your students with a full course "meal" to take in and digest.  The pieces selected for this first performance will set the tone for the next unit in your course of study…which for most is your Music Performance Assessment.

This type program also reinforces the academic content in your classroom.  A concert filled with novelty pieces, pop tunes, and "fluff" only works against you.  Those choices, although popular with your students (especially younger kids), usually do not involve new skills or musical concepts that promote healthy growth for the students, the ensemble, or ourselves.

Knowledge is Power
For this article, we will only discuss this as it relates to selecting music for an MPA performance, but the second factor to consider when selecting literature is probably the most difficult for most.  We all want to challenge our students and ourselves.  We also want them to be successful…however we choose to define success.  The tricky part comes with knowing how to balance the two without setting ourselves up for disappointment. 

The first part of this factor is determining the strengths and weaknesses of your ensemble.  That means getting to know the individual musicians in your band.  You have to make time and develop ways to hear them play individually as much as possible.  You simply cannot go into the decision-making process blind to the fact that your low brass have limited range…or that your clarinets have trouble with technical passages crossing the break. 

For me, that process happens over the last 2-3 weeks of the previous school year through chair auditions for returning members and in-coming 9th graders.  By the end of May, I know who will be in what ensemble and have a pretty good idea of the ability level of each group.  For middle school directors, it may mean pass-offs, playing tests, or "band karate" during the first semester.  Make it fun!  The students will get better and you'll gain valuable information to help you plan.  If you're a new teacher or new to your program, you may also look back at the program(s) from the previous few years. 

Once you've gotten a good handle on the capabilities of your ensemble, then you can really start to think about music that will enhance what they do well and help them grow in the areas where they need improvement.  The next step is to begin listening/studying as much music as possible.  Listening to quality recordings with a score available will help you discern if the piece is something of interest or possible for their MPA program.

The final step is to read as much as possible.  In a middle school band, you can certainly sprinkle in sight-reading of potential MPA music throughout the first semester.  In a high school band, it's not unthinkable to defer class time to sight-reading good concert music in lieu of the monotonous repetition of the marching band show music.  Your students will get practice sight-reading (whoa!) and you will start to hear more and more of the potential in the ensemble as it directly relates to the concert band setting.

The following questions are also a normal part of this conversation.

  • Where do I start listening?  I spend a lot of time researching what similar programs in Florida are programming for MPA.  I look for pieces that I do not know well or know at all and find a quality recording to listen to.  I've also created a "bucket list" of pieces over the years.  I'll never get to all of them, but the attempt will expose my students and myself to great music every year!
  • Where do I find quality recordings?  There are many YouTube channels now available that are solely dedicated to wind band repertoire.  The "Teaching Band Through Performance" series of reference CD's and books are also a great resource.  FBA also has a library of performances from State MPA's that you can choose from at the high school level. 
  • How do I know what quality literature is?  That's the million dollar question.  There are many opinions out there on this and I won't give you mine here.  I would only suggest that you seek the advice of a mentor or trusted colleague.  That person can make suggestions and guide you through listening/studying a piece to help determine its merit.  Remember, the FBA music list also has a designation for "significant literature" to reference as well.  That's a great place to start.  What makes that piece "significant"?  How does this newer work compare?
  • What am I required to play/program?  Read your handbook!  The grade level requirements are listed there for every classification. 

Planning and Goal-Setting
The final factor, which is crucial toward developing the "diet" for your band, involves two key ingredients.  You must set goals (short-term and long) and a course of action to achieve them.  Your vision will become reality for the ensemble.  Consider it like "meal prep"!

The first step should be a general division of time.  Look at your calendar and determine how many days/hours of rehearsal time you will have.  If you rehearse outside of the normal school day, then you should also factor in that time as well.  Will you have sectional rehearsals?  When is your school testing and how does that affect your class time?  What other issues will pop up and take away from your plan?  If you're a new teacher, then make sure you discuss these things with a mentor/colleague in your area. 

Next, look at the music you're considering and devise a schedule of rehearsal time to devote to it.  It will be a fluid process as you move forward, but it will at least give you something to start with.  Discuss your timeline with a mentor/colleague in depth and be flexible.  Your mentor/colleague may recommend some adjustments based on experience with that particular piece or just based on experience in preparation.  Then, work with them to set goals for each piece…where you want the ensemble to be at various points along the way.

Finally, get busy teaching.  Put your plan into action and have fun making music.  The process from the onset of learning a new piece of music…watching it grow and become something more…and then seeing the growth and development in your students is magical.  The performance should be a reflection of the hard work you've put in.  Like a personal diet, the more you see results, the harder you will work to continue that development.  Your students will feel and act in the same manner.

You've set goals and developed your plan of action.  You're following it perfectly and the band is growing each day and getting better.  You're doing your best teaching and they're engaged, but that one piece just isn't coming along like you thought.  You start to come to the realization that "maybe I picked something that's over their heads…or mine."  What do you do?  Well, you discuss it with your mentor and seek their advice.  You can't be afraid to hit reset and go with another piece of music that you know they can handle if it looks like the ensemble isn't going to be able to handle it.  Then, discuss it with the students…explain the decision…and get back to work. 

Final Thoughts
The information presented in this article will not guarantee a perfect performance or a Superior rating.  It also will not guarantee that you will make the perfect selection for every ensemble during your teaching career.  In fact, I've made my share of mistakes in 19 years.  I've over-programmed and paid the price for it.  I've also underestimated the ability of an ensemble and apologized for that as well.  However, it doesn't mean that I stop trying to find the best possible music for each ensemble that I have the privilege of leading.

I firmly believe in having a mentor and colleague to be an advisor, friend, and accountability partner in this profession.  I am blessed to teach in an area where I am surrounded by great, veteran teachers.  I have always had wonderful examples of leadership and musicianship to follow.  I know that not everyone is fortunate in that regard.  However, this state is full of wonderful teachers and mentors.  Do not be afraid to ask any of them for help.  Call your middle/high school or college band director.  E-mail a retired band director from your area and invite them into your band room.  Your FBA district has also set up a mentoring liaison who should be assigning mentors as well.  That person may also be a good resource for you.

Finally, take and enjoy the opportunity to make music every day.  There are many distractions that will get in the way if you allow them.  We still teach the best kids in the school…and we get to pick what they learn every year.  Take advantage of that opportunity!  Have a great year!

Submitted by Mike Philley
Band Director
J. M. Tate High School – Cantonment, FL
Escambia County Public Schools