The Marching Band Effect

xl1The title of this post may be misleading. You may be thinking, “Ah yes. I’m familiar with this effect. This is when students play with poor tone quality and intonation, etc…” But, this is not exactly what I’m talking about.

Over the last several years, I have noticed an interesting phenomena that occurs when I have young middle school students play in the marching band. They get better. Way better. Quickly. It’s almost mind-boggling.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I preach all of the same principals of good musicianship to my marching group as I do to my concert band. It’s just different music and a different venue. I still tune the group carefully. I still expect them to play with good intonation. I still expect them to play with good characteristic tone quality. I still expect them to play correct dynamics and articulations.

For the first few years in my program, I only allowed select 8th grade students to join the marching band. Given the situation that the program was in, the marching band band played much more difficult music than the middle school. But, if I felt that students were “up for the challenge” then I would invite them to participate in the marching group. After a year or two of this system, I started to invite 7th grade students into the group as well. Admittedly, this was an attempt to get more bodies in the marching band, as I was feeling some pressure from my community as to how few students were in the group…about 30 musicians. Over the next few years, I began to notice a trend.

These middle school students that participated in marching band got to be much better musicians very quickly. Students that were previously on par with the rest of the middle school students ability-wise, were now far surpassing their peers at a rapid pace in the concert band setting. Now, I am at the point that I will take any 7th or 8th grade student that is interested into the Marching Pride.

Here is what I have found this year. A flute player that was average at best last year has improved immensely in note-reading, and rhythm-reading ability. I have 3 middle school trombone players that started off the season pretty weak, but are now incredible. They now play with immense confidence and a great sound! I have clarinetists that could barely play over the break last year, let alone with a good tone. Now, they do it easily and sound good too! These are just a few outstanding examples.

When we then get together for concert band at the beginning of the school year, they find the concert music easy. I can see that their peers that aren’t in the Marching Pride are struggling with notes, and finger placement, and slide positions, while they are playing the music with no problem. As you can imagine, this has greatly improved the quality of the middle school band (not to mention the marching band!)

I don’t know if I can put my finger on what exactly it is, but here are some factors that I think are contributing to their success:
1.They like the music. I really went out on a limb this year, and picked “popular” music – Fallout Boy, Rihanna, The White Stripes, Katy Perry – I think this motivated them to learn the material.
2. They have no choice. When they get to band camp it is kind of like, “Here’s the music (which is much more difficult than anything you’ve ever played)! Good Luck!” They have their peers to help them learn the music in sectional rehearsals, but they are basically expected to learn it. They are forced to step it up.
3. They want to belong to the organization. I think what is really key here is that they are excited to be a part of this great group, and have a sincere desire to do the best that they can. I attended a summer class co-taught by former University of Illinois Director Gary Smith. One of his main philosophies about marching programs was “System + Spirit = Success.” I have really made this a guiding principle for my group too. The idea is that if the students really buy into your system, i.e. how the program is run, and it’s philosophies and procedures, then the group will be successful. I really believe that nearly %100 of my students believe in our system and are passionate about it.

Having middle school students join our marching band has been an outstanding experience! Without fail, those students have improved immensely as musicians at an impressively rapid rate. This is something that I will continue to do, and I know that the quality of all of our middle high school band groups will improve because of it!

Where did the summer go?

I can’t believe that I haven’t posted anything since the end of the school year! Well, the school year ended up great, and I’m actually very excited for the school year to begin. Maybe even more excited than I have been in a while!

I just finished up attending a 2 day ed tech conference at a local school. It was the first one, and it was a great success. We had sessions on Wikis, podcasting, Web 2.0, and I even gave a presentation on blogging. It was a wonderful first year, and I am looking forward to attending future events.

We have some major changes coming to my music program this year, which is very exciting. First, my senior high band will be rehearsing all together in one period every day of the week. In the previous 5 years, they rehearsed in 2 separate periods, and only 2 days a week, since we shared the students with the choir program during the same period. I really think the group will now be able to play music at a level that is up to their potential. They are very talented, but we just didn’t ever have the time to prepare anything more challenging than a grade 3 level piece.

Another change to our band program is that we are going with only 5th and 6th grade participation in band, instead of 4th, 5th, and 6th. This will allow me to see the elementary band students 2 days a week…once in a small group with like instruments, and once in a large group “band” rehearsal. This is very exciting! We will actually be able to perform complete arrangements at our concerts, instead of silly 8-measure exercises out of the book!

Finally, we a receiving new marching band uniforms this year! After 3 years of asking, they were finally ordered last spring, and should be here in time for our first game, which is at home. I can’t wait to make our traditional march to the stadium in those brand new uniforms!!

So, things are shaping up to be a great year! Band camp begins on Monday! Just don’t ask me if I have finished writing my drill charts yet! 🙂

Wonderful Band Trip to New York City

I just arrived home late last night from a wonderful 4-day band trip to New York City! We left early Friday morning and arrived in the city around 3pm. We were dropped off at Rockefeller Plaza and took a walk up 5th Ave. to Central Park, and then down Broadway. That night, we dined at Planet Hollywood in Times Square.

The following morning, we woke early and headed out to Lakewood HS in Lakewood, NJ for our festival performance. It was to be a parade performance, but since it was raining, we were able to perform in the auditorium. The students performed well, and we received great feedback from our judges. We then had the opportunity to spend the rest of the day at Six Flags Great Adventure. In the evening, we attended the awards ceremony. I am proud to say that our group won first place and received a superior rating! To my complete and utter shock, the festival coordinator announced that it was the first time in the 28-year history of the festival that they have given a superior rating to a marching band. The kids and I were ecstatic!  About 15 minutes or so after the ceremony, when we were leaving the park, all of this finally sunk in. I have to say that I became very, very emotional, and I just broke down right there. In the past 5 years, these students have worked so hard for this program, and when I thought of where this program was when I started, I was just overwhelmed. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would receive a superior rating.

Anyway, we had 2 wonderful more days in the city. We had a 3-hour guided tour of Central Park, the Upper West Side, Manhattan, Ground Zero, and then we made our way to the South Street Seaport. The girls in the group had plenty of opportunity to purchase their purses and jewelry off the street! Then we headed to the Astor Place Theater to see an amazing show by the Blue Man Group. The theater was tiny, only seating about 300, but the show was incredible! That night, we walked back up to 30 Rock to go to the top of the building, and had a stunning view from the roof!

Monday morning, we packed our bags and headed out for a ferry ride on the Circle Line to check out the Statue of Liberty, and upon returning to land, we spent about 2 hours in Chinatown.

It was truly a wonderful trip, and maybe one of the best HS band trips I have ever been on. The students were great, and I am so proud of them and their accomplishments.  You can check out photos from the trip on my Flickr Page.

Catching Up

I have not posted much in a while, and I’m going to make an effort to post more regularly, even if they are just short posts, in order to avoid marathon posts, like this one could turn out to be.  Anyway, here are some of the things that have been on my mind and going on as of the start of the year (in no particular order):

– If you have been reading past posts, you know that I have been struggling with getting numbers up in my elementary program.  Things have gone remarkably well here at the beginning of the year.  I started on the first day with about 60 kids signed up, and now I have about 78.  These extra 18 students simply have been showing up and saying that they want to play, so that has been really good.  But, lately, I have been thinking about how to get the elementary students motivated to practice.  Now, I do have a rewards system with “band bucks” where students who practice an hour get 1 “dollar” from me.  They can then use that dollar to buy things like music pencils, erasers, etc.  This works well for some students but not many for some reason.  Maybe I just don’t make a big enough deal about it.  But, I have been thinking this week that maybe I would institute “quizzes” for the students.  What I have thought about is telling them that they will have a quiz on an assigned excercise for next week, and simply grading them out of 10 points.  My thinking here is that this will help to make the students accountable for practice time.  I just feel like I have far too many students who do nothing all week, and then we wonder why they can’t get passed number 15 in the book the whole year.  Any feedback/thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.

– Also somewhat related, I have been considering the possibility that I rely too heavily on the “method book” to teach elementary lessons, rather than just using it as a tool.  Maybe my approach to teaching elementary has been all wrong from the beginning.  Perhaps it is better to teach these students what I think is best, and simply use the method book as a resource, and not necessarily the curriculum.  Thoughts?

– Please hear me out on this next one.  Sometimes I feel like I need to remind myself that this is “just a job.”  Now, before you jump down my throat for saying such a thing, let me explain myself.  I know that all great teachers think of this as much for than “just a job.”  I do as well.  But, I think having a child has changed my perspective quite a bit.  I have to admit that my family is now the most important thing in my life to me.  There are many days that I find myself at school thinking about getting home and seeing my family.  But, what I find is that I still am very motivated to do the absolute best that I can when I step in front of my students.  So, here is what I think I mean when I say that I have to remind myself that this is “just a job.”  Sometimes, I let the BS that I have to deal with really get to me.  We (those of us in education) all know what I mean….all of the stuff not related to teaching music.  When I start getting bogged down with the administrative directrives that I don’t necessarily agree with, high school drama (“she’s being mean to me!”), etc., I find that I just have to tell myself that this really is “just a job.”  This helps me to let all of that unnecessary baggage go, so that when I am home, it does not weigh on my mind and have me pre-occupied when I’m with my family.  (I think that is also partially why I haven’t blogged in a while…I simply do not want to think about school when I’m at home.)

-Finally, it looks as if we will be extending our football season once again this year.  The team is 7-1, and has been looking good.  I predict we play at least 3 weeks into November.  I have to admit that for the first time since I’ve been in this position, I’m not really looking forward to it.  I don’t know if it’s because I’d rather be home with my family, or because we have been in the playoffs just about every year since I’ve been here, but I’m ready for the season to be over.  It probably has something to do with the afore-mentioned “high school drama” too!  But, I really do wish the team good luck….deep down, I probably do want them to succeed.

-PS – Don’t remember where I heard or read this recently, but a good thought nonetheless.  Someone said something to the effect of “We do not teach subjects, we teach people.”  I like that – sometimes it changes my perspective on handling certain situations.

Band Camp Wrap-Up

Well, I am mentally and physically fried!  I think the sun has partially melted my brain!  But in all seriousness, it has been a truly excellent two weeks!  I think I probably touched on this in my last post, but there was definitely something different this year.  I don’t know if I can put my finger on it, but I’m going to try.

1. Better Attitudes – I’m not sure why this year is any different than any other…well I think I have an idea, but I’ll get to that later.  The kids really worked hard this year, and I was able to do things with them that I haven’t been able to do with any of my groups for the last 4 years.  A perfect example of that is in this cheer that I like.  It gets the kids pumped and proud of what they’re doing.  It goes like this – I yell the words in bold, and the students respond.  Feet…”Together!” Shoulders…”Back!”  Chest…”Out!”  Chin…”Up!”  Eyes…“With Pride!”  Eyes…”With Pride!”  Eyes…”With Pride!”  Anyway, when I’ve tried to do this in the past, it just didn’t go over well.  The students then would just roll their eyes at me and laugh and think it was silly.  This year, the attitudes have been much different, and the students are very enthusiastic about it.  They are actually proud of what they are doing, and it is palpable.

2. Better Discipline – I think this probably has more to do with me than with the students, actually.  For whatever reason, I was determined to really hold the students accountable for what they were going to be doing.  I think I probably set the tone early on in camp.  My group has had a chronic problem with starting on time, and I’ll be the first to admit that I became a little too relaxed about it.  I have talked the kids’ ears off for the last few years about “to be on time is to be late” etc, etc, but it never really made any difference.  So then I used to make them run laps for being late, but most of them were in cross country or track anyway, so it wasn’t really a punishment for them.  Well, this year, I started thinking about what I would really hate to do for punishment for starting late….push-ups.  I can’t even do probably 8 in a row, and I absolutely hate them.  So, I decided that for every minute that rehearsal started late, we would do 10 push-ups.  So the first day of band camp came, and we ended up doing 40 push-ups together, as a group.  You can’t just make the people that are late do them individually, because this band is a team, and we stand or fall together.  So that’s what I did.  And it worked!  Especially after one of our new officers was late for her meeting the next morning and had to do 140!  I think the word spread fast.  We maybe only started late 2 more times the whole rest of camp…even after water breaks and whatnot!  I also think the kids appreciated seeing me do 20 because I started 2 minutes late one morning!

3. Better musicianship – I think this result may be attributed to my outlook as well.  I have a young group this year, and when I started picking out music, it was very difficult, because I was trying to avoid my groups weaknesses:  2 7th grade trombones, 1 alto and 1 tenor sax, 1 tuba who was switched from clarinet, etc.  But then, I remembered an experience I had a few years ago with this group.  My second year, I tried to pick music like this that wasn’t as difficult.  And guess what?  The music tanked.  The kids didn’t like it, they weren’t challenged, and I was just generally not happy with it at all.  You see, I have learned something very important about my students in this program.  If I challenge them with music, they will rise to the occasion.  They always have, and I have never been disappointed with the results, except in the year that I tried to pick “easy music.”  So, I picked probably the hardest music I’ve done in 5 years, not because it was hard, but because it was just the music I wanted to play.  I decided I wasn’t going to worry about those trombone parts, etc.  I knew that if I had to, I could re-write some things here and there, but for the most part, I banked on the students stepping up and learning the music.  I’m glad that I did, because they proved me right!

4. All of “my students” – When we got to about the 4th day of camp, and I was trying to figure out why everyone’s attitudes were so good, I realized something.  My seniors this year were in 8th grade my first year.  My large group of juniors this year were in 7th grade my first year.  None of these students had ever had anyone else as their marching band director.  Consequently, they have been used to the way I run the group, etc. for the last 4-5 years.  They know what my expectations of them are.  They know what to expect from me.  I guess I probably know what to expect from them too, and that has made a huge difference in the students’ attitudes this year.

I think really, really exciting things are going to happen for this group this year.  I don’t think that I’ve ever looked forward to a marching season with so much anticipation and excitement.  And, I think the students are feeling that way too!

When you take over a new job, lots of people in music ed. talk about when the program is going to become “your program.”  Usually people say 3 years, but for me, I think it is going to be this 5th year.  I am walking away from this camp saying, “Finally, this is my program.”  I hope that the students are walking away saying the very same thing, because they are what make this program great!  It is very exciting, and I can’t wait to see what happens!!

Band Camp Reflections – Day 1

Today was a good great day!  I am extremely excited for the marching band season this year.  Actually, I am always excited, because fall is my favorite time of year.  I must admit that I was going into this camp feeling anxious for the first time before a camp.  Let me explain:

Back in May, I had a meeting with my superintendent about an unrelated issue.  In passing, he mentioned that people in the community had been commenting about the lack of numbers in the marching band, and that it was “an embarrassment.”  I took great offense to this statement, because I happen to think our group is far from “an embarrassment.”  In fact, I challenge you to find another band in the area that plays as well as our group. Of course, I’m biased though!

I have always been very proud of my students. The group at Sharon has always been small since I have been here.  However, we have always had great quality, and that is something I pride myself on.  If you are not familiar with the program, I should point out that we only have about 25 musicians.  We had about 35 my first two years, but due to large graduating classes, that number has declined slightly.  I have always said that I don’t care if we have 10 musicians…I will take whoever wants to be there! What people need to understand is that this program had 3 different directors in 6 years before me.  This contributed to the decline in numbers before I arrived, and it takes several years to build the program back up through the elementary schools.

Anyway, I think what made me anxious about this years’ camp was the comment about the numbers.  I guess that I was shocked, because that concern had never been articulated to me in 4 years of working in the district.  And, for the first time, I found myself trying to come up with ways to increase the numbers….This was dumb.  I have invited some 7th graders into the marching band this year, and they are doing a nice job.  However, some of the students that originally were going to play have now backed out on me at the last minute.  You see, worrying about the numbers had shifted my focus and attention away from what it really should be on – teaching the music!

Anyway, the other thing that I realized today is that 100% of the students in the marching band this year have never had another director for marching band.  That is, they truly are “my students.”  I must say that I definitely noticed a difference right away today.  It is very exciting!  I do not get the rolling eyes and the poor attitudes that I have been getting the last 4 years.  Every student knows what I expect of them, and what to expect from my rehearsals.  I think we are on pace for a great year!

Finally, the last thing that I realized today is how much I missed my students over the summer, and just how much I really do enjoy working with them!  It was a lot of fun for me to catch up with them on breaks, and to work together toward a common goal.

So, in short, an outstanding first day, setting the stage for a great camp and a great marching season!  Here’s hoping that your school year goes well.  Have fun!

First Ever Podcast!

I have finally bought a new iMac and have discovered the joys of Garage Band.  Yes – I have been messing around with it, instead of writing my drill, like I should be!  Anyway, with some fairly modest audio equipment at home, I have finally produced my first podcast!  I am very excited to use this tool for personal and professional podcasts.  I have a lot of ideas for different shows, and am looking forward to it…it kind of takes me back to my radio days at WYSU! This first podcast is essentially me interviewing good friend Lee Caldwell, and it is a bit crude, but I wanted to get something “out there” just to make sure I had some idea of what I was doing.  We discuss his band and the upcoming marching season, as well as a recap of the Mercer Community Band season.  There are also a few random things in there!  This is an enhanced podcast, so you should be seeing some images along the way.  Please let me know if the podcast works okay for you!  Any comments are certainly welcome!

You can also find the RSS feed on the right sidebar!

Enjoy!