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The Roots of a Successful Program (Part 2)

Beginning Band and Orchestra
by William W. Gourley

Everyone may not be right for instrumental music but instrumental music must be right for everyone.

Maintaining Interest – Nuturing The Seedling

Once the plant breaks the soil we need to tend to the seedling to ensure its growth. We must carefully fertilize, water, protect it from spring frosts and weed around the plant if we expect it to grow into the beautiful flower we need to adorn our garden. And all plants don’t need the same things. Some need less water than others, some withstand insects better than others and yet others can thrive with little or no sun.

Everyone may not be right for instrumental music but instrumental music must be right for everyone.

A beautiful garden is the result of many different kinds of flowers that bloom at different times throughout the year and flourish in many different conditions. The early spring blossoms fade to be replaced by summer blossoms that give way to the brilliant flowers of fall.

Just as it is the English teacher’s mandate to teach every child, it is the instrumental music teacher’s mandate to create an enriching environment for every student who wants to be in the program.

An old adage goes, “variety is the spice of life”. As music educators, variety is the essence of our success in maintaining the students’ interest and participation.

Slight of Hand

Music skills acquisition is the result of repetition and repetition itself can become discouraging. We can disguise it by using different rhythmic accompaniments on a simple electric keyboard or create them with Band in a Box or any of the many music writing programs available on the market. Teaching concepts before they appear in the lesson book or music can make them seem easy when they eventually appear in the book. During the warm-up/review portion of the class, I used to play Hot Cross Buns, Mary Had A Little Lamb or other exercises the class had mastered in cut time and have them echo play it back to me. When we came across cut time in the book I would ask the students to pay attention to how many beats the half note or whole note was getting. Then I would ask how many quarter notes we played to the beat. Eventually, I could get someone to say everything had been cut in half. Abracadabra! New rhythms, range, bowings, positions, crossing the break all can be learned before they are taught in the book. The students feel, “Hey, this is easy. I can already do this.”

Patience, Flowers Don’t Bloom at the Same Time

No matter how hard we try some students take longer to grasp a concept. Often, instrumental music students are used to excelling with little effort in school and can become discouraged when classmates who generally don’t do as well in other classes develop range on the brass instruments more readily or can control the bow better. Sometimes, to help a student experience some success I would ask them to play anything in the book for a grade. And, you bet, I gave an “A” to the student who played the one measure exercise that introduced a new note. We had a good chuckle over it but the student learned I was there for his/her success, not mine. It’s important to help the student be patient with his/her progress.

Put Away the Weed-Be-Gone

If you notice a couple weeds growing in the garden don’t spray the whole thing with a defoliant. You will kill the flowers as well. Look for opportunities to cultivate those weeds. Some flowers look like weeds in the early stages. It’s a bit like the Ugly Duckling story. Remember, some of them eventually grow beautiful flowers. Don’t address the entire class because of a few non-conforming students. I can recall a particularly non-disciplined class with students who took forever to get set up and continued to be a challenge in the class. I completely ignored their inappropriate behavior. At the end of the class I gave “bonus stars” to the three students who were on task making it a point to praise their posture and the fact they were right on target the entire time. Within two weeks every student came around.

Let the Sun Shine In

Keep the garden’s attention focused on the healthy plants and the others will come along. My grandmother used to talk to her plants and it always seemed to encourage the withering ones. Bring happiness to your classroom. Use games to get students motivated to perform well. A little crazy goes a long way. People learn much more in a fun environment than in a hostile one. Oh, they learn in a hostile environment, they learn to not enjoy their experience. There aren’t too many plants that flourish without ample sunshine and the more they get the more likely they will bloom. Give your students lots of praise and support.

One Thing Doesn’t Work, Everything Works

In our garden, plants won’t grow just with watering, weeding, fertilizing, sunlight or talking to them. It is a combination of all of these things. As teachers we need to provide a variety of experiences for the students. There must be something for everyone to create a desire to return day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. Variety in music from traditional to pop and country to movie and TV music. There needs to be a place for SpongeBob SquarePants as well as Osterling and Dakow. Every year my colleague who taught strings would rote teach the beginners the Flintstones’ theme. I knew he was about to shout, “Wilma” and my students in the adjoining room were going to crack-up. His students couldn’t wait to get home to play it for their parents. Variety, sunshine and a little bit of slight of hand. Abracadabra! Halloween concerts, holiday concerts, marching band concerts, traditional festival concerts, trips to the symphony or local university concerts and rehearsals, bowling parties, jazz band, fiddle club, a blend of music that appeals to audiences and performers, award buttons, progress charts; the more variety the more students you touch and the more that stay on to flower in the high school program.

Add a Shot of Fertilizer to the Seedling

As the seedling begins to resemble the flower it will become it is time to add a little fertilizer to encourage it to continue growing. Everyone knows playing the game is more fun than practicing. Research shows that the sooner beginning students play a concert the more likely they will continue in the program. Try to have a concert within the first eight weeks. Don’t think of a concert in the high school sense. It can be as simple as a demonstration concert with the class playing unison melodies over a synthesized accompaniment. Parents will never realize the students aren’t playing parts and using the synthesized accompaniment will enhance the performance. Parents will appreciate a 20-30 minute concert with a few tunes where first-concert certificates are presented along with a little desert. The Music Achievement Council ( has a wonderful First Performance, A Demonstration Concert, for band or strings that includes everything you need for the first performance including easy melodies arranged by Sandy Feldstien. Saline has all its band beginners attend a marching demonstration where the middle school and high school bands demonstrate their skills. The beginners get to stand on the sideline and play a few beginning songs culminating in the beginners playing a BbM scale in whole notes interspersed with the 200+ marching band roaring a couple measures of swing style between notes. It gets the juices flowing at a time when the novelty of the new instrument begins to wane.

As intoxicating a flower high school ensembles can be we must maintain a diligent focus on the root of any music program, the beginning instrumental music class. With academic, fiscal and scheduling pressures intensifying every year it is up to us as the music education expert in the district to create an environment in which the music program can flourish to its potential.

To be successful, to grow that beautiful flower we call the high school ensemble, we must envision the beginning string or band program in the terms of a two year plan. The first year includes cultivating a fertile environment for recruiting prior to the student and parent choosing to join the program. The second year begins when the student starts on the instrument and we need to nurture the budding musician in order to build stronger and deeper roots for the music program in order to keep students in the program. Until there is a strong commitment to the first year instrumental program the school district cannot hope to offer its students a high school program that meets its full potential.

William W. Gourley is the Senior Program Development Executive and Educational Coordinator for the Marshall Music Company of Lansing, Michigan where his responsibilities include editing and writing Marshall’s educational newsletter, mentoring music teachers throughout the state, lecturing at universities, presenting workshops, coordinating educational programs and seminars for music educators. Mr. Gourley is the conductor of the Dexter Community Band and the Ann Arbor Civic Band. During his twenty-five years as a music educator he taught in the Dundee and Chelsea school systems, served on the conducting staff of the Blue Lakes Fine Arts Camp, founded and conducted the Southeastern Michigan Honors Band a high school student ensemble that toured throughout Europe. Mr. Gourley is in demand as a clinician, adjudicator, guest conductor, and lecturer for student/adult ensembles in the state and nationally. Bands and orchestras under his direction have performed at prestigious festivals, music conferences, and concert venues throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Because of Mr. Gourley’s leadership, musicians have gained a national and international reputation of excellence for their musical proficiency and artistry.