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Repertoire Spotlight: “Fortress” by Frank Ticheli


This week we are featuring Frank Ticheli's Fortress. Click the play button below to hear a recording of Fortress and click on the cover to follow along in the score.

Note that under the score we've also provided some rehearsal/performance tips from Mr. Ticheli as well as a video interview in which he talks about "Fortress."

If you're having trouble viewing the score below, be sure to update your Flash player and view at here.

Link to MP3 file Fortress:

Formal and Rehearsal Considerations from Frank Ticheli:

Fortress is intended to be moderately challenging to most high school bands and very challenging to gifted junior high school bands. (It is also suitable for college bands.) The piece can be divided roughly into five smaller sections, as follows:

Section I (Beginning - measure 53)
The piece begins in the percussion very quietly, All three players should be in equal balance. It is crucial that the timpani be tuned precisely as indicated. The main idea of the piece, first appearing at measure 12, dominates this section. Careful attention to balance and intonation should be given to the low brass stating the idea.

Section II (measures 54-70)
The "call motif" is developed canonically at the tritone, first as a two-part canon in tutti, then as a four-part canon by soloists. The soloists should be of equal balance.

Section III (measures 71-107)
The "legato theme" is developed through several keys, and the entire section builds gradually from piano to fortissimo.The "main idea" is recalled at measures 83-87 (trombones/euphonium) and at measures 96-99 (trumpet/horns), but it is always subordinate to the "legato theme." At measures 100-106, the "legato theme" is passed from group to group, but it is always marked "bring out".

Section IV (measures 108-123)
The "legato theme" is now in diminution over marcato chords in the low brass and low woodwinds. This evolved into a brief recollection of the main idea in tutti. The entire section must be very precise, but without losing intensity. A brief restatement of the legato theme at measures 122-123 prepares...

Section V (CODA)
Material from throughout the piece is recalled over a tonic pedal. The section begins very quietly and mysteriously, then gradually builds to the end. The conductor should not slow down too much at the poco rit. (measures 155-157). The first trumpets have the greatest responsibility in re-establishing the "a tempo" at measure 158.

Finally, check out this Conducting Masterclass video interview with Frank (the first of four) where he discusses Fortress. Enjoy!

Thoughtfully Integrating Music Technology

Thoughtfully Integrating Music Technology

With the new school year underway, discussion among educators will often turn to the use of technology in the classroom. For music educators, educational technology can an important way to engage students in the learning environment—both in content and assessment. But there can be a disconnect between the instructional intent to use technology and its actual use. A recent study by LearnTrials of six well-regarded math and literacy products showed that fully 65% of student licenses were not used to the point of meeting the goals set by the products’ respective designers. The report also found that a surprising 37% of product licenses were never activated, and 28% of those licenses that were activated were never used. Today I’d like to offer some ways for music educators to make the most of how they use educational technology.

In his evaluation of the LearnTrials report mentioned above, Jin-Soo Huh suggested that technology is better implemented when educators define specific objectives for how technology is used. For the music ensemble director, technology can make for robust assessment or enhanced creativity. But it is important for the educator, in implementing technology, to be reflective in how to link technology to the needs and objectives of the ensemble. Below are some suggestions on how to make this happen.


Current technology has the ability to score, track progress, and even gamify many aspects of performing music. It is tempting for the director to use software with these robust capabilities in a broad-brush fashion in order to assess the students’ overall performance. But this approach may not provide students with the information they need to fully succeed, and does not make the technology truly integrated.

As an example, a high school ensemble director may use software to track and assess each student’s practice habits and performance ability of a piece programmed on an upcoming concert. In such a scenario, the director might  make this tracked work a substantial part of the grade. Without thoughtful integration of the software into the learning environment, however, three related problems can occur:

  1. The overall assessment can be summative, and at least some students may struggle to meet final benchmarks that they cannot understand and/or hope to reach.
  2. The students may not have clear instruction on how to improve their scores as they practice and use the software. Their scores may fail to show sufficient improvement, which may in turn demotivate those students.
  3. The particular piece of music may contain performing techniques that have not been systematically worked on in the classroom prior to the assignment.

In contrast, the director may use the same piece of music, the same technology, and the same performing situation, in a different way. They might:

  1. Make the assessment formative; allowing students and teacher alike to set multiple realistic and achievable goals during the learning process, and define specific ways in how the software can help students achieve these goals as the piece is rehearsed.
  2. Use data — as well as students’ feedback —  to see if there are common problems that many students face in learning this piece. This data can then be used to select supplementary instructional material that will address those specific areas. Data can also be used to determine if problems follow any overall patterns, including common issues with  pitch, rhythm, specific technical skills, or interpretation. The director can then consider if these are the same issues that are being dealt with in rehearsal, and how that might affect their instructional goals moving forward through the rest of the school year.
  3. When possible, use technology to fine-tune specific skills that have been worked on already in the classroom. They might choose repertoire that targets and stretches students’ existing abilities, without overwhelming them in the process. This way students can use data to see their improvement, which has been shown to be a motivator for continued learning.

Above all, avoid using technology in ways that puts students at an undue disadvantage in assessment. I would suggest that students should not be assessed on video or recorded performances if they are not used to being videoed or recorded, as this confuses students’ playing abilities and their ability to cope with being recorded.  Situations like this  make objective assessment next to impossible. Similarly, students should not be assessed using software applications that are not yet fully integrated into the learning environment. Hopefully by having instructors set specific, measurable, and achievable objectives, the students will be able to accomplish their performing goals with the help of technology.


Enhancing creativity through the use of technology is a core component of national and state standards for music. Like  assessment technology, creative technology can be used either as an added component or as an integrated aspect of classroom work. Ensemble directors may be tempted to make technology use an add-on, and restrict use of technology only to certain times after concerts and important auditions, when there is less perceived pressure to “be creative” through performance. But the case for using technology to enhance musical creativity has been well argued, and technology can be fully embedded in the curriculum’s creative content.

Creativity and performance assessment can in fact work hand in hand. More advanced students can write their own studies that address specific technical issues they encounter in works. Students can work collaboratively to write or improvise exercises that address problems within their sections or throughout the ensemble. Specific challenging places in the music can be addressed by having students create or improvise variations on these trouble spots, and work through them on their own or in groups. All students can create or use existing musical “loops” to address rhythmic or pitch issues they encounter in musical performance.  

Students may find that working with technology on their existing performance material gives them more ownership and engagement in the process of learning and making music. With the proper classroom environment—one that is focused on fostering a structured, technologically-driven, path to student involvement in performance—technology can be utilized fully and successfully.

Richard Niezen 2Richard Niezen is a double bassist, conductor, and string teaching specialist. He currently oversees the strings program at Colorado Christian University, and has worked as a conductor and adjudicator throughout the Rocky Mountain region. He has a Master’s Degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and a PhD in Educational Research from the University of Colorado. Dr. Niezen has spent his last decade actively working as a private studio instructor, with an emphasis in addressing the needs of older learners. He has also been developing curricula, as well as researching music career preparation and educational policy issues.

Don’t Wait until Spring to Think about Retention

Don't Wait until Spring to Think about Retention

Retention is a daily and ongoing process which happens in every rehearsal, every communication and every decision for your music program. The director is the one person who can control the most elements in any music program. Students’ time, talent and energy is valuable. If you want high levels of student retention, then respecting those resources must be a part of the daily operations of the program.

Start with the End in Mind

When creating rules, policies, calendars, etc. envision your ultimate goal for every student. If you want students to be long-term members, with independent musical growth, then keep that the focus. Do not get tied up in chasing trophies, creating burdensome schedules or unrealistic practice expectations.

The program will never be more important to anyone than it is to you. Furthermore, your priority of the program will not be shared by every family. Decide what are reasonable expectations to meet the program’s’ goals and be willing to live with the consequences. Many directors will win a battle or two but lose the war when structuring the program.

Quality Materials & Music

We believe that 20% of the students will be “die hard” band kids. These kids will love everything about band almost all of the time. Maybe 10% will be “on the fence” and may only be there because a parent is insisting on it. These kids will resist or at best tolerate almost everything about band almost all of the time. The remaining 70% will be casually committed. These students like band if it fast paced, social, rewarding and meaningful.

How do we engage all of these students? High quality literature. Selecting your literature should be an ongoing and careful process that evolves as the group develops. The better the quality of music, the more your students will be engaged. Engaged students stay in band.


Make it easy for students, parents and administrators to find information easily. Update websites and social media often so your band community has a reason to check in with these sites. Frustration in finding information often causes families to give up on a program. It is critical when communicating with families that you work toward solutions to issues or conflicts. Ultimatums end relationships. Is the program there for the student or is the student there for the program? Whatever your answer, that will be at the center of your communication. Keep in mind that reasonable flexibility helps students know that they are important to you and the program.


Consistency in daily rehearsal structure, assessment procedures, routines and expectations will give students a sense of security and build a foundation of trust. That trust leads to strong relationships with students and families. A critical area of consistency is in setting a calendar of rehearsals and performances. The earlier this is set and the less it changes, the easier it will be for families to keep their children in your program. Chaos in the program creates chaos for families and is disrespectful of the students’ time and home schedule.

We believe that by keeping retention in mind, not just at the end or the beginning of the year, we can better serve both our students and our program.

Jessica Corey 200Jessica Shields is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Music Education. A current member of he National Association of Music Education, she is classically trained on clarinet and enjoys playing jazz tenor saxophone.

Ms. Shields currently serves as a director of bands at Traughber Jr. High in Oswego and is enjoying her fourth year of teaching as a Traughber Panther!

Rachel Maxwell 200

Rachel Maxwell currently serves as the director of bands at Traughber Jr. High School and as the Jr. High performing arts and band coordinator for the Oswego, IL School Dist. #308. She has taught music ed. courses at VanderCook College of Music and North Central College and has been a guest conductor, clinician and adjudicator at many music camps and festivals.

Under her direction the bands at Traughber JHS have received national acclaim and have performed at The Midwest Clinic (as a clinic presentation and rehearsal lab group), the Illinois Music Educators Association All State Conference (1999, 2008, 2010, 2014), the University of Illinois Super-state Festival and at the ASBDA 2004 National Convention.

Managing a Private Studio: Back to School Tips

JD Little

Returning to school after a three month break brings excitement in many different ways to teachers, students, and parents.  As teachers begin work on their lesson plans, coaches on their playbooks and band directors on drill for the upcoming marching band show, there is another group of specialized individuals who are also excited that back-to-school time is finally upon them; private lesson teachers.

After a summer filled with vacations and cancellations, private lesson teachers are excited to once again build up their studios and consistently work with their students on a regular basis. Today I’ll share a few  tips to help you successfully manage your private studio as the school year begins.

In some areas of the country, building and maintaining a private studio is quite easy! Some programs are setup where each new class of incoming students knows that private lessons are simply part of the curriculum, especially if they are playing in the top ensembles. Unfortunately, for a majority of us private teachers, this is simply not the case. A lot of hard work, planning, and promotion is required to find students to teach each week. This leads me to my first point:

Make Yourself Known

This may sound easy enough, but sending a resume to a band director’s school email address will not guarantee a handful of students, or even one. Depending on the size of your community, directors may receive many resumes each week. In addition to sending your CV, also offer – or even insist on – an in-person meeting with them so you can go over your experience and passion for teaching face to face. It has been my experience that directors are much more likely to recommend their students work with a specific teacher if they have a face and personality associated with the name. Many people may look good on paper, but it’s your personality that can set you apart from others.

Also be prepared to play something. It could be anything that demonstrates your talent as a musician and might set you apart from other potential candidates. It might be a brief excerpt of a piece that you just performed, or simply something that demonstrates your tone and technique. You may not even get your instrument out of the case, but always take it with you when meeting with a band director for the first time.  

As you are making connections and setting up meetings with various schools in the area, my next point may help solidify a few interested educators and/or students:

Do One Thing for Free

Most band programs are just now starting to heavily immerse themselves in marching band and this is a great time to offer a free sectional coaching session on the student’s marching band music. You can even allow the director to watch so they can observe your teaching style.

If possible, ask for a copy of the music in advance and go through a couple of the challenging spots so the students can hear how the passage is supposed to sound. They are often impressed by the tone and technique of an advanced player and will most likely be talking about you for the rest of the day. If you are ever unsure of a passage, or not sure if you can sight read it, DO NOT play it. The kids can pick up on negative things just as easily, or easier, than positive things, and they will not hesitate to tell their band directors what they heard.

Lastly, don’t make a habit of offering free services. You want this to be a one-time thing so you can get into the schools and allow the directors and students to get to know you. If additional services are requested, be clear about your rates. It’s important that they understand that your expertise does come at a cost.

Once you are able to acquire students for your studio, it is obviously important to keep them. Below are a couple of basic points that I have found useful when maintaining students from year to year.

Keep Your Schedule Consistent

This may actually sound fairly simple but can often be difficult to do. Gigs may come up. An opportunity may arise to lead a sectional at a different school. Whatever the case, try to keep each student at the same time each week (or at least the same day). Parents may understand that you are trying to make a living by being a full-time musician, and that your time is spread across many different things, but their schedules often require consistency. They may not mind if something comes up once in awhile, but when it happens frequently they may start to question whether or not you are the right teacher for their student. Remember that parents are often trying to juggle many different activities – often for more than one child – and may not always be able to shift their schedules easily – or at all.

Always Assign Something

When teaching, always make sure to assign something to each student. Whether you have three students or seventy, your lessons will be more effective if you have something to work on. The students can often tell if you are making things up as the lesson goes on; they are quite perceptive. But if you assign a few scales, an etude and a short piece each week, then that gives the student something to work on so they can improve and gives you the ability to have something to talk about throughout their lesson.

I just have one final point to mention and may be the most important:

Enjoy Your Time with Each Student

Teaching can be an extremely rewarding field for both you and the student. Private lessons are unique because it is a one-on-one teaching situation so try to make it fun for both of you. Just recently, I had a beginner saxophone student come in wanting to learn the bass line to a song that he heard on the radio. Even though I had scales and etudes assigned for him to play that week, I did not hesitate in helping him learn the bass line. I spent the first few minutes figuring it out on my saxophone then taught it to him.

It was a great situation because it involved notes that we had not learned yet and more advanced rhythms, so it forced us to discuss new fingerings and different rhythmical possibilities. He had a good grasp of the song by the end of the lesson. Try to make each lesson individualized like this and have fun while doing it!

I hope you have found this post helpful. Good luck with your fall semester and beyond! 

JD LittleDr. JD Little completed his DMA in saxophone performance and pedagogy from the University of Colorado-Boulder. He earned his M.M. in sax perf from the University of North Texas and B.M. in sax perf from Ohio University. He has studied saxophone with Tom Myer, John Gunther, Eric Nestler, Jim Riggs, and Matthew James; flute with Ana Laura Gonzalez and Valerie Estes-Johnson; and clarinet with Jessica Vansteenburg and Daniel Silver.

JD performs in pit orchestras around Denver; has performed with the Boulder Philharmonic, Colorado Springs Philharmonic, and Fort Collins Symphony; and has worked extensively with jazz combos and big bands in Colorado, Texas and Ohio.

An adjunct saxophone instructor at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, WY, he also teaches privately.

Flute: Back to School Tips

Flute: Back to School Tips

At the start of each semester I always find myself reflecting on the importance of good beginnings. These can include the way we start playing an instrument, the way we set up our practice habits, the way we begin a new school year, or the way we begin a new job. When starting a new flute student, there are so many hopes and goals that it can be difficult to decide what to focus on. For band directors who start multiple students on different instruments, this is even more challenging. As I have gained experience as a teacher and clinician, I have found that there are really only a few things that are critical for flutists to establish when they first start playing. Below are my suggestions for creating good habits in your beginning flute students, as well as how get your returning flute students back into shape.

Beginning Flute Students

Holding the Flute

Holding the flute properly is one of the most critical habits I instill in my beginners. Embouchure placement, tone development, and technical development all depend on a student’s ability to hold the instrument securely and without tension. For example, is impossible to produce a good tone if the flute is slipping every few seconds. It is also impossible to play fast passages if the hands are tensed to keep the flute still. This is especially challenging on the flute because it is held asymmetrically. Because of this, I spend a significant amount of time establishing proper posture and hand position. I discussed several aspects of hand position in my previous blog post.

Headjoint Placement

Making a sound on the flute is notoriously difficult for some, and embouchure refinement can continue well into a student’s college years. So what should teachers focus on in the beginning stages? For me, the answer is headjoint placement and alignment. To check for this, be sure that the tone hole is lined up left to right with the center of the student’s aperture. This is not always in the center of the lips! When the student blows across the flute, you should be able to see a small area of condensation on the opposite side of the tone hole. This area of condensation should be directly in the center of the tone hole. Since this is visible, students can verify this alignment in a mirror fairly easily.

The headjoint should also be placed so that the lip plate sits in the nook of the chin. This allows the bottom lip to cover part of the tone hole. The majority of students will place the flute too high on the lip. I have my students roll the flute all the way in so that tone hole covers the center of their aperture. Next, I have them slide the flute down the chin (it is still rolled in at this point) until they can feel the bottom edge of the tone hole just BELOW their bottom lip.

Finally, I have them roll out so that the tone hole is more or less parallel to the ground and the bottom lip is covering about a third of the tone hole. From here they should be able to make a sound, but if they struggle, make sure that the jaw is open enough to aim the air into the flute and that the aperture is small enough to focus the airstream. For more on this topic, check out this video as well as others by Whitney Reagan and Sir James Galway.

Use the Tongue to Articulate

With a large flute section it can be tricky to catch the students who aren’t  using their tongue to articulate. Many students will use their throat or simply break the airstream between articulated notes. Once they slip into this bad habit, they often blend into the cacophony of the band (or blend into the top chair players who are articulating properly) without realizing that they are not tonguing. This habit manifests in a flute sections that sounds muddy and diffuse. To make matters worse, this habit is incredibly difficult to fix if it has gone unchecked for several years. To combat this, I monitor my students very carefully in the first several months to make sure that they are tonguing consistently.

Returning Flute Students

As any professional musician knows, it is much easier to stay in good shape than it is to get back into shape after a hiatus. The reality is that even though we may aspire to practice every single day of our lives, time off is often unavoidable and can even be beneficial. Likewise, students finish their spring semester in (hopefully) the best shape of their young lives, only to return from summer break with rusty lips and questionable memory. While there are many ways to get students to practice over the summer, some amount of time away from the instrument is likely.

Over the course of 23 (yikes!) years of playing the flute, I have taken my share of time off. Some of the breaks were short and some, like the weeks leading up to my wedding, were a bit longer. By now, I know exactly what I need to do to get my chops back to performance level. My routine focuses on regaining any lost precision in embouchure and breath control since these are the things that suffer most when I do not play regularly.  In this article, I will introduce three of my favorite exercises for getting back in shape. Once a flute student has learned these exercises, the complete routine can be played in less than ten minutes.

Whistle Tones

Whistles tones, also called whisper tones, are a soft whistle-like sound produced by blowing a very faint airstream across the blowing edge. Many students have probably produced whistle tones accidentally at the end of a dimuendo. Learning to produce and control these elusive sounds can help students develop breath control and fine embouchure control. Practicing whistle tones is also an excellent way to bring back that control after a hiatus from the flute. Whistle tones are easiest to produce using the third octave fingerings, but they are possible to produce on any note. It may take a little time for students to be able to hold a whistle tone, but even attempting to steady these tones will snap a rusty embouchure back in few practice sessions. For a demonstration, check out this video.


The flute, like other instruments, can produce four or five harmonics by overblowing a single note in the low register. Most flutists include some form of harmonics in their daily practice routine because they are excellent for improving embouchure accuracy and tone quality. There are many different versions of harmonics exercises available. My favorites combine accurately hitting each harmonic and then matching the tone of the regular fingering for that pitch to the harmonic. Harmonic fingerings are more resonant than the regular fingerings for many notes, but their timbre and pitch make them impractical in most musical contexts. By attempting to match the resonance of the harmonic fingerings while playing the regular fingerings, flutists can develop a more resonant sound overall. Below is a harmonics exercise that I learned while studying with Christina Jennings at the University of Colorado.Jennings Harmonics

Tongueless Attacks

Tongueless attacks, also called breath attacks or ha pulses, are also a staple exercise for many flutists. The goal of these exercises is to produce a quality tone from the very beginning of a note.  Too often the embouchure doesn’t focus all the way until slightly after the articulation. By removing the articulation, flutists can hear if their embouchure is in exactly the right spot at the very beginning of the note. I always have young students follow up a series of tongueless attacks by playing the same notes with proper articulation, just so they do not accidentally develop a habit of leaving off the articulation. This should not be necessary with advanced students.

Here is an example of an exercise using tongueless attacks on a major scale, but one could easily substitute an arpeggio or the notes of a piece instead. During the fermata, students should find the best part of the note and remember exactly how it felt when they were producing that tone. Next, the students will play a series of four attacks on the same note using no tongue and thinking the syllable “ha.” The goal is to get back to the best part of the sound right away. Finally, the students will add the tongue back in and play a series of four regular attacks. Here, the goal should be to add the tongue back in without compromising the good tone that they have discovered.Tongueless Attacks

Best wishes to you and your students as you begin the new school year!

Carolyn KeyesDr. Carolyn Keyes is a flutist, educator, and arts advocate whose love of performing has taken her around the United States: most recently to join the faculty of Cameron University in Lawton, OK.

She has been a member of the Longmont Symphony (CO), the Lone Star Wind Orchestra (TX), and was a frequent performer with the Cheyenne Symphony (WY). A finalist and prize winner in the Bruce Ekstrand Memorial Competition, Carolyn also received honorable mentions in the National Flute Association Masterclass Competition and the Texas MTNA Woodwind Young Artist Competition.

She received a D.M.A. in Flute Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Colorado, a M.M. from the University of North Texas and B.M. from Bowling Green State University. Her teachers include Christina Jennings, Terri Sundberg, Elizabeth McNutt, Leonard Garrison, Nina Assimakopolous, and Judith Bentley.

Choir: Back to School Tips


Regardless of whether you’re working with beginners, returning singers, or both, you can set up your ensembles for success by keeping these three things in mind.

1. Introduce Concepts of Healthy Production

It’s very important to focus on individual musicianship within the first few weeks of school. When students understand how to use their own instrument in a healthy way, they can contribute more effectively to an ensemble. As vocalists, we don’t have the luxury of taking our instrument apart to name and understand the different components. Accordingly, we must develop language around healthy and energetic production while getting students to connect to the feeling and sound of healthy singing.

How to Do It:

While this unit includes lots of moving around and studying anatomy, one of my favorite activities to lead is Constructive Rest. This activity has its foundation in the Alexander Technique, which is a method for improving body awareness, freedom of movement, and the release of unnecessary tension. Constructive Rest is an opportunity for singers to reflect and connect, and I usually use it at the end of a particularly active rehearsal. Students lie on the floor in a semi-supine position (on the back, knees bent and together) to examine their breath, areas of tension in their body, and even patterns of thought, with guidance from the teacher. More information about the function and practice of Constructive Rest is available on

2. Establish a culture of trust

The foundation of a strong ensemble is trust. In a choir, the clearest sign of trust is every singer feeling confident to sing in front of the rest of the group. Within the first few weeks in my class, every member will have the opportunity to sing alone. This happens in large groups and in partners. Sound scary? Doesn’t need to be.

Don’t make a big deal out of it, and they won’t either; at least not for long. Start small, like asking a student to model a vocalise during warm-ups. It becomes normal very quickly, as long as it’s accompanied by modeling from the teacher on how to be supportive and give constructive feedback to the soloist. One caveat: you, the teacher, have to sing alone first, and often. Vocal modeling from the teacher is vital to learning, and it shows them how to be vulnerable. Never ask your kids to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself; that’s authenticity, and it’s key to building trust.

How to do it:

One of my favorite ways to encourage experimental singing and supportive listening is with an improvisational exercise called Vocal Karate. With all of the singers in a circle, the teacher leads the first round of improvising sounds and gestures: as per the name of the game, you want to channel the overacting ninjas from old-school Kung Fu movies. Everyone else is to copy you exactly. From there you can branch out into sirens, whoops, honks, hoots– anything you like, as long as it’s vocally healthy and always accompanied by a complementary gesture. Then, pass the torch. Students can lead this activity easily, and since it starts out silly, there’s no way to make a mistake.

3. Drill Classroom Procedures

One of the rehearsal skills that I really harp on within the first few weeks is focus in transitions. We establish an All Quiet signal as a class, so that I can get their undivided attention from anywhere in the room. I also time transitions using a huge timer on the projector. Students know exactly how much time they have to complete a task or prepare for the next activity. Even without the promise of a reward, they feel the need to hustle and beat the buzzer, because they know that I’m moving on right afterward.

How to do it:

All Quiet signals can look different from classroom to classroom; from hand signals to vocal call-and-response exercises, they run the gamut. Find what works for you, but keep in mind the age of the singers and the skill level of the group. “One two three, eyes on me”-type signals can feel too juvenile for secondary students. With my middle school groups, I begin by sustaining a single pitch that the students must then match while turning to look at me. The signal can differ by vowel, dynamic level, and pitch each time, and the students must match it as closely as possible before I give the cutoff.

This exercise can be tailored for more advanced groups; using the given pitch as a root, students can then construct a chord around it, selecting any pitch within their range that exists within the chord quality. Not only is this exercise effective for focus, but it helps with intonation and allows them to be creative. As a bonus, to any visitors in your classroom (perhaps the principal who’s observing you?), it looks like MAGIC.

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams is in her fifth year of teaching choral music at a variety of levels.  After receiving her degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and teaching in Colorado for three years, she relocated to the Pacific Northwest and is currently teaching middle school choir in the Mukilteo School District.

Percussion: Back to School Tips

Percussion: Back to School Tips

It has been a good two months of swimming in the pool and eating hot dogs at grandma’s house…at least that’s what my summers looked like as a young musician. I certainly don’t recall unpacking my bell kit to play through my scales or reviewing my stick control patterns on my practice pad when I could go swimming with friends instead. Getting our musical muscles in shape (or back in shape after a break) is a must with percussion students, just as it is with wind players. For returning students, the best way to shake the rust off would be to never let it accumulate in the first place, but that is just asking a lot…

First Year Percussionists

For beginning percussionists I would recommend focusing on only a few key concepts for the first year. For my particular schedule, in which I see my beginning students every other day, the main concepts for the year are to understand the technique, know basic stroke types, understand and count rhythms through basic sixteenth note variations, know basic rudiments, be able to sight read mallet music at the appropriate level, know major scales, and above all else be able to play in time with a good understanding of pulse.

There are many details within each of these basic concepts. For example, teaching the desired grip and stroke will take a good amount of time with very specific instructions for each student, as hands vary. There are certainly different opinions on grip and stroke. My preference is to have all fingers on the stick and to use a piston stroke with emphasis on the wrist only. Once students are comfortable with the piston stroke I believe they’ll find it easier to learn other strokes; I have found this order to work better than trying to implement a piston stroke for speed later down the road.

Many mistakes in the grip will be present when the students are first learning, so it is imperative that the teacher not allow any bad habits to form. This requires constant inspection and reminders of the grip and stroke pretty much for the whole year, at least on the block schedule that I deal with. For mallet playing I have my students use the same grip and stroke as with snare drum. Here the piston stoke aids in note accuracy because mallet instruments do not provide rebound.

Additional Beginner Resources

Many great resources are available to help you with your beginning percussion students. I’ve posted previous articles with tips for basic snare drum rudiments as well as for help in teaching scales to percussion students. Method books you might find helpful could include Mark Wessels’ Fresh Approach books.

Returning Percussion Students

Naturally, students will need to build back their technique as well as their knowledge base. At the younger age level, review of material and technique is just unavoidable. As you probably already know, we can count on reliving the last quarter of instruction before summer break for at least the first couple of weeks of school. Hopefully the second time around it goes quickly and efficiently. The young percussionists should focus on large, legato strokes to engage the muscles that have been stagnant. In recent years, I’ve found that warming up to a song or programmable drum set grooves makes the process much more enjoyable and engaging for young percussionists. This in combination with reviewing stroke types (such as up, down, etc…) will be plenty for the technique side of things.

In addition to getting the hands moving again, I would recommend having young percussionists review all of their scales as well as start reading keyboard music ASAP. I have found that reading music is NOT like riding a bike. I is much more like working out, whereas the longer you go without doing it, the harder it is when you come back to it. (not that I know about working out…)

If the percussionists are in their own class, all of this is very doable. If they are mixed in with wind players, It can be hard to make sure they are being productive in the sense of technique. Sight reading keyboard parts along with wind players is great, assuming the music is not too easy.

As for the technique building on pads or drums, it is important to have the percussionists playing something that is beneficial to their hands or reading skills. Music written to accompany wind warm ups often does nothing to enhance the percussion technique. I would recommend implementing some legato 8th’s or similar to accompany long tones (just as one example). A metronome behind the percussionists will ensure that the pulse stays consistent and will aid in ensemble pulse, as it is typically established by the percussion section in the back.

I hope these tips help you start the year out right!

Nick FernandezNick Fernandez is the director of percussion at Bentonville Public Schools in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he teaches percussion students from 6th grade through 12th. Previously, Nick served as the director of percussion at Owasso Public Schools in Owasso, OK.

He has performed with the Colts Drum & Bugle Corps, the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Tulsa Signature Symphony, and various local bands in the Tulsa and Northwest Arkansas areas.


Oboe and Bassoon: Back to School Tips

Oboe and Bassoon: Back to School Tips

First Year Oboe

Beginning oboe students need to to be encouraged; they are embarking on a noble quest. Make sure they know they’re playing one of the most beautiful instruments; if they’re not already familiar with Peter and the Wolf or Swan Lake you might share recordings with them. This is important because the sound of the beginning oboe is often less pleasant. It takes a few years to properly develop the correct sound, which involves a combination of lip position (embouchure), air support, and a strong reed.

Remember these two tips and your students will be ahead of the game.

  1. Play on the TIP of the reed! The correct oboe embouchure involves very LITTLE reed. If students feel like they have a comfortable amount of reed in their mouth, it is probably too much. Have your students play for you. If you can see at least half of the cane of the reed, they probably have the right amount of reed. If all you can see is the thread of the reed, they are playing too far down on the reed. It will sound worse and most likely be sharp.
  2. Emphasize good posture and DEEP BREATHS! Oboe needs the highest amount of air pressure of any wind instrument, especially once you are playing on a strong reed. Have students breathe by expanding their tummy, pushing from there, and keeping a steady stream of air. They will be VERY LOUD at first; this is just fine. In time, they will learn how to control their dynamics. For now, though, it is time to develop a proper embouchure and strong air support. Good luck!

I offer a more detailed explanation of beginning oboe sounds in this previous post.

Returning Oboe Students

I would encourage students who haven’t practiced over the summer to begin by playing long tones with a tuner, with an emphasis on NOT BITING the reed. Always emphasize correct embouchure: chin down, corners in, corner muscles flexed. Students will tire quickly – that is good! If cheek muscles are sore, it means they are using the proper embouchure. I’d suggest playing for a period of 5 minutes or so, then take a break of the same amount of time. Play for another 5 minutes. Once their embouchure gives out, take a much longer break (hours), then try again. Students will regain endurance within a week or so.

Another tip: encourage students to make sure their instrument is in good working order and that they have a supply of new reeds before going back to school. Oboes should be inspected by a repair person at least once a year. They need to be cleaned, the mechanisms oiled and adjusted. Reeds can last through a summer if left dry, but it is always good to start the school year with a fresh supply. 

First Year Bassoon

The bassoon has a reputation for being a difficult instrument to play. This may be true to some degree, but with good advice and instruction (and good consistent practice) young bassoonists can sound great and be well on their way to an enjoyable and rewarding musical experience.

If you’re teaching first year bassoonists and do not play the instrument yourself, this SmartMusic blog post has some specific tips you can share with your students.

Here are some additional tips for your beginning bassoonists:

  • Encourage them to find the best private teacher they can. The bassoon is a unique instrument with some features (the reed) and techniques (half-hole, flicking, etc.) that really require specialized instruction.
  • They need to make sure their instrument is in good working order. If need be, have them take it to a qualified repair person to have it serviced. Check to make sure the whisper key pad is in good condition. If it’s not, replace it. (Students can prevent damage by making sure the whisper key is away from the bocal when they’re putting in and taking out the bocal.)  Also check the connection between the ‘pancake key’ (Low E key) and the whisper key. To do this, depress the pancake key. Is the whisper key closing? Is the pancake key itself closing all the way? If not, you may be able to solve the problem by rotating the tenor joint a millimeter or two one direction or the other. If the problem can’t be solved that way, check with a repair person for help.
  • I’d also encourage students to get several quality bassoon reeds to start and to plan on renewing the supply often. Students need to learn to take good care of their reeds. Have them store reeds in a proper reed case with good ventilation (not the plastic containers they come in).  Reeds should be kept wet when being used, but make sure they dry thoroughly when not in use. Always soak the entire reed in clean water before playing, and get fresh water each time; never store water in a bassoon case.

Returning Bassoon Students

Before practicing on the bassoon, have students practice on the ‘bocalphone’ (the reed and bocal only.) Make sure they inhale as much air as possible, then play a beautiful note with lots of air and a relaxed embouchure. Have them imagine that they’re playing a middle register note on bassoon at a good singing forte dynamic. The pitch of the bocalphone should be right around Middle C (C4).

Now, keeping their  embouchure relaxed have them slowly raise the pitch as high as they can by increasing the air speed. They should be able to go up about a whole step (to D4 or nearly so). Next have them drop the pitch by slowing the air. They should be able to ‘bend’ the pitch down about a half-step (to B3). If their pitches are far away from these, there’s likely a problem with the reed and/or bocal.

Now here’s the fun part: have them put their lips on the thread of the reed; don’t let the lips touch the blades at all. (Watch out for sharp wires!) Have them play the bocalphone again with good air support. The tone will be very raucous, but the pitch should still be very close to C4. If it isn’t, have them adjust the airstream until it is and then sustain a steady in-tune C4.

Next have them keep that same air support and go back to a ‘regular’ embouchure. The pitch should still be about C4! If they can sustain a steady C4 both with and without their lips on the blades, you should feel confident that they’re playing with good air support and a nice relaxed embouchure.  This is a great way for students to teach themselves to use both their air and their embouchure well.

Pamela AjangoPamela Ajango (French) teaches at Butler University and the University of Indianapolis, and is a freelance oboist in Indianapolis. She performs as a member of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s quintet, with visiting Broadway shows, and as a recording artist for FJH, Alfred Publishing, and others. From 1996-2002, Ms. Ajango was a freelancer in NYC, playing with top orchestras, in recording studios, and on Broadway. She studied with Malcolm Smith, Ralph Gomberg, Joseph Robinson, and Stephen Taylor. She received degrees from Boston University and the Manhattan School of Music. Active at the International Double Reed Society’s conferences, Ajango has lectured on creating/sustaining a music career, presented a recital of new quintet arrangements, and recently commissioned a work for oboe, bassoon, and piano, Variations, by Matthew Bridgham. In 2011 Pamela premiered the solo oboe piece The Empty Sky, which was written for her by Frank Felice.

spaniol_dougDoug Spaniol teaches bassoon at Butler University and Interlochen Arts Camp. As a Fulbright Scholar, he taught at the University of York (UK) and researched the music of Julius Weissenborn. His book, The New Weissenborn Method for Bassoon (Hal Leonard), has been called “an invaluable addition to bassoon literature…a landmark in pedagogy” (Double Reed News). His edition of Weissenborn’s Advanced Studies (Accolade Musikverlag) makes available for the first time all 60 of these studies and was noted as “a must buy for every bassoonist” (The Double Reed). His students have placed in the Yamaha Young Performing Artist Competition, the IDRS Young Artist Competition, and the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition. He can be heard on Albany, Centaur, and Zephyr Records.

As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a Diploma from the Royal Northern College of Music. He has studied with William Waterhouse, Christopher Weait and Sanford Berry. A Yamaha Artist/Clinician, Spaniol plays a Yamaha YFG-811 bassoon.


Using Formative Assessment in the Music Classroom

It’s a common scenario — you’re stuck in a professional development session that doesn’t apply to you because your ensemble classroom isn’t like a math or language arts class. You want to work with these great teaching techniques, but the presenter just doesn’t understand the limitations and circumstances involved in the music classroom. Ultimately, your next rehearsal goes just like the last one (or one hundred) did. Ensemble directors shouldn’t be left out when it comes to including the best pedagogy in their teaching. Don’t be old fashioned — update your rehearsal technique.

Formative assessment is a well documented approach that can be difficult for ensemble directors to implement. Studies in the past 20 years (Harlen and James, Marzano, etc.) have consistently shown that formative assessment results in stronger student achievement. Music teachers, of course, care deeply about student achievement, and at concerts they literally share their students’ achievements with an audience. But judging everything by the performance means that ensemble students are still stuck with summative assessments, not formative ones. How can ensemble directors better implement formative assessment techniques?

Formative vs. Summative

“Formative” and “summative” evaluation are terms created by Michael Scriven in 1967 to explain how assessments can vary in terms of which information they gather and how that information is used by the instructor. John Hattie noted that the difference is “the timing of the interpretation and the purpose to which the information is used.” Scriven later refined the term, and today formative evaluation is commonly seen as an assessment done during the course of learning that shows a student’s current point of development and informs educators about how teaching could be altered or improved. Summative assessment, on the other hand, is performed at the end of a learning activity to provide a measure of student achievement.

Perhaps the most important difference is the timing of the assessment. Because formative assessment occurs throughout the learning process, it is more effective at showing teachers how students are performing, rather than offering a snapshot of student achievement at the end of a learning period. The way feedback is implemented after the evaluation also differs: formative assessment implies that educator and student will return to the material for further growth, while summative assessment offers a kind of “final judgement” on the student’s learning.

Formative assessment has a number of other advantages, including:

  • Improving students’ ability to assess themselves and their peers
  • Developing students’ understanding and awareness of their own learning
  • Shifting focus from achievement to the learning process
  • Providing opportunities for educators to help students who are falling behind

Formative Assessment in the Music Classroom

So how does this apply to the band (or orchestra or choir) room? In some ways, ensemble teachers are already masters of formative assessment. Directors spend rehearsals constantly listening and providing feedback — “Trombones, watch the dynamics at measure 42,” “Sopranos, give me a longer vowel sound on ‘Sleeeeeep,’” etc. Unfortunately, even though the day-to-day activities are often formative, the actual assessments taking place in ensemble classrooms are usually summative. An audition or chair test is arguably the most summative assessment possible. The educator takes a snapshot of student achievement after a period of practice, compares it to other students, and then provides future opportunities to students based on the assessment.

I believe some simple changes can bring formative assessment to the audition process and improve the formative assessment already taking place in rehearsal.

Auditions and chair tests are fine as a “final exam,” but teachers can improve the skills of every student by incorporating formative assessment during the instruction that leads to the audition. Audition prep provides a great way to incorporate peer assessment, a key type of formative evaluation. Improve your students’ performance practice by having them play audition materials for each other. Not only does this help the performer practice more than the notes and rhythms, it also gives the other students an opportunity to develop their ears, offer constructive feedback to peers, and participate in the learning process. Ask student evaluators questions like:

  • Which performance did you prefer? Why?
  • Which musical elements (intonation, articulation, tone quality, etc.) were especially good?
  • Which musical elements needed work? Which of our in-class warm-up exercises should this person work on to practice those skills?

This last question is especially well-suited to formative assessment. Not only did the student evaluator develop critical listening skills, he or she is engaging with the learning process by thinking about which exercises generate positive results for the deficiency. If a brass player is having tone production issues, hearing from a peer that it’s time to do more long tones is more effective than getting to the audition with bad tone and has the added benefit of getting peers involved.

Rehearsal Techniques

Rehearsal techniques can also be easily customized to include formative evaluation techniques. As I mentioned earlier, many school ensemble rehearsals are already somewhat formative because they offer feedback throughout the learning process — but rehearsal procedure can become even more formative.

When directors give feedback to students, it’s often after the fact — students have to play something before it can be evaluated. However, students sometimes are performing without a clear sense of what the teacher is listening for. When expectations are clearly laid out ahead of time, students can take a more active role in their own learning by focusing their energy on a single skill. Perhaps you’re working on Ticheli’s Cajun Folk Songs and are working on tone matching between the trumpets, flutes, and alto sax soloist in the first movement. Explain to the trumpets and flutes before playing that their goal is to match tone color. Ask students what strategies they plan on using to manage their air support and embouchures to be successful in this task. You’ll spend more time engaging students in the learning process and less time correcting mistakes in the music.

Of course, new mistakes pop up in rehearsal all the time and need to be addressed. Rather than simply calling these out, take advantage of the formative strengths of an ensemble rehearsal and modify your future teaching. Make sure that the next day’s warm up includes exercises that specifically target things that didn’t go well in the last rehearsal. If articulations were inconsistent and needed more work, reinforce the skill by including an articulation exercise the next day.

The benefits of formative assessment have been well documented and can be easily incorporated into your ensemble classroom. Don’t get stuck using old-fashioned methods!

Before he became MakeMusic’s social media manager, Ryan Sargent earned a degree in trombone performance from Baylor University and begged many a middle school student to practice over the summer during his time teaching band. In addition to his role at MakeMusic, Ryan is an active jazz and funk trombone player in the Denver area and a member of the music faculty at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.


Clarinet and Sax: Back to School Tips


Back to school season is here, and it’s time to start planning your first few weeks of school. Here are some things to keep in mind when building lesson plans for clarinet and sax students as you begin your year.

Three Things for Year One, Week One

Getting beginners off to a strong start makes a better first impression for students and parents, and saves you valuable time later by teaching good habits from the beginning. Here are three things to focus on in the first week.

1. Embouchure Pressure

I think the most confusing thing for beginning single reed players is embouchure pressure. Beginning students will ask questions like:

  • “Is my chin pointed down or is my lip going up?”
  • “How do I know if I’m biting?”
  • “I keep leaking out of the corners of my mouth!”

The answer to all of these questions has to do with maintaining even embouchure pressure — a critical skill for single reed playing. You can say “equal pressure all the way around” and draw diagrams with arrows pointing in all directions around a mouth, but sometimes that just doesn’t click with students.

I picked up a great strategy for tactile learners from Daniel Silver at the University of Colorado that’s proven really effective with beginners. Hand out Chinese finger traps to students to demonstrate how the pressure is even all the way around their fingers and also that more pressure isn’t always better (more struggling won’t get you out of those things unless you’re The Hulk). This physical comparison can help students understand that their embouchures should be snug all the way around and get good embouchures started right away.

2. Reed Strength

It’s tempting to start students on a soft reed to make it easier to create sound right off the bat, but that can lead to bad habits. Start students on a number 2 strength reed — if a student can’t make that reed vibrate, there is something going on with the embouchure, probably biting. I prefer Vandoren reeds; they are a bit thicker than other brands, so students end up with a fuller sound and get a feel for appropriate resistance rather than blasting away on something that’s far too soft.

By Thanksgiving or Christmas students should have the air and embouchure stability to move up a half strength. In general, if the sound is blasting and unfocused, the student probably has enough air for a stronger reed, and if the sound is thin and airy with a red-faced student, the reed is probably too hard or warped. Be sure to give students clear instructions on reed care as well.

3. Instrument Anatomy

It may seem obvious, but students need to know all the parts of their instruments. I have come across students at the end of their middle school careers who call the ligature “the thing that holds the reed on.” Students should also know the note names for each fingering. When “it” or “this one” won’t play, it takes more class time to diagnose than when “low F is having a hard time coming out.” If you have time, a fun “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” style game, sans blindfolds, where students match parts and names might help things stick, literally and figuratively.

Three Tips for Returning Students

Helping your older students shake the summer rust off is another important beginning of the year task. Our stronger students may have had a great summer practice schedule, but getting everyone back up to speed will result in more productive rehearsals.

1. The Right Tools

You’ve probably already checked over school instruments and had them repaired, but students who own their instruments may not have been too kind to their instruments over the summer. Take the time and check over those instruments too since neglect can cause problems. If a wooden clarinet has been sitting in the case in a sunny window all summer, you may have some surprises coming. Cases are great, but your saxophone can still end up with a slightly bent (and therefore leaky) key if it’s been tossed around in a car trunk. Also, those reeds are going to be at best dry and warped after a lonely summer. Make sure your students have at least three new reeds each and toss out anything with mold(!)

2. The Right Pace

Pushing too hard too soon will do more damage than good. New technique issues can suddenly appear in students’ playing after long breaks if we aren’t careful. Students can develop biting problems when they use jaw pressure to compensate for exhausted embouchures and poor air control. If you do notice students biting, try encouraging them to put as much space between their noses and chins as possible. You could also try (very brief) double-lip exercises where both the top and bottom lips cover the teeth.

Tension in hands and arms from tired muscles can cause jerky technique, which will set you back in the long run rather than getting a jump on the school year during camp. Watch your students and give breaks when you see signs of fatigue. For embouchure, these can include puffed cheeks, extremely unfocused or goose-like tone, air leaking out around the mouthpiece, and in extreme cases vibrato or even buzzing at the corners of students’ mouths. For tired hands and forearms, you may notice uneven technique and students shaking out or massaging their arms and hands.

Of course, just because you’re not playing doesn’t mean you’re wasting time. Use breaks to play recordings and ask students questions about style, balance, how the music integrates with the drill, and important differences between the source material and the show arrangement. Critical thinking and analysis can start on day one. Also remember to drink water, especially if you’re outdoors.

3. The Right Warm-up

When students return from summer they are likely to have weak tone production, uneven technique, and low endurance, but exercises included in a thorough warm-up will address all three of those troubles. Start with stretching and breathing exercises to make sure students are getting enough air in to begin with. “The Breathing Gym” is a fantastic resource if you’re looking for specific exercises. I’m particularly fond of those that focus on taking full breaths in and out for a specified number of beats, which will help with get students’ internal metronomes going for the day at the same time they’re waking up their cores.

Then go through some moderately slow scales and arpeggios to get the fingers working. Many All-State lists will include some kind of technique requirement, so starting your students on those in August will help them feel more confident by the time auditions come around. For clarinet, the Klosé book is a favorite (and on, and you might find the short exercises on page 22-23 especially helpful in working out uneven fingers. You may even find that it works well for all your woodwinds if you have time to transpose. For saxophone, take a look through “Universal Method for Saxophone” by Paul Deville and you’ll be certain to find something obliging.

Make sure your students are listening for a characteristic tone and fluid, even, connected lines. Finally, wake up those ears with some Bach chorales. I love using these to teach listening for balance and tuning. It’s easy for single reeds to sound like the barn cats are killing the pond geese, especially if you just dive into the show music. A really strong warm-up will tame the farm animals.

I hope these thoughts help you as you dive into the new school year.

Maggie GreenwoodMaggie Greenwood directs the woodwind studios and orchestras at the Colorado School of Mines.

An active teacher, clinician and performer in the Denver area, she holds the Master of Music degree in clarinet performance from the University of North Texas, where she studied with Daryl Coad.