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Repertoire Spotlight: Middle School Orchestra

Repertoire Spotlight: Middle School Orchestra

This month 22 ensemble titles were added to the SmartMusic Repertoire Library. In addition to  new pieces for concert band we’ve added a dozen pieces for middle school string orchestra. 

Among the new orchestra titles is “Not Enough Cowbell (Cha Cha),” by Lynne Latham and Clarence Barber. First published in 2016, this piece is already very popular, in part due to its light-hearted spirit and infectious cha-cha-cha feel.

Listen to the fun in this link from Stanton’s Listening Library:


Are you considering playing Not Enough Cowbell? If so, here are some tips for what to listen to and work on in the piece.


Check out the transitions between arco and pizzicato. These will likely be an area of concentration.

Specifically, students need to make the transition from bow hold to pizz early during the rests. They can’t wait until they see the word pizz, or it will be too late. One helpful strategy is to write the words pizz and arco over the rest, before the note, so the students know to make the transition as quickly as they can.  

Violin and viola students shouldn’t get out of the bow hold. Instead, they should turn the palm of the hand slightly towards themselves while they use their index finger to pluck the strings.

Cellists should quickly release the thumb and wrap their fingers around the bow to bring it to the palm of the hand. Then they can use the thumb to anchor against the fingerboard and pluck with their index finger.

Bassists should practice going from measure 12 to 13 repeatedly. They need to keep their bow hold intact, as they will be plucking the G with the left hand.


Students will also want to focus on counting rhythm patterns. Subdivision of the beat is more important with rests than many students realize. It’s often helpful to reiterate that they must continue subdividing the beat even when they are not playing.

A complete list of all the added titles appears below.

Title Comp/Arr Publisher Music Type Pepper Level
Amazing Grace Traditional; O’Loughlin, Sean Carl Fischer Concert Band E
Carpathian Castle Story, Michael Alfred Concert Band VE
Fall of Empires, The Lee, Robert L. Carl Fischer Concert Band B
Machu Picchu Loest, Timothy FJH Music Company Concert Band B
Meet and Greet MacDonald’s Band Sebesky, Gerald LudwigMasters Concert Band VE
Moon Song and Tribal Dance Chambers, Carol Brittin Carl Fischer Concert Band VE
Noble Procession Chambers, Carol Brittin Carl Fischer Concert Band VE
Olympians Foster, Robert E. LudwigMasters Concert Band VE
One Giant Leap Morales, Erik FJH Music Company Concert Band ME
Seven Hills Overture Fannin, John Alfred Concert Band M
Adamant Clark, Larry Carl Fischer String Orchestra VE
Ancient Legends Fagan, Gary Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra ME
Ethos Clark, Larry Carl Fischer String Orchestra VE
Explorers, The Sharp, Keith Belwin String Orchestra ME
Fingerboard Frolic Compello, Joseph Carl Fischer String Orchestra VE
Irish Farewell, An (Sheebeg and Sheemore) O’Carolan, Turlough; Monday, Deborah Baker Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra E
Lucky Seven Turner, Matt Carl Fischer String Orchestra M
Miller’s Fiddler, The Gazda, Doris Carl Fischer String Orchestra E
Not Enough Cowbell (Cha Cha) Latham, Lynne; Barber, Clarence E. LudwigMasters String Orchestra VE
Old Rocking Chair, The Woolstenhulme, Jeremy Kjos String Orchestra ME
Sinfonia Song Mosier, Kirt N. Wingert-Jones String Orchestra E
Suo Gan Traditional; Clark, Larry Carl Fischer String Orchestra E

If you have a suggestion of repertoire you’d like included in future versions of SmartMusic, please let us know

Selecting Repertoire for Your Ensemble

Selecting Repertoire for Your Ensemble

We, as directors of ensembles, are charged with the amazingly challenging task of predicting the future. What is the band/orchestra/chorus going to be like this year? What music is going to challenge my students yet not overwhelm them? What music is going to be achievable yet not bore them to tears? What musical choices will engage them? What music will my students like? Do I really care what they like?

Let’s face it, often the pieces students do not like in the beginning somehow morph into their favorite when the concert is over!

How about the other challenges we all face? It would be wonderful if we had the perfect instrumentation and ability level every year. There are, however, those years where you may have 3 trumpets, 1 flute, 8 alto saxophones 1 trombone, 12 percussionists and a partridge in a pear tree.

Given these challenges we do not give up. We embrace each and every student. We program music that will highlight their talents and strengths as well as challenge them to grow and connect with music in their lives. 

So the question is how do we go about choosing the appropriate music for our ensemble?

Trust Yourself

My best piece of advice is for you to not choose music with worry of judgment by others. Only you as the professional can choose what is most appropriate for your students. You have to deeply reflect upon the students you are serving and provide them with music that will push and pull them in every direction, both technically and emotionally. You have to commit to spending the time necessary and essentially make an individualized lesson plan for your students.

Those 12 freshmen percussionists need to be as engaged and challenged as your 1 flute player. This is no easy task, but it is one that we gladly put upon our shoulders. We do this because we are dedicated teachers who constantly strive to give our students the very best musical education we can. Every. Single. Day.  

What’s the Score?

The age of computers, MP3’s, PDF’s, and digital delivery have changed the face of music research and selection.  I’ve had many conversations with friends and colleagues about how music used to be chosen in the old days. Directors would spend hours flipping through bins of scores, looking for something to catch their eye; the ‘hook.’ Then, they would have to read through the music in their heads, without the aid of an incredible ensemble on a recording.

I love flipping through the bins of music in stores; there is something nostalgic about it. My take-away from this story?

There’s no substitute for sitting with a score, either online or on paper, and absorbing what is there. Use all that you have studied and practiced in ear training, music theory, and educational theory and determine if the piece is the right fit for your band.

The Art of Conversation

I love going to band performances at conferences. They energize me, excite me and inspire me to be better at what I do. I love something even more about conferences. Conversation. Actual face-to-face conversations. Discussing ‘all things band’ with other directors, composers and students can give amazing insight about whatever the topic du jour is. If that topic is repertoire selection, not only will you get a recommendation about a piece, but also insight into the joys and/or challenges of learning, teaching and/or performing the piece(s).

The information you receive from a colleague will be greatly helpful in guiding you to finding the right music. This kind of dialogue isn’t exclusive to a state or national conference. We all are part of a smaller community of directors and have a network of musical friends. A quick phone call or email asking for a recommendation for a lyrical piece or concert opener can be incredibly enlightening. Try it – make a call, not only will you receive pertinent information, but you will also make another band director very happy. We love to share!

Play Every Part!

One of my college professors gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me throughout my career: when you get a new piece of music – or are seriously considering one – play through every part on your primary instrument.

Think about that.

You learn so much by doing this! You really firm up your sight transposition. You see the musical involvement (or lack of) from the student side of the band room. You learn the ranges required and the technical challenges awaiting your students. You learn the score from a different angle.

This advice has been a piece of gold for me and I am so appreciative to have had it in my pocket for all these years. Go ahead. Try it with a piece you have in your students folders today, it is eye opening.

Band Yoga: Be Flexible

The ‘unknowns’ of the year to come are both terrifying and exciting all at the same time. Even with all of your hard work researching and choosing the right music, be prepared to go off course. Maybe the piece isn’t the right fit after all, for whatever reason. Maybe something has changed. Sometimes the best course of action is to select a different course. Also, however, do not react too early.  Remember, the pieces they say they do not like, they often end up loving – it is a fine line.

Our bands are unique. Year to year all things are new. One of the first pieces I had written for band had student names on their parts instead of standard part labels. Think of each of your pieces with student names…how would that change your selection? My “Julia” that played xylophone on Pony Express, might be your “James.” One thing you can count on for sure is your students will feed off of you. Be prepared. Be committed. Be confident. Be realistic. Be flexible. Be passionate and most of all, Be YOU.

Chris BernotasComposer, conductor, clinician, and educator Chris M. Bernotas has been an instrumental music teacher at New Jersey’s Mountain Lakes High School for more than 20 years. An active composer and arranger of concert band music, Mr. Bernotas is published with Alfred Music Publishing, Daehn Publications, TRN Music Publishing, Northeastern Music Publications, Carl Fischer Music and Bandworks Publications. His music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and has appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists. Mr. Bernotas is co-author of the third and fourth books in Alfred’s Sound Innovations series, called Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development, along with Peter Boonshaft. Mr. Bernotas is also an active guest conductor and presenter at clinics and conferences throughout the United States. Please visit his website or facebook page for more info.

Teaching ii-V7-I Progressions to Young Musicians

Teaching ii-V7-I Progressions to Young Musicians

The ii-V7-I progression is the foundation of tonal Western music, and famous jazz musicians agree that learning harmony is crucial for developing improvisation skills. How do we teach students about this important harmonic pattern? Most of the time, we let students pick it up through osmosis, showing them that the seventh scale degree naturally resolves up to the tonic, how to tune thirds to better create triads, and why key signatures matter.

This approach works! Getting into the weeds of music theory is tough for high schoolers, let alone middle schoolers, so it’s easy to see why teachers at all levels get nervous about teaching it. Eventually, students who want to focus on jazz – or even enter jazz competitions – spend the extra time necessary to make the jump from these basic musical relationships to the progression that defines jazz standards.

How we deal with this jump can help get more students off to a good start with improvisation. The good news: there are ways to tweak the things we already teach students in order to help them understand ii-V7-I progressions.


We all teach scales. They build technique, rhythmic precision, intonation skills, range, and much more. In fact, these are usually how we get students over the hump and playing “with the changes.” We correlate a dorian scale to a minor chord, a mixolydian scale to a dominant chord, and a major (ionian) scale to the major seventh chord. Students scratch their head at our sudden use of Greek, but ultimately memorize some scalar formulas.

Then we connect the dots by showing the student that all three of the scales in a ii-V7-I use the same pitches. If we’re really on our game, we demonstrate using the white keys on a piano that the scale for a D-7 chord, a G7 chord, and a Cmaj7 chord all use the same pitches:Teaching ii-V7-I Progressions to Young Musicians - Image 2

What we don’t do is explain why the progression works. Western tonal harmony is built around a single pitch (the key center). Subdominant and dominant chords sound the way they do because of the way they interact with a tonic pitch. When we reduce those relationships to “just keep playing the same scale” we discourage students from drawing three important conclusions with their ears:

  • The chords of the ii-V7-I progression are logically connected and can be identified by ear.
  • A given note in the scale has varying degrees of importance based on whether it’s played over ii, V7, or I.
  • Not all harmonies in standard repertoire fit nicely into our ii-V7-I box.

The chords of even this simple progression are connected! There are guide-tone lines that we should illustrate for students, rather than insisting that “You can play scale X over all of that.”

Here are some examples:

Teaching ii-V7-I Progressions to Young Musicians - Image 3

Each note of the tonic scale has different functions based on the progression. For example, the second scale degree moves from being the root (strong, boring) to the 5th (still strong and boring) to the 9th (not as strong, very interesting!).

The seventh scale degree moves from being the 13th (not strong at all, but hugely colorful and mode-defining) to the 3rd (very strong, still interesting) to the 7th (strong, still interesting). Students can practice these over a drone in order to better hear the ways that intervals relate to each other and practice hearing and identifying which chord member a given pitch is.

Not all harmonies fit nicely into our ii-V7-I world. For example, George Gershwin routinely started compositions on II7 to generate excitement and fit his melodies. Both “But Not For Me” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay” start with a G7 chord even though they are in F major. I’ve had student after student say “This song is in C!” and get excited, only to slam on a B natural over the G minor chord in the very next measure – obviously not the sound either of us wanted.

Teaching ii-V7-I Progressions to Young Musicians - Image 4

The Circle of 5ths

How do we get kids away from reducing their ii-V7-I progressions to a single scale where all pitches are created equal? Use the Circle of 5ths. Alongside scales, this might be the most-used tool for teaching theory. Treating it as an ear training exercise is even more productive. You can use call and response exercises and be sure to use intervallic exercises that help internalize the sound of the Circle of 5ths.

Better yet, use play-along recordings that have Circle of 5ths exercises included. You can make your own using Band-in-a-Box, or use prerecorded ones from Jamey Aebersold recordings or from the exercises in SmartMusic. Including harmony behind the soloist means that students will more quickly grasp all three of the important conclusions I discussed earlier.

Let’s take a look at a typical Circle of 5ths exercise:

Teaching ii-V7-I Progressions to Young Musicians - Image 5

The exercises both tonicizes the original key and forces the student to move in time to a new key center a fourth (or fifth) away. Students hear (over and over) what the ii-V7-I progression sounds like while also getting to practice playing over it. However, they also have to be prepared to move to a new key center, helping solidify the way progressions work together in a piece. This exercise mimics the movement that sometimes occurs in jazz standards – in this case the bridge of rhythm changes.


I’m not suggesting that we abandon the technique of teaching students to recognize key centers and play the tonic scale over a ii-V progression. That approach has worked for a long time and gets students started using things they’ve already learned. But we can help them develop a larger jazz vocabulary and strengthen their ears at the same time by working not only on scales, but on the Circle of 5ths as well.

Ryan Sargent

As MakeMusic’s social media manager, Ryan Sargent practices improvising 140 characters at a time. He has nearly 20 years of experience playing over ii-Vs, but prefers modal progressions because of their simple chord-scale correlations.

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.


Talking with Frank Ticheli about “Making Music Matter”

Talking with Frank Ticheli about "Making Music Matter"

"Making Music Matter" is a new band method created by Frank Ticheli and Gregory B. Rudgers and published by Manhattan Beach Music. You can flip though the pages of the teacher's edition below:

I'm delighted to announce that "Making Music Matter" was added to SmartMusic this month. I'm equally delighted to share the following in-depth interview I recently conducted with Frank, in which he generously shared stories, advice, and discussed the creation of (and innovation in) this exciting new method.

We’re here at the SmartMusic studios and I’m joined by Frank Ticheli, and we’re going to chat about his new method book, Making Music Matter, published by Manhattan Beach Music. Frank, first of all, thank you so much for being here and sharing your insights today.

Thank you Ryan, it’s a pleasure to be here.

One of the things I noticed right away when I picked up the Teacher’s Edition was that there are introductions to each lesson, that as an educator I now have access to everything, from those pesky bassoon fingerings that I never remember from methods class, all the way to performance notes for those pieces at the end of each lesson.

I know it will be a great convenience to have that right before the lesson – boom! here’s what you need, here’s what your kids are gonna learn. And then I have my notes: here are some things you might want to talk about with the kids. So you’re able to pace it, and the most important thing is that you’re able to provide kids with an opportunity to have, on a regular basis, a sense of accomplishment. Regularly-paced rewards. Now we can do THIS, now we can play THAT piece. Then you go on to the next lesson and so forth.

I think this will help teachers pace their lessons and in a logical way present kids with challenges in ways that don’t overwhelm them. Because what I don’t like about some of the other books is, “We’re on page 18 and we don’t know why we’re on page 18. Now we’re on page 19. Why page 19? We don’t know.”

Also, Ryan, we’re introducing them to real music right away, but we’re also being realistic here. We’re introducing things a little at a time. I think this is one of the great strengths of the book, actually. We introduce only a few things at a time: they have exercises, then they have a real piece that summarizes what they’re introduced to. Then you go on to the next lesson.

None of the other books do that.

To me it seems like such an obvious way to go about introducing kids to music and I’m kind of surprised that there aren’t books out there that are divided into little chapters where you learn this in this chapter, and that in the next chapter.

I’m looking at the notes for Lesson 3. Some of the examples involve you explaining why you’re teaching flute and oboe low Eb in this lesson versus a different lesson, and that’s the kind of detail that makes this book useful for the beginning band director . Did you write any of these lesson plans with new teachers in mind or do you think this will apply to everybody?

I think it’s going to apply to everybody. We thought about writing more, but the things we threw out were the things we thought might be A.) insulting to teachers, and B.) telling them too much how to do their job. We tried to stay out of the way of that and instead offer them signals regarding where we were and what we were thinking as we were designing this lesson. So they understand what our thinking was.

So that Eb you mention, it’s interesting you mention that. We’re basically saying, “Yes, we introduce flutes to a low Eb here, pretty early on, but don’t worry about that, we’re only doing this because in the back of the book there’s an Eb major scale and the flutes need to know that and the oboes need to know that to play that. But we know that’s a tough note for young players, so guess what, we’re not going to use that for many of the next lessons because we know that that’s kind of low.” So we’re kind of reassuring them – we’re letting them in on our thinking.

I think that’s a huge help to educators of all experience levels. I know as a brass player myself every tidbit I could get about flute in 5th and 6th grade is super helpful, and that’s certainly why I noticed that one right away.

Well then you would like that there are little special notes that we interspersed all through the lesson. Like “Clarinet Reminder” – little things like remind the clarinets to keep their corners tight and make sure the holes are covered well and if they’re squeaking it might be because air is leaking. Little things like that – that we brass players need to be reminded of – I think are very useful. And it’s good for the kids to get those reminders.

The book is comprehensive then from start to finish. It’s not just set up so the kids are working in steps, it’s also easy for the instructors to operate by steps. What other things similar to those lesson plans at the beginning of each lesson do you think are in the book that could be especially helpful on that day-to-day basis?

There are a lot of things. First of all, the book is interspersed with wonderful warm-up exercises that Greg Rudgers designed. It’s not just exercises and then play the Ticheli composition, now another set of exercises then play another Ticheli composition. To us even that could become monotonous, so we break it up with warm-up exercises and also I’ve interspersed something called Creative Corner.

These are little elementary composition exercises for the kids. It will help teachers to expose kids to creative thinking, to the actual creation of music. In other words, composition in ways that are not intimidating, because these composition exercises don’t require you to understand that you shouldn’t double that leading tone and maybe that parallel interval isn’t the best interval – you don’t get all this theory that can be intimidating to young kids. Instead it’s just celebrating creativity with sound in ways that I think the kids will enjoy, and it might excite them down the road in the future to consider composition as something they might like to do themselves. So that’s there.

Then in the back of the book there are solo pieces for every single instrument – either solo unaccompanied or solo with piano – for each of the instruments.  think of those as kind of a rewards for the kids because they will have reached the technical ability to play those solos when they are nearing completion of the book.

I’d love to know more about the Creative Corner. Is this something that involves more improvisation or something that looks more like a theory exercise, or how are those lessons structured?

I actually give them something that Mozart used to give his students. He would start a phrase and he would say, “Here, would you please finish this for me.” I thought if it was good enough for Mozart, it’s good enough for us. (Laughs).

So I give them this little fragment: (Sings) ‘mi-mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-mi.” Then in the next few bars I leave it blank and the students fill it in. I give them a rhythm suggestion:  (Demonstrates) “half-quarter-quarter quarter-quarter-half” and they come up with the pitches, so it’s very simple. I’m giving them structure, I’m giving them rhythms even – they just have to add pitches. And when you say improvisation, I recommend they start out  on their instruments to improvise different possibilities, then pick one and write it down.

Whereas if you skip to Creative Corner # 3, that one celebrates possibility and even wildness. There are no pitches, no rhythms, it’s just a little box where students get to make sounds just with their body. I break them into groups and they make all these wonderful sounds with their mouth, with their bodies, with their hands. Any kind of sound they can make with the human body and turn that into a piece.

So that takes away not only theory, but takes away traditional notation, and you just sort of enter this world of “What if?” You get to ask the question, “What if?” and you’re just dealing with a world of sound and time and how sound interacts in time. So I think that will be a really fun one for the students.

I’m trying to make composition fun and to remind students that actually the most important thing for a composer is not learning theory, but in having an open mind, having the courage to try things, and to take chances. And that’s sort of what these exercises celebrate.

So in some spots it sounds like they’re synched up in terms of solfège and rhythmic duration with the things that the students are learning in the lesson, but at the same time they’re giving students a huge amount of freedom to make sure that students develop their musical ear – in other words to make the music matter.

That’s right. Sometimes they’re related to their instruments; sometimes they’re completely separate from what they’re learning on their instruments and it’s reminding them that “Oh music can be this too! I didn’t know it could be that.” You mentioned solfège. I sang it in solfège but it’s not in solfège in the book, it’s just pitched.

You also mentioned the solo rep at the end of the book and said it’s kind of a reward for students that are getting ready to finish up the method.

That’s right.

Is that something you would encourage teachers to use in class or is that something really to be used as a reward, for the students to work on in their own personal time?

I think there are a lot of ways they could be used. Yes, teachers could be involved in this. The students could just use these to practice at home just for fun. The students could play them for family or friends separately from school. Or teachers could put them on as part of their evening concert.

They could showcase some of their students at intermission, before the concert, or even as a regular part of the concert. You have a parent play the piano and you bring out your student clarinetist or a student oboist or a student trombonist and you have them play a piece one after another, and then you get back to the full band. So it could even be incorporated into a regular band concert.

They could be used in private lessons with private teachers. I suppose students could use them to play in solo and ensemble contest – some states have them even at this young level. There’s unlimited possibilities for how those solo pieces could be used.

One of the other things I noticed in the book was a percussion ensemble piece. I know that –again as a brass player – that’s a little intimidating. I’ve never conducted a percussion ensemble – I’m nervous enough getting some patterns on the bells going.


How accessible is it, how do you recommend teachers work with it, is it for the middle of the year, end of the year?

Yeah, you have to remember that this is a really straightforward simple percussion ensemble piece. It’s meant for kids that are probably finishing their first year, so it’s pretty simple. The percussion score fits on left and right facing pages; there are no page turns for the conductor even. The parts are very simple, very straightforward.

I can’t imagine anyone, even a young music educator, having any trouble with this little percussion ensemble piece. I could have included a solo xylophone and piano piece, but I wanted to include something different for the percussion, where they have this chance to do something, make a whole piece together without the rest of the band there.

So often for percussion when they’re playing with the band they’re in the back back there, they are supporting the band – the woodwinds have the melody and the harmony is in the brass and woodwinds, and the percussion are often relegated to having a supporting role. I wanted to give them something where they get to have the spotlight as a section, and that’s the reason for the piece I wrote called “Steamroller.”

And also lots of schools have percussion coaches, so if there are teachers intimidated by the percussion – I can’t imagine too many would be intimidated by this little piece – they could certainly rely on their percussion coach if they have one. If not, sorry you’re out of luck! (Laughs).

So no funky timpani tunings or advanced stuff going on, this is pretty straightforward. Like the solos, it’s designed to get the students at the end of their first year doing something fun and unique that shows off their work.

That’s right. When we get to Making Music Matter Book 2 I did actually include both – a xylophone and piano solo and another percussion ensemble piece. So they actually have 2 choices when you get to Book 2, the percussionists.

Speaking of some odd instruments, do these compositions that are at the end of every lesson work with reduced ensembles? I know I’ve certainly taught at schools where we didn’t have bassoons in 6th grade for all sorts of reasons. Is that the kind of thing the compositions can work around?

Yes, they’re going to work very well for reduced instruments. You’ll notice the scores – this is one reason our teacher’s book can be so light and small compared to so many of them out there which are thick and heavy. The reason ours can be smaller and a little more handy is because we’ve scored them in these reduced scores where I have the flutes and oboes and bells together, I have all the low woodwinds and low brasses together on a staff.

So that enables those bands who don’t have the bassoons or maybe don’t even have tubas or enough horns, it enables them to play all of these exercises and compositions without those instruments or without sufficient quantities of those instruments. Not only that, but I even have a piano reduction provided below each composition so that if there are whole instruments missing even with this condensed score, say you’ve got no clarinets for some reason, well, you can have a pianist – a student or even the band director – can just play the clarinet part, or play along on the piano. So you have lots of flexibility in how you deal with these pieces.

What was your inspiration for creating the book? Did you see some gap in the marketplace? Did you work with some bands that were clearly struggling with technique? Was it just time to do a method book – the full band compositions had gotten boring? What was your inspiration?

I had a dinner once with a colleague of mine at USC and he said “You know, there needs to be a method book out there that has more original music.” He put that on my radar. He just got it in my head and got me thinking about it. Then a lot of time passed and I started thinking more about it. I mentioned it to Bob Margolis and he thought “Wow, think more about this – this is a great idea!” And then it was Bob’s publishing partner, Neil Ruddy, who hooked me up with Greg Rudgers and said this would be a perfect combination.

So Greg and I started talking, and the more we started talking the more excited I got about it. And we started looking at everything out there and we saw that “Ahh, there really is a need for this, and that, and look how all the books are starting with the flute crossing the break, and look at how the books are all starting with – wow – the horns starting so high in their register.” We thought “We could do better than this,” and we just thought there’s definitely a need.

So the first thing we did is go, “What are the notes we’re gonna start the instruments with if we’re gonna do this?” and we started talking and got excited about it and out of that excitement I went to work. Not only am I surprised that I’ve done it, I’m surprised at how much joy I’ve found doing this book. I’m certainly glad, having done it – in other words having finished it now is even the greatest joy, but even during the process I really enjoyed making this book and collaborating with Greg Rudgers on the creation of it.

So there are specific instrument things that you felt were missing or weren’t being handled as well as they possibly could be in other books. Making Music Matter does take an alternative approach to a couple things like flute range in the first few notes in an effort to improve the pedagogy from day one.

That’s absolutely right. All the books I looked at put all the instruments in unison, so they start them on a Bb major scale – (Sings) do-re-mi-fa-sol – the first 5 notes of the Bb major scale. Their goal is to get all the players on those 5 notes, and they’ll add la, they’ll add the first 6 notes.

But the problem with that is right away, think about the flutes. Bb, C, and then D – everything goes down. They cross the break right there between the C and the D-Eb-F. The horns are up there on concert Bb-C-D-Eb – they’re right up there with the trumpets. And that is too high for young horn players. The partials are too close together, the young players can’t find those notes, we can go on and on.

So we thought why don’t we start the flutes – to take them as an example – now it would have been really cool to start the flues on B-A-G, that’s just the left hand. But B natural, that’s a little too far away for a beginning band. B natural comes later. So we did a compromise, which ended up being even better. We did A-G-F for the flutes and the oboes so they get the left hand and then on F they bring in the first finger of their right hand. So they get to use both hands now but they aren’t crossing the break.

Saxophones are all on their written B-A-G that’s just left hand. The horns are down on their E-D-C, their low E-D-C of their C major scale, concert F major scale. They can find those notes down there. So all the instruments get to start on notes where they get some satisfaction. They’re not overwhelmed by having to overcome all these problems. So we have traded that for the fact that they don’t all play in unison now. You have to start out with chords right away in the book.

Yeah, I was going to say this is actually a good thing for the book overall because now you’re not worried about making them be unison on the first couple lessons. It goes hand in hand with these original Ticheli compositions that are interspersed throughout every lesson.

That’s absolutely right. But not only that, here’s the cool thing. If a band director wants to hear unison octave lines only, she can say, “Let me hear Group 1,” and you’ll see in the book there’s a set of instruments that are marked as “Group 1” instruments and every kid in the top left corner of his page it’s marked Group 1 Group 2 or Group 3. So the director says “Let me hear Group 1,” all the instruments in Group 1 play and it will all be unison.

Then she says “Let me hear Group 2” and it will be a set of instruments all in unison. And then finally Group 3, all in unison. So the director can still hear unison lines, unison octave lines by simply dividing into those 3 groups. What we did with this is allow the directors to have their cake and eat it too. They can have the unison lines if they want them, but not only that we also set up the first six lessons where kids get to learn their easiest, most natural notes on their individual instruments. It really is having your cake and eating it too.

It sounds like it! I’m already jealous I’m working at SmartMusic and can’t use it in the classroom.


I have to get away from the book for just a second. You conduct honor groups and work with bands all over the country. Can you share an awesome conducting story from one of your clinics?

My goodness, you’re putting me on the spot with that one because there’s so many. There’s one that I’ll share – an embarrassing one. I conducted the Texas All-State Band, the very top Texas all-state band. And we were ending the concert with Blue Shades. We were all done, the concert was going really well and we got to the final piece, Blue Shades, and it was going so well. And I thought I just really want to enjoy the final piece with these kids, I want to have my eyes on the kids.

So I took my score off the stand. And I didn’t want to get off the podium and make a big deal of it, put it down on the floor. I took it off the stand and I just dropped it on the floor. Well that ended up – I’ve looked at it on video – that ended up looking more dramatic than I intended. It looked like I was saying “HA, we’re gonna do this without the score now.” And I dropped it and the whole audience went “WOOOAAHH” and they all started applauding really loudly as though I was making some big macho statement.

All I was trying to do is enjoy this moment with the kids and it turned into this macho “Ticheli doesn’t need the score to his own Blue Shades” moment. So that was a funny moment because it was an unintended show of machismo.

(Laughing) Perfect, that’s exactly the kind of story I was looking for.

So on that same concert we also performed Grainger’s setting of “Danny Boy” – “Irish Tune from County Derry.” So I used that moment to honor my teacher, Robert Floyd, who happens to be the executive director of the Texas Music Educator’s Association now. But he was my high school band director way back in the ‘70s. It was so cool for me to come back to Texas, conducting the top Texas high school honor band with my teacher on stage – he had to come out on stage and sit in a chair – and we performed that wonderful Grainger tune in his honor.

To me it was all the generations: my teacher watching me conduct my students (at the time) playing this piece in his honor. And so it was a really special moment and of course I broke down in tears while I was conducting that. And it was just a great memory for me.

That’s what it’s all about, really.

When you get down to it, that’s absolutely what it’s about. I just thought of another great story about that concert.

I’d love to hear more.

The end of that concert – Blue Shades – To me this is a great story about how we as music educators turn problems – how problems will lead us to solutions we’re often not smart enough to figure out on our own. Here was a problem: the solo in Blue Shades you know the big stand up clarinet solo in Blue Shades –


You know the principal clarinetist should play that. The second or third chair guy, he just played the heck out of it. I thought “Ahhh it would be great if he could be involved in some way.” So how do we handle that? Because the first chair guy was gooood, but the third chair guy was out of this world good! So we thought how could we handle it?

And then, I can’t remember which, one of the students said “Why don’t we both do it – we could trade off” because it’s in four phrases. And so we tried it. Not only did that solve the problem of allowing that third chair guy (who happened to be from my alma mater, Berkner High School) play part of the solo, but by having them both up there it added this energy that you never get with this solo because it became this conversation between two soloists going back and forth with each other, you know, sort of the battle between the two soloists, but it wasn’t a battle, it was friendly. And it was GREAT.

So it was a perfect example. Here we have a problem, and the problem led us to this solution I would have never found on my own.

Speaking of Frank Ticheli compositions, when students finish up with the first book there’s a second book. Do you recommend that mostly being for the second year then?

Yes, I mean it depends. This is the problem: some beginning band programs meet five times a week. Some meet only three days a week. Some meet only one day a week. So every individual music educator’s going to have to pace this according to their own needs.

For some, some of those programs that have beginning band five days a week, they might get to Book 2 before the end of their first year, sometime in the spring of their first year. On the average it’s probably a good book to start their second year with. Some programs it may take them well into their second year or their third year even. Because the second year is getting into Grade 2 – 16th notes and more sophisticated syncopations and slightly extended ranges. We didn’t extend the ranges too far. The trumpets get up to about an E, the low brasses up to about their D, the flutes are only up to their D. This is not major extension of ranges, but more tricky rhythms for sure! So it could even be used in the third year.

The reason I ask is once students then finish up the second book, it’s probably time for a more traditional set of pieces – moving on away from the method and into performance literature. What Frank Ticheli pieces do you recommend?

Ha – that’s a good question but you’re right. We designed it such by the time they finish Book 2 they are now ready for just about any Grade 2 piece and a lot of Grade 3 pieces in the actual repertoire. That was our point – to get them to that point. So any of my Grade 2 pieces by that point – Portrait of a Clown, this new piece I wrote called Peace, I have a piece called December Snow, I’ve got a piece called First Light – these are all Grade 2ish, Grade 1-2 area pieces. But by this point they’re even ready to take on something like Amazing Grace, some of my Grade 3 pieces by the time they finish Book 2. Maybe a few movements from Simple Gifts. Maybe not, but perhaps something like Shenandoah.

So speaking of Book 2 – those kinds of rhythms are the same things they’re going to encounter in these Grade 2 to 2.5 pieces. In other words, the method book has now progressed from setting them up where they get to learn some of this beauty of music and some really natural logistical and technical issues in book 1 into repertoire preparation.

That’s right. But we never drop the ball on that mission to teach beauty all the time, not just in the beginning. So even when you get to Book 2, you’re still doing tons of pieces that are just celebrating lyricism and beauty. I mean there’s a beautiful chaconne in there just called “The Lament” There’s a piece called “Desert Flower” that I think is very beautiful. All kinds of wonderful little pieces. And then there’s fun stuff like there’s a Cuban dance, there’s a little piece called “Catch Me If You Can” which is fun fast. There’s one called “Night in Nairobi” which is very fast.

But then there’s an easy version of my Shenandoah. In fact we end Book 2 not with a technical piece that’s really fast, but we end Book 2 with a simplified excerpt from my Shenandoah. Basically what I’m trying to do is end the book with “This is just as important as learning your technical skills” and we’re ending the book not with a technical piece but something that is all about beauty to remind them that this is just as important.

What kind of advice would you have for helping educators really make that point to students. As educators we know how important that stuff is – we’ve lived it, we’ve participated in all state bands, we’ve gone to school and taken music education classes. Band directors aren’t doing it for the money, obviously, so there’s an understanding among the educators, but passing that on to 13 year olds can be a real challenge. What advice do you have for educators who are really trying to drive that point home with their students?

Oh my goodness I could spend an hour on that. And also this is the topic of my lecture at the Midwest Clinic this winter. I’m giving a lecture there called “Beauty from the Beginning” but I’m also talking about this very question you just asked, which is “How do we remind ourselves of this value?”

There are a lot of thing we can do. It’s so easy to get bogged down in “I’ve got to teach this kid to put that pinky down on that key and now I’ve got to remind this kid over there that his tongue is getting in the way,” and it’s too hard and you forget to just step back a moment and say, “Wait a minute, why are we doing music in the first place?”

We have to remind ourselves, why did we get into music in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I got into it because it’s fun and because it’s beautiful. And we constantly have to remind ourselves that, and remind the kids of that.

So some concrete things we need to do are, when we’re up there on the podium, if we can just be the music more faithfully and not always be that band director up there who’s a technician. But be the music, it’s that simple. So if the music is slow and lyrical, we speak more slowly, we speak more lyrically, more calmly, so that we keep the kids in that world. If we’re doing a fast piece we can speak more quickly, we can be more abrupt with our motions, we can go back to that, but when the music is lyrical and beautiful, just be that.

All your gestures, when you cut off the band, even cut off the band slowly, don’t do a sudden jerky movement to cut off the band or tap the stand rudely. You cut off the band in the style of that music. You say to students, “You know what, can we bring that note out?” You don’t just say “Let’s bring out this note here,” you tell them why you’re bringing out this note. Is it a dissonance that they’re bringing out? Well what kind of dissonance is it? Is it a sad dissonance? Is it a poignant dissonance? Is it an angry dissonance? Is it a humorous dissonance? Dissonance can be humorous right? What kind of dissonance is it?

Now you’re involving the kids in this process rather than just saying “Do this,” “I’m gonna fix this,” and the energy goes one way. [You say] “Bring that note out” and they don’t know why they’re bringing the note out.  But if you say why you’re bringing it out – I’m bringing the note out because it’s so sad and so beautiful. I want to bring out that sadness that’s in that dissonance. Now the students have an idea why he or she is bringing out that dissonance. Because it has to do with the beauty of that moment of music.

So that’s something that’s really important. I have to remind myself of this all the time when I’m on the podium. Is what I’m about to say to the student going to simply instruct the student, or is it going to inspire the student? So figure out a way that you’re not just instructing the student but also inspiring the student, that’s what we have to remember. That’s how I deal with it.

Frank thank you so much for your time. It’s been wonderful to talk with you, get your insights into teaching, the method book, how the method book’s built. You can find the method book – published through Manhattan Beach Music – it’s in SmartMusic so you can assign these lessons to your kids. Thank you so much for listening and thank you again to Frank Ticheli.

Thank you Ryan, it’s been my pleasure.

Ryan SargentBefore 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.

Jazz Improvisation Tips from Gordon Goodwin

jazz improvisation tips from Gordon Goodwin

Editor’s note: MakeMusic is a proud co-sponsor of the Big Phat Jazz Challenge. This contest is a rare opportunity for your students to play for Gordon Goodwin, and for one of them to study with Gordon in person. We’ve recently added Gordon’s song-specific improvisation tips on the contest home page. Below he offers more general jazz improvisation tips for you to share with your students. 

The good news is that improvising is one of the most exhilarating feelings in music.

The bad news is that, for most of us, it takes a fair amount of study to figure out how to do it. Most of us start out by just diving in and fumbling around until we stumble on to something that seems to work.

To be sure, a certain amount of experimentation and self-discovery is a necessary element in the process of defining yourself as an improvisor. But I have grown to believe that those elements are best served if they rest on a foundation of pedagogical preparation. You know what that means, right?

It means you have to know your chords and scales.

Yeah, I know that’s no fun. But a basic understanding of harmony is the key to being an effective and purposeful improviser, especially if you are working in a nuanced genre like jazz. If you just want to play in a blues band, then once you’ve mastered that basic vocabulary, you’re pretty much all set. But if you want to blow on a tune like “Behind You” from the Little Phat Band record “An Elusive Man” then you are going to need a deeper understanding of harmony. Of chords and scales and how they fit together.

Bring More to the Bandstand

There are plenty of good method books that can give you this information, and I encourage you to seek these out. Please trust me – the more you know about this stuff, the more diverse tools you will have at your disposal and the more effective and expressive you will be as an improvisor.

Your goal should be to fill your musical tool-kit with as many options as you can. In time these tools seep into your subconscious and inform your intent as your play. These tools enhance your instincts and emotions.

Please do not buy into some people’s premise that says that this kind of study will pollute or distort your own personality as a musician. This kind of thinking is an endorsement of fear and advocates for ignorance. More information is always better! You should try to learn all that you can about music, about various styles and trends, and about other practitioners of the art.

Which leads to the other big recommendation. Which is simply, listen.

Listen to Everything

Go on YouTube and listen to the masters of the art of improvisation – they’re all up there. Listen to the old guys, listen to the new kids. Listen to musicians you like and also musicians you don’t. Listen to your peers, to others in your own band.

And don’t just listen to your own instrument. You can learn much from a greater understanding of all instruments, and that is one way the jazz evolves – when someone like Jaco Pastorius learned to play Charlie Parker solos on the electric bass. This led to a brand new viewpoint for what an electric bass can do, all from one guy (admittedly, a genius) who thought out of the box.

Listen to You

And finally, listen to yourself. I strongly recommend recording yourself regularly, then sit back and evaluate. Try to take an objective look at what you played, and see what your strong points are, as well as your weak points. And here is where SmartMusic is of great value, since you can easily record yourself as many times as you want!

This is very important. The feeling you have while playing an improvised solo can be fleeting because in most cases, it’s an “in-the-moment” kind of thing. Five minutes after you’ve finished, you have forgotten most of the details that were in your mind as you were playing. Being able to listen to a recording of yourself allows you to slow things down and analyze your playing in a way that leads to clarity and improvement.

In our next blog post, we’ll talk about some methods you can use to train your brain and get it used to reacting quickly in real time.


Gordon Goodwin is a GRAMMY and Emmy award-winning composer, arranger, and performer. He’s the leader of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, the critically-acclaimed ensemble made up of LA’s finest musicians.

Goodwin’s scoring and orchestration can be heard in many films including The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Get Smart, National Treasure, The Incredibles, Remember the Titans, Armageddon, The Majestic, Enemy of the State, Star Trek Nemesis and even Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes.

As a composer, arranger or performer, Gordon has worked with Ray Charles, Christina Aguilera, Johnny Mathis, John Williams, Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Brian McKnight, Quincy Jones and many more. He has also conducted world-renowned symphony orchestras in Atlanta, Dallas, Utah, Seattle, Toronto and London.

How to Understand and Impress Judges at Marching Competitions

How to Understand and Impress Judges at Marching Competitions

Participation in marching competitions is an integral part of the experience for many high school bands. These competitions add intensity, complexity, challenge, and a great sense of accomplishment  to the lives of students and music educators alike. However, when groups don’t receive the scores (or feedback) they believe they deserve, the experience can be frustrating as well.

Having a sense of how the perspectives of judges and band staff differ can help to minimize this frustration. Even better, understanding and considering these differences can actually assist your band design team, instructional staff, and students to receive higher scores in the future.

The Designers and Instructors’ Perspective

Competitive marching band is an intense and immersive activity for all stakeholders. Competitive show designers attempt to create a musical and visual book with depth, complexity, and aesthetic nuance. Instructors take that book and attempt to train the performers to meet the demands placed upon them.

Many times, the designers and instructors are one in the same, which has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to evaluation in competition. The more immersed the designers and instructors are in their own product, the more likely it is that their perspective is myopic and biased.

The inherent challenge for designers and instructors is making their product accessible to the judging community and the general audience in a way that can be communicated as effectively as possible in performance. If it can not be communicated as a sustained, readable effect, the band will not receive recognition for it, no matter how many times the staff “points it out” to the judging panels that adjudicate them.

Intention of design means little if that intention is not carefully and effectively portrayed on the move during the course of the show. Just because designers and instructors understand the nuance and complexity of the design and communicate that in judges’ meetings does not mean that those design choices are effective.

Impressing Judges Is About the Impression You Create

Adjudicators have two primary tasks when evaluating your group. The first is to rank and rate each sub-caption on their judges sheet for each competing group. The second is to provide commentary designed to coach, critique, and educate all stakeholders, which includes the designers, instructors, and performers. Judges have a very small window of time to write down their numbers, and those decisions are based on multiple factors.

When your band takes the field, the impression you create even before the official adjudication has begun already begins to affect the judge’s evaluation. Most modern judging sheets have a rubric of five boxes with a point range within each box. Judges are first trying to assess which box on the judging sheet your group belongs in.

As the band’s performance continues, the judge is making commentary that relates to the quality and design being demonstrated and continues to evaluate where within that rubric box the band’s score will be. As the judge makes commentary on the show, they are simultaneously ranking your band with the other performing groups, along with assigning a point spread that communicates the comparative differences between them.

When the competition is tight, and bands are achieving similarly in terms of content and performance quality, the job of a judge becomes much more challenging. This is where the impression the group gives the judge is just as important as the content and quality of performance.

Even the most technical and focused judging category, such as Field Visual Performance, is subject to the overall “feel” of the energy and intent of the performance. The combination of the depth of design and the uniformity of execution often gives an impression energetically, emotionally, or intellectually that is difficult to quantify, but does directly affect the outcome.

Analyzing The Analysis

Here are some points to keep in mind when receiving and interpreting judges’ commentary:

  • Your judges (and your audience) do not have the intimate details of your production as part of their system of reference. They are reacting to what you demonstrate visually and musically in real time.
  • Successful show design combines both musical and visual elements to generate intended and purposeful effect for the audience and the judges. Getting credit for your content is not just about performing it cleanly, it is about creating the impression you want the judges to receive without a lengthy verbal or written libretto.
  • As a band staff, you do not have the perspective judges have when it comes to comparing each band in succession. You may be performing a series of very demanding musical and visual skills, but your competitors are likely performing skills that are very comparable.
  • “Hard for hard’s sake” rarely communicates well. Keep returning to two questions: “Is it effective?” and “What kind of impression are the judges getting?”
  • Judges are most impressed by bands that successfully combine all of the elements of design and performance together into an engaging show that stimulates them emotionally, intellectually, or artistically. It takes a lot to impress a judge who has seen twelve other bands that day, or has watched literally hundreds of performances over the course of a career.
  • Reacting to every suggestion or criticism from the judges is not possible. Prioritize their feedback and pay attention to comments that you receive from multiple judges on multiple competitions.

One last suggestion: No matter how deep, intellectual, or challenging your production is, you are doing your performers a disservice if they are not emotionally invested in material that they can connect with and communicate to the audience. Overwritten shows rarely place well and make for a frustrating season for students and staff.

The bottom line? Impress judges by keeping things in perspective and bringing your A game to every part of the process, from the initial design meetings to the night of championships.

Thomas J. WestThomas J. West is an active music teacher, composer, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. He has eighteen years of experience as a concert band director, marching band director, jazz improvisation instructor, choral director, orchestra director, private instructor, music arranger/composer, and marching drill writer.

Thomas also has a decade of experience as an adjudicator for Cavalcade of Bands and is a current adjudicator for both Cavalcade and Drum Corps International.


How I Learned to Love School Picture Day

As a fifth-year teacher, I confess there are many things about teaching I still haven’t mastered . However, I have perfected the art of picture day. Not being the least bit photogenic, I was not born a fan. I had to tough out eleven years of embarrassing school pictures before I could hire a professional photographer – with serious airbrush skills – to create some decent-looking senior photos.

For the next four years I naively believed I’d put his all behind me, using professional head shots for resumes and junior recital posters.

My First Year Teaching

Unfortunately, I was in for a rude awakening when I stepped on the gym floor for my first picture day as a teacher. I made the photographer retake my picture four times before she sent me away with a staff ID that I was still not pleased with. I threw my ID in a random drawer and left it there to die, thanking God that Chipotle a would also accept a pay stub as proof of employment on Teacher Appreciation Day.

How I Learned to Love School Picture Day - Year 2Year Two

Of course, I had forgotten it was picture day. I arrived dressed on the edge of business casual and totally homeless.

In a panic, I tore through the theater dressing room for makeup to help salvage my face, but to no avail. Instead, I came across a pair of giant, nerdy glasses that we had used for a character in our school play the previous year. I put them on and they looked ridiculous… and I loved it.

I decided that in order to preserve my delicate self-esteem, I would try to look awkward and ridiculous in future school pictures so at least I could claim that I don’t actually look like that.

How I Learned to Love School Picture Day - Year 4Years Three and Four

In 2014, I decide to take my picture day outfit up a notch… I added in a dress with adorable little Siamese cats printed all over it and a frumpy sweater.

At that point, I decided that picture day needed to have a different theme every year.

Last year, I added in some props and dragged other staff members into my shenanigans. The band director and I were taking our students to Disney World that year, so we both decked ourselves out in Mickey gear for picture day.

How I Learned to Love School Picture Day - Year 5Moving Forward

This year, most of the middle school teachers have gotten involved in the picture day shenanigans. I wish I could say it was my idea, but one of the teachers suggested that a whole group of us try a “Brady Bunch” frame where we’re all looking in towards the center (which will have greater benefits in the year book than on my staff ID). Hopefully I didn’t screw it up…

I am not the first, nor will I be the last teacher to take a crazy school photograph. It’s a rich tradition which I am glad to share with you: please feel free to copy any of these ideas or adapt them to fit your own style. . Raid your school’s costume closet, pull out the ‘80s marching band uniforms, and/or get your coworkers in on it—or don’t, it’s your call.

I just like taking dumb photos. It turns something I didn’t like into something I look forward to. Perhaps a goofy ID photo makes me more approachable to some students who are as excited about picture day as I was.   I know it breaks up a lot of end-of-the-year tension and stress when I see myself looking like a total dork in the yearbook. My plan for 2017 is to nail my handstand so they’ll let me take my photo upside down. We’ll see what happens with that!

Victoria BaileyVictoria Bailey is a middle school and high school choral director in the beautiful town of Lyons, Colorado. She graduated from the University of Colorado – Boulder in 2012 with her Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education.

Aside from teaching, Victoria enjoys staying in shape and eating sushi burritos as much as she can… even though those two activities completely cancel each other out.

Suddenly, You’re in Charge of a Color Guard!

Suddenly, You’re in Charge of a Color Guard!

Poof! Through some twist of fate, you’re suddenly in charge of a color guard. Soon the panic sets in. You experience self-doubt as you have no prior experience, or so you think.

Managing a color guard is much like managing any other student organization. Classroom management, attention to detail, and expectations are all things that are part of a sound teaching environment. Here are a few tips to help you on your way to successful guard program.

Use Your Experience as a Band Director

You will want to implement procedures and expectations both on and off the field. Even grading can be done with pass-offs, performance requirements and videos just like our kids do with SmartMusic for winds and percussion.

“As someone who wears both hats, I just take the concepts I use as a band director and implement them with the color guard. Daily Drill = Equipment/movement fundamentals. Find the parallel concepts and go from there one step at a time.”

Johnnie Green, assistant band director and guard director at Lehman High School, Kyle, TX

Reach Out

There are winterguard circuits nationally that you can reach out to for more information. Many circuits offer training for instructors and students with spin camps and clinics. Most circuits have two meetings a year. You could attend and network with other area instructors. Most circuits also have a social media presence that you can tap into for advice, flags and costumes for sale, and any questions you may have.

There are also mentor programs you can check into. Most instructors are also willing to help, even offer friendly advice. Help is literally an email away. Use your state’s band association site for networking. Most have job boards and social resources available to connect with other instructors.

Lastly, the internet is a HUGE resource. Use YouTube to search for guard choreography and you’ll have an ocean of videos to resource from. Beware, you will encounter  the good, the bad, and the ugly, so use your best judgement.

Hire Help If You Can

If you have the opportunity to do so, enlist some on-the-field assistance.

“Hire a choreographer, tech or assistant director/teacher that has a color guard background.” There is nothing better than having daily access to someone who has the knowledge and skill to instruct a guard program. Think of it in the band perspective: Would you just let anyone teach your beginner horns? Much like budding musicians, beginner guard students are learning how to walk in time, while spinning a piece of equipment, and performing at the same time. This is not easy for just anyone to teach. A skilled assistant will make life easier for you and your students.

– Michael Vazquez, director of ATX Independent Winterguard

Resources has a wonderful catalog of educational DVDs that focus on various topics such as training for dance, flag, rifle, sabre, as well as how to design. From time to time, clinics and camps are offered through WGI SPIN or MUSIC FOR ALL (BOA). These camps are great to connect with other designers and teachers. Again, reach out!

You might also seek help from a dance studio in your area or from your school’s dance teacher. “No dazzling equipment work will make up for poor posture and lack of core strength,” says retired director Sue Cechel. All color guard design and fundamentals are are built upon  a basic dance foundation. Ballet fundamentals are an excellent start for any budding program as all competitive guard have a movement class built into their programs. Have your dance teacher design a warm-up routine that covers basic movements and do it daily.

Guard Kids are Band Kids, Too

“There are two kinds of band directors. The first views the guard as an integral part of the drill and the music. The second views the guard as merely ‘backup singers’ who keep the beat and stay out of the way. I want the guard to be the visual representation of the show you wish to produce. Please make them a section of the band, the visual section, as that will lend itself toward a more cohesive performance.”

Sue Cechal, guard director in Manitowoc, WI

I have been there. My high school program did not have a dedicated guard teacher and we were left on our own. As you would expect, high school drama and teenage emotions played and got in the way of the real work. In turn, our band directors did not value us as equals on the field. It made for a miserable high school experience.

“Don’t think that color guard is just flapping some flags around on the field and anyone can teach it. That only leads to disappointment and heartbreak”

– Jackie Krasuski, Spintronics Director

To put it simply, you would not leave your flutes to learn the opener of the marching program all alone. Why would you let any group of students, no matter how big or small, work on their own. When students are without supervision and care, negative things happen. You don’t have to know a drop spin from a second position, but you should be there to manage the class.

For example, I include the color guard in all aspects of the marching band. Warm up everybody with the band and marching fundamentals. Sure, we march toe down and the winds and percussion march toe up, but foot timing, articulation of the feet, facing, awareness of space and projection are all things every member of the band works on. I then split to warm up hands while they playing exercises.

We come together to rehearse. One Band, One Vision, One Sound, One Score. You’ll find that there are many things that musicians and your visual ensemble have in common the more you work with them.

Know What You Have and Don’t Have

You may have girl that can tumble in your guard. You may have a boy that can do a toss and turn underneath and catch. Look for the hidden gems in your program and highlight them.

On the flip side, don’t expect a group of first year spinners to do the same choreography that you see Onyx or Santa Clara Vanguard do. Take the time to train, build a foundation of sound fundamentals, and develop strong performers throughout the season.

Color guard is a wonderful activity. It takes a little time, patience, and love for the students you’ll be working with daily. You can establish and develop a strong program that can complement your band program.

Heather BentonHeather Benton is a graduate of the University of Miami where she performed in their “Band of the Hour” Color Guard. She has also performed with Alliance of Miami and Echos of New Orleans Parade Corps and has designed for many programs in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. She was tour manager then tour director for the Blue Knights Drum & Bugle Corps and currently serves as board president of Invictus World.

Heather is a member of the Texas Color Guard Judges Association,Texas Bandmasters Association and Texas Music Educators Association. She currently resides in New Braunfels, TX and has been the Seguin HS Color Guard Director and band secretary since 2011.

Announcing the Big Phat Jazz Challenge

Announcing the Big Phat Jazz Challenge

It sounds like a dream: 

One of your jazz band students records an improvised solo. Gordon Goodwin, leader of the Big Phat Band, hears the performance and is impressed.

The next thing you know, your student and a chaperone are flown to Boulder, Colorado to participate in a master class with Gordon.

Seem too good to be true? It’s not. It’s the Big Phat Jazz Challenge. Here’s how it works:

Using a special free SmartMusic trial subscription, contestants play along with tracks from Gordon Goodwin’s new album, “An Elusive Man.” SmartMusic will record each performance. Contestants can select and submit one performance of each track (and submit one entry each for as many of the provided tracks as they wish). The final winners will be selected based on the quality of each musical performance, as determined by Gordon Goodwin.

The sooner your students sign up, the more time they’ll have to practice!

Get started today (and view complete rules and details) at

Improve Communication with Your School Administration

Improve Communication with Your School Administration

Music educators are often caught in the “arts bubble” where they are ignored by administrators because they don’t teach a core subject. Developing strong communication with your school administration is a great way to avoid this scenario. With the Every Student Succeeds Act making the arts a core subject, improving your relationship with your school administration is more important than ever.

We met Jeff Bradford at the Texas Music Educators Association Conference this spring, where he was part of a panel discussing how teachers can strengthen their relationships with administration. Mr. Bradford is a former band director who is now the director of fine arts for Richardson Independent School District, and has insights from both sides of the relationship. He’s was kind enough to share these with us — and you!

When does communication between ensemble directors and administration break down? Why? What can the director do to help?

Most communication breakdowns occur when staff thinks of things too late or when we react instead of plan. My rule of thumb is look for times when the schedule is going to be tight or thick. Think ahead as much as you can, find out how the administrator communicates best (email/phone/cell/text), and always be flexible. When admin sees a flexible teacher, it’s amazing how far they’ll bend to help.

From the perspective of an administrator, what’s the easiest way directors can improve their lesson plans?

Design a curriculum and lay it out. Get input from cluster staff, colleagues, and mentors about important objectives. Look at basic checkpoints along the way and what you want students to be able to do. Concerts are great checkpoints.

Map out during the summer a skeleton of basic dates and needs. As you come back into in-service and the school year, design more concrete ideas and plans for the weeks leading into performances or mastery based objectives. Create a punch list or objective sheet that holds kids accountable during the grading period and your lesson plans will flow right next to the student expectations of skills and mastery.

When directors ask for more funding, what separates the approved requests from the ones that don’t get approved?

Want vs. Need. We all want things for our programs. But needs are the things you must have in order for your program to function at the basic level. I want iPads for all of our kids. But I need a projector for my daily technology integration of lesson planning and communication.

If a teacher can clearly define the need and the administrator is willing to come do a walk through of the need, usually there’s a way to get it done. Admin loves to come through with wants as well, but those are always secondary to necessities for class to occur.

What’s the biggest thing principals without music backgrounds misunderstand about ensemble classes? How can directors help provide more information for those administrators?

Music classes are sometimes viewed as a “fun” and “relaxed” type of atmosphere. Almost a period off from the grind of core classes. But in reality, when administrators observe music classes they see the complete opposite. Constant focus, laser like energy from staff and students, and zero downtime. The pacing of most music classes is like a sprint compared to other classes observed.

When we look at expectations for public school education and when the next “buzz terms” come out, music courses never seem to change or get rattled. Differentiated instruction, professional learning communities, scaffolding, vertical alignment – that’s what we’ve been doing for years. Many of our staff model the expectations of the district and campus admin. When administrators are invited to observe class or see something different, they often times leave wondering how they can use the music classroom as an example for everyone else.

My advice for music educators is to contact your administrators to share positive things, too; not to just ask for things or complain. Touch base for no other reason than to say thanks and make the effort to become a colleague and team player.

If your principal sees you in the hall and looks down or turns around, consider working to rebuild that relationship.

And think through how often you’re asking for something. That’s not to say that you don’t tell them what you need. But consider timing, want vs. need, and what may be going on in the school that requires more attention at that point in time. It’s all about the priority list and the global aspect of an administrator’s responsibility.

How can ensemble directors most easily impress their administrators?

Volunteer for community performances, get involved outside of your class, serve on campus committees, and make it about the campus more than just your program. When you begin serving as a proud member at XYZ Campus instead of “the music person,” you show that you are here for more than just “your” classes and “your” kids. You’re part of the climate shaping the entire campus. Then the campus and all of its students become “your campus and your kids.”

Speaking of campus, supporting and building relationships with all staff will impress your admin. Host a staff breakfast or lunch in your band hall or email teachers regularly about choir grades or behaviors.

Principals know you are a great teacher and they love awards and honors that bring positive attention to their campus. But when they start seeing the all-in spirit and true team collaboration, they experience their biggest win!

Jeff BradfordJeff Bradford is the Director of Fine Arts at Richardson Independent School District in Richardson, Texas. In this position, he oversees performing and visual arts across 54 district schools. Prior to his position as Director of Fine Arts, he was the Director of Bands at Lake Highlands High School.

Mr. Bradford has 14 years of experience in music education, serving a band director in Cooper and Sherman ISDs before moving to Richardson ISD in 2006. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Texas A&M-Commerce.

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