SmartMusic Finale Garritan MusicXML

Music Performance Tips from a Dog: Stage Fright

Kait Creamer's pal Pip

If you’ve ever taught middle school students, you know what a truly unique challenge they can be. Opinionated, smelly, a little wild in the eyes . . . shockingly similar to my two Australian Shepherds, Cooper and Pip. And the similarities certainly don’t end there.

In a previous  blog post, I shared how errorless learning (a positive reinforcement technique in dog training) can be applied to form better practice habits in the music classroom. This time around, we’ll take a look at how you can use dog-tested techniques like counter-conditioning and positive association as music performance tips to help minimize stage fright in young musicians.


From the day I adopted my first Aussie, Cooper, at seven months old, he had quite a few opinions of his own. At the start, he wasn’t overly fond of men in hats, cookie sheets, children, the mailwoman, or the vacuum cleaner. He especially disliked being left alone and panicked whenever he heard fireworks or thunder.

Though most of those things don’t affect his ability to function at home, they prove both distracting and troublesome when I need his full attention in more public places. Until Cooper’s totally comfortable around toddlers or fireworks, they preclude him from doing things as simple as walking on a loose leash or staying in one spot simply because he’s too distracted to focus.

Armed with lots of spray cheese and positive reinforcement, we are slowly turning those negative associations around. Still, it will take time to build the confidence necessary for Cooper to perform confidently under pressure.

Early Association

Conversely, Cooper’s younger brother, Pip, doesn’t seem to know fear at all. Ever since he came home at 10 weeks old, Pip has perceived every situation he’s encountered as a new, exciting adventure.

In an effort to prevent him from forming negative associations on his own like Cooper did, I exposed him to every situation I could think of from the start: loud noises, large crowds, animals, machines, alone time, everything. He quickly learned that new people, places, and things came with abundant treats and praise.

Because of those early associations, Pip has always greeted the world with tail wagging, and enthusiastically shows off his favorite tricks anytime (and anywhere) he’s asked because he is able to focus on the task at hand and perform confidently.

The Stress of the Stage

Now, though fireworks and cookie sheets may not be a real concern for your human students during their orchestra concerts, I’ll bet stage fright is. In one survey of 48 ICSOM orchestras, 1 out of every 4 musicians said that stage fright was a problem for them. If 25% of professional musicians struggle with stage fright, why aren’t we addressing it more with our students?

When we teach young musicians, we teach pitches and rhythms and even musicality. But frequently, we don’t start to talk about the actual performance until a concert is upon us. Suddenly, musicians who have played beautifully every day in class are sitting under blinding lights on an unfamiliar stage, dressed in tuxedos, squeaking out the wrong notes because they’re worried about the panel of strangers who they are certain will give them a terrible score. Why does this happen?

The Biopsychosocial Stress Model

This biopsychosocial stress model explains it best: “anxiety is the product of a complex and dynamic cognitive appraisal process which actively balances an individual’s perceptions of resources, situational demands, and internal and external sources of feedback prior to, during, and following performances.” Put simply, performers’ brains are frantically trying to calculate the probability that they will fail, causing them to lose focus and make mistakes.

Some musicians eventually learn how to cope with stage fright on their own in time, but for many, that performance anxiety never really goes away.

What Causes Stage Fright?

Let’s take a look at four specific factors that typically prompt stage fright:

  • Task Difficulty
  • Consequences of Failure
  • Others’ High Expectations
  • Perceived Importance of the Outcome

In the same way that Cooper cannot roll over during a fireworks show because he is too distracted by the loud booms, performers with stage fright suffer during concerts because they are too distracted by one (or a combination) of the factors listed above.

So how do we create musicians who look forward to concerts from the start? We expose them to performance early and often in low-stress situations that form positive associations. That way, we can shape the belief that performance is both rewarding and enjoyable.

Practice Performance

We should be teaching kids to practice performance every chance they get! The more frequently they perform the less unusual and foreign the experience will be. As a result they spend less time stressing about the four anxiety factors above. It helps to get creative with performance venues so students become comfortable in new environments.

To start, try hosting regular concerts in class where students perform songs of their choice for their peers. Invite everyone to share what they enjoyed about one another’s performances at the end, too.  By allowing students to choose what they’re performing, task difficulty becomes less of a concern and they begin to anticipate positive feedback and take pride in their selections. With no panel of judges to appease, the consequences of failure diminish and students will start to focus more on the music than they do on the audience.

In time, you’ll be able to raise the stakes higher and higher.  Consider encouraging participation in school talent shows or even arranging lunchtime cafeteria concerts. Offer extra credit to those who perform at parks, senior centers, and farmers markets to encourage them to stretch themselves outside school hours.

Busking in areas with high foot traffic (with parents nearby, of course) can provide a great experience for young musicians, too; the audience isn’t laser-focused on the performer and tips make for an exciting reward!

Harnessing the Energy

Though some performers are happy to steal the show right away, other musicians may always experience some level of stage fright. That is okay. It is a powerful energy, and can be harnessed for the forces of good. Learn more in this great Bulletproof Musician post. 

You can also help anxious performers be more successful by teaching them to over-prepare, manage nervous energy, play courageously, and recover from their mistakes. They’ll eventually learn to channel would-be stage fright into positive energy for a dynamic performance.

In time, those performances will give students the confidence needed to perform both consistently and beautifully on stage without fear of judges (or cookie sheets).

Kait CreamerMakeMusic’s conversion marketing manager, Kait Creamer works to share SmartMusic and Finale with musicians around the world.  She received her B.M. in music industry with a concentration in tuba from Middle Tennessee State University and currently plays in the Gunbarrel Brass Quintet.

After learning to work with herding dogs in New Zealand, she returned stateside to train two Australian Shepherds, Cooper and Pip, who can often be found doing tricks for popcorn at the MakeMusic office in Boulder, CO.


Repertoire Spotlight: Frank Ticheli’s Cajun Folk Songs


This week we added 31 new ensemble titles to the SmartMusic Repertoire Library. Included are new pieces for concert band, string orchestra, and choir. View the complete list.

Featured Release

Among the newly added titles is Cajun Folk Songs by Frank Ticheli, which has long been one of our most requested pieces. Click the play button below to hear a recording of Cajun Folk Songs and click on the cover to follow along in the score.

Note that under the score we've also provided some rehearsal/performance tips.

Link to MP3 file Cajun Folk Songs:

Glenn Pohland was in our office this week and I took the opportunity to ask him to share some of his experience in conducting this piece.

The key to this piece is to find a good strong alto player, with great tone quality, to play the opening solo. They don’t have to be your technically strongest player -- the melody is simple, and it’s in a great register for the alto – but it has to be someone who can make the solo sparkle, and capture the whole image of Belle, this beautiful, haunting girl.

Then, when the flutes and trumpets and everyone else comes in, they have to sound like this alto player. They have to fit their tone into this tone. This gives you an opportunity to develop tone quality, all centered on this opening sound; so that sound has to be what you want it to be.

It also provides an opportunity to talk about saxophone vibrato. Generally in the ensemble we’re telling them to not play with vibrato, but maybe here in this opening there’s a little freedom. And freedom in tempo.

You don’t just have to beat time. If you want to stretch beat two in some of these opening phrases, just let the quarter note go a little longer. There is clock time and there’s musical time. You can bend a phrase – it doesn’t have to cut off on four. Encourage the soloist to let this phrase linger a little bit – and encourage the ensemble to wait for it. We’ll get there, but there’s no rush.

The younger the ensemble the harder this is – I wouldn’t  try to teach this with a junior high band, but for more mature players, this piece offers a great opportunity to work on this.

So that whole first movement has got to be about shape and tone quality, but of course intonation is such a key any time you play slow. Again, it depends on your ensemble, but how much do you get into intonation?

As an educator, you know that in general, the third is going to be flat and the fifth will be sharp. Younger students aren’t going to hear this, so how are you going to, for example, raise the third so the major triad is really there?

Look for those spots where there are open fifths, take out the third, and tune it up. It can be painstaking. The add the third and encourage students to listen to what happens to the chord.

Also, in any chorale, there are written dynamics and applied dynamics. When the melody ascends, you have to as well – younger students won’t do this intuitively but you can work on that as well.

The second movement is just so much fun rhythmically.

With less accomplished composers, it sometimes seems like the percussion part  was written as an afterthought. Not here. Ticheli gives the percussion something musical to do and everyone’s engaged; that’s one of the reasons this piece is on so many contest lists across the county. Take the sandpaper block part that starts the second movement; it’s not just snare drum, bass drum, timpani and suspended cymbal. It’s unique, it’s a color, and it sets up an expectation.

I’d have everyone hear that part, then have them clap the part lightly. Can we clap that softly and still get that accent? Because an accent doesn’t mean loud, right?  Younger students need to be reminded that we can have piano accents. Next have them find the place in their part where they play that phrase, because he does a great job of passing it through – even the low brass get it. Have them sing their parts. It can be easier to sing accents than it is to buzz it on a mouthpiece.

The challenge is to get the rhythmic vitality to sustain the entire movement.  Again in Ticheli’s notes he indicates that the second movement is marked too slowly. Taking this six to ten clicks faster will also help maintain this pulse and energy.

It’s just such a great piece of music!

Want to request a specific piece for a future SmartMusic release? Please do so here.

Brass Tone Quality: No Instruments Required

Brass Tone Quality: No Instruments Required

What is the most revered individual musical quality? Overwhelmingly, the answer is sound, or tone quality. Just like our voice, our tone defines us. It does not matter how high you can play, how fast you can tongue, or how many excerpts you know - if you sound bad doing it all, nobody will care. This is why as an educator I am in a continual, never-ending pursuit for the best tone quality from my students.

For brass students, many aspect of superior tone can be developed away from the instrument - today I’ll share some that you can use with your students.  By no means is this information intended to be a comprehensive pedagogical resource! My goal is to simply introduce a few concepts and techniques to start the conversation. 

Concept of Sound

The creation of quality brass tone always begins in the mind - not at the the lips. For both the teacher and the student an ideal concept of sound must first be realized. While this concept of sound can be detailed over time, it should be inspired by the following:

  1. Focused, repeated listening (recordings, live music, etc.)
  2. Experimentation on the mouthpiece/instrument
  3. Teacher/colleague input
  4. Personal experience
  5. Personal taste

Once this “mental picture” of the sound has been established, both teacher and student can start working together to focus in on the desired sound. If you are not a brass player and you are unsure about a brass-specific concept of sound, talk with private lesson teachers, local master teachers, or clinicians in your area to help.

Non-inclusive list of recommended musicians to listen to:

Trumpet: Maurice Andre, Wynton Marsalis, Bud Herseth, Wayne Bergeron
French Horn: Dale Clevenger, Radek Baborak, Sarah Willis, Philip Myers
Trombone: Joseph Alessi, Christian Lindberg, Jay Friedman, Ian Bousfield
Bass Trombone: Charles Vernon, Douglas Yeo, George Roberts
Baritone/Euphonium: Steven Mead, Trevor Groom, David Childs, John Clough
Tuba: Gene Pokorny, Oystein Baadsvik, Roger Bobo, Alan Baer

Vowel/Oral Shape

While there are varying philosophies on vowel (or oral) shape, the default vowel shape I ask brass students to utilize is the “oh” vowel shape. I like this shape because I believe it is the easiest to understand and it promotes healthy, consistent habits beneficial to the entire brass instrument family.

The “oh” vowel shape helps us by:

  1. Creating space between the teeth.
  2. Creating space at the back of the throat.
  3. Relaxing the tongue position down (and softening the tongue texture!).
  4. Relaxing the jaw.
  5. Relaxing the soft palate.

Brass students should use this vowel shape through all processes: breathing, singing, buzzing, and playing the instrument. For more advanced players it might be necessary to change the vowel shape to facilitate certain register changes or slurred passages. Vowel shapes like “ah”, “ih”, “eh”, or “ee” can and should be used as needed, but only after the fundamental vowel shape of “oh” has been successfully established.


Most brass players and teachers would agree that a central tenet of creating a characteristic brass sound involves proper breathing and airflow. Arnold Jacobs, renowned former tubist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was a pioneer in the art of breathing as it relates to playing - search out the resources available at The Breathing Gym book, developed by tubists Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan, is also a fantastic resource for the young brass student or teacher.

Here are some basic goals all students should work to achieve as they practice their breathing:

  • Maintain the “oh” vowel shape on the inhale, exhale, and at the turnaround.
  • The inhale and exhale should always feel free-flowing.
  • Conceptually, breathing should feel very circular and constant.
  • The turnaround of the air should be relaxed, but without hesitation or bumps.
  • Air should feel cool on the inhale, warm on the exhale.
  • During the inhale air should feel as if it is filling from the bottom-up - visualize the “full body breath”.
  • Use the formation of an embouchure as you transition to the mouthpiece or instrument.
         Check that the quality and volume of your air stays consistent.
         Check that your body and face stay relaxed.
  • Minor expansion and deflation as a result of the inhale and exhale is acceptable, but avoid extraneous movement (especially in the face, shoulders, or is often a sign of tension).
  • When possible, exhale before starting a new inhale.

Before playing, students should practice breathing patterns or exercises in order to “warm-up” the lungs and the supporting muscles; however, breathing should never be isolated to just the beginning of a lesson! Explore creative ways to incorporate breathing exercises mid-lesson to help keep focus in the rehearsal, address breathing deficiencies in the context of the music, or address specific musical challenges like length-of-phrase, dynamics, entrances, releases, tempo, etc.

While there are many exercises readily available online and in books, the most basic exercise involves variations on 1, 2, 3, and 4 count sequences.

  • In 4-Out 4
  • In 3-Out 3
  • In 2-Out 2
  • In 1-Out 1
  • Sequence towards In 1-Out 7 and In 7-Out 1

Once you decide to pick up the instrument, a very effective and easy method of simulating (and overtraining) proper airflow is to allow the student to “wind horn” or “air and valve” their part. This helps remind the student to be directional with their airflow (not at, but through the instrument) and allows the student to evaluate the quantity and quality of their air in context with the instrument.


At the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps and at my own band program we utilize buzzing on the mouthpiece (aka “lip vibrations”) as a daily technique to help condition the muscles of the embouchure, to increase listening and aural skills, and to develop tone! While buzzing is controversial in some circles, the benefits far outweigh any potential negatives as long as there is proper oversight and instruction.

Brass Tone Quality: No Instruments Required - Buzzing

The primary benefit of buzzing is that it allows you to completely focus on the vibration and sound! This removes the following inherent challenges of attempting to develop tone on the instrument:

  • Resistance of the instrument.
  • Pitch-placing tendencies of the harmonic series/instrument.
  • Finger or slide positions.
  • Physicality/distraction of holding the instrument (younger students).

NOTE: when buzzing, the use of a device that generates a pitch is a must-have tool! The Tonal Energy application is popular for iOS and Android.

I often use the term vibrational efficiency to describe the goal of the buzz. I like this term because I believe it helps remind the student that a healthy relationship between the air, embouchure, and vibration is crucial to achieve a characteristic sound. All three of these elements must work in harmony with each other - if any part is deficient or being stressed/overworked, you will not achieve the desired sound. An efficient buzz is the most resonant and centered!

Some general rules-of-thumb when helping students with their buzz:

  • The face should always appear natural (use a mirror).
  • The corners are always firm and engaged, but not stretched.
  • The aperture is always relaxed - visualize the texture of the lips at the aperture as soft.
         Remember the lips respond to the air stream!
  • A resonant buzz may have some air in the sound.soft.
         Think 80% air, 20% lip when initiating and sustaining vibration.
  • Avoid excess “tension” in the buzz (a closed-off buzz might be clean, but will not be resonant).
  • If the sound is bright create more vibrational space at the aperture.
  • If the sound is dull create more focus with the air at the aperture.

My favorite buzzing technique that I like to utilize with my students is to slowly buzz simple, familiar tunes on the mouthpiece. In my opinion, this exercise strikes a perfect balance between Arnold Jacobs’ song and wind philosophy and our pursuit of quality tone. Before you begin, establish 4 ground rules:

  • Breathe as often as you need air (out of tempo is okay).
  • All breaths must be full (100%) - no sip-breaths.
  • Move as much air as freely as possible.
  • Only focus on the quality of your vibration and pitch (not volume).

*Some simple songs might be: Mary Had a Little Lamb, Happy Birthday, Hot Cross Buns, Silent Night, London Bridge, Twinkle Twinkle/ABC’s - do not be afraid to get creative! Work in different keys, across breaks in their register, or center on specific notes that do not settle well on their instrument, etc.

Another great exercise to develop tone on the mouthpiece is the use of small, quick lip-bends. Younger students generally struggle with playing notes in center, often erring high because of tightness in the aperture. By encouraging the lips and the aperture to relax through the process of lip-bend, it often helps bring them back down into pitch and produces a more vibrant sound. Aperture relaxation is the goal! For example:

  • Using a drone or tuner, start a buzz on concert F or the note in question. Quickly (but not recklessly) alternate buzzing down a half-step and returning to the original pitch.
  • The next step in the process would be to expand this process to the open harmonic series notes: start on F lip bends, slide down to low Bb lip bends, slide back up to F lip bends, etc.

The popular B.E.R.P. buzzing device, buzz aids, and embouchure visualizers are three low-cost tools you could use to also help develop tone. All of these devices can be used supplementary to the methods above as long as they are are incorporated sensibly into a routine or system.

When you feel ready to pick up the instrument, encourage the students to create the same sense of ease and relaxation they exhibited during the breathing and buzzing. Focus solely on the sound first! Remove the technical, nitty-gritty analysis and encourage them to just listen! Are they happy with it? Do you hear improvement? Evaluate, adjust, and repeat the process.

Quality tone is not something that can be instantly corrected or created. For some, it might be a long road! Encourage patience and build a routine or system that allows the student to make incremental, meaningful changes - you and the student will be rewarded.

Good luck!

Brad HughesBrad Hughes is currently the director of bands at Clear Brook High School in Friendswood, TX and the assistant brass caption head at the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps. In addition to his band director and assistant caption head responsibilities, Brad is an active clinician and adjudicator in Texas.

Brad Hughes graduated from the University of Houston in 2012 and holds a bachelor’s degree in Music Education. He currently lives in League City, TX with his wife, Angi, and their two dogs, Eugene and Bella.


Marching Band Charts Made Easy

Marching Band Charts Made Easy

Want to write out a short pop melody for your marching or pep band? Own Finale, but still not sure how to get started? The right Finale template can really make a difference, saving you a lot of time in formatting parts. Especially if you haven’t fully explored Finale’s Linked Parts yet, you might be amazed at how quickly you can create some great-looking marching band charts – with parts in the appropriate flip chart size, too.

To help you get started, we’ve created two templates, both of which can be downloaded as a .ZIP file here. One is a portrait-orientation template for traditional marching band scores and the second is a landscape-orientation template for pep band scores. Each has the same instrumentation and flipbook size parts.

To see how easy it can be, try this out in either template: Enter a melody in the Piccolo staff and copy it to the Tuba staff., Notice how, by default, Finale transposes your melody to a playable range (which of course is an option you can turn on or off). Now for the reveal, go to Document >Edit Part, select the Tuba part, and see how nice it looks already!

Other benefits of these templates include…

  • Bigger time signature, tempo markings, and measure numbers in the score provide an easy-to-read experience and reduce the need for extra annotation.
  • Instruments labeled with multiple parts on one staff have split linked parts for easy input. For example, if you enter notes into Layer 1 and 2 on the Flute Staff, notes from Layer 1 will go to the Flute 1 part, and notes from Layer 2 will go to the Flute 2 part. And if notes are entered into only one layer, both parts will show the entered notes.
  • Auto-Sequenced Set Number Expression in the “Rehearsal Marks” category for easy input of your drill numbers.
  • Margins are adjusted in the score so that a standard hole punch doesn’t punch through any of the music.
  • The Baritone B.C. staff is linked to both a Baritone in Bass Clef as well as a Baritone in Treble Clef Part.
  • Linked parts have been adjusted to work well for exporting SmartMusic files.

I have one final tip. To use these templates most effectively, I suggest you make the following adjustments in Finale:

  • Edit > Check “Use Filter”
  • Edit > Edit Filter > Uncheck “Staff Styles”

Have any questions? Please let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

CJ GarciaCJ Garcia is an engraver and quality assurance technician at MakeMusic, where he helps create and edit content for the SmartMusic library.

CJ earned a B.M. in composition from the Lamont School of Music, and was a drum major for the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps from 2012-2014.

When he isn’t writing music or absorbing the Colorado scenery, CJ enjoys losing himself in the land of Hyrule while playing the Legend of Zelda series.

Summertime = Time for Continuing Education

Summertime = Time for Continuing Education

“Summertime and the living is easy…” While this has always been one of my favorite Gershwin songs, I don’t think the lyrics are particularly applicable to music educators. Don’t you love hearing, “But you have summers off”? One of the things we all do during the summer is to re-tool, re-train, and re-fuel to meet the needs of our students. Some states also require us to commit to several hours of continuing education. The good news is that in this day of streaming, Skype, and online classes we can access many learning opportunities from the comforts of home. Here are a few ideas along these lines that might help make the living easy.

Berklee Online

I have taken many on-line classes and webinars from both major universities and software manufacturers. These offerings have enabled me to up my game in the classroom and meet state standards for continuing education hours. Over the years, the Berklee School of Music has been one of my go-to online experiences. They offer a great depth of subject matter that is applicable to the classroom, taught by great instructors, and provided through a well-designed interface. You might check out Berklee Online as well as research other institutions that may provide similar offerings.

Local Colleges and Universities

I have also taken (and taught) week-long summer workshops that offer the intense submersion approach, with like-minded people in a classroom setting. There is a lot to be said for this kind of experience, however you are limited by location, time and money. Look at your local colleges and universities and see if they offer something you need. Sometimes local schools sponsor workshops as well.

NAFME and Local MEAs

It also pays to look at NAFME as they have a professional development link that offers some online training and webinars. In addition they offer links to other programs and guidelines as to what to look for in professional development coursework. You may also have luck with your local, county, or state Music Education Association offering professional development opportunities in a variety of forms.

MakeMusic University

One new offering I can recommend is SmartMusic training through MakeMusic University. This self-paced online class can be done anywhere you have a portable device and an internet connection. Several topics regarding SmartMusic are covered in a clear and concise manner, with the ability to repeat and review as you wish. At the end of each level you are required to take a quiz, where 90% is required to pass. If you do not pass you can go back and review and subsequently re-take the quiz. Upon successful completion you receive a certificate to print to share with your administration documenting your Continuing Education Credit. There are three levels so you could complete 3 CEU’s from the comfort of wherever! At $25 a CEU or $60 if you take all three this is an amazing value.

If you are about to use SmartMusic in your classroom for the first (or even second time) this is a great way to get your skills to that next level and start the year with confidence, wowing your students with your techno savvy and a new found passion for making their musical lives so much better.

Need more ideas? Do a web search for “continuing education for music educators” to get a broader sense of what is available.

I wish you all a rejuvenating Summer and many rewards in the coming fall and beyond.

Ted ScalzoTed Scalzo is a veteran teacher of 36 years, including 29 years as the band director at Bay Shore High School in Long Island, NY. His wind and jazz ensembles have received numerous awards. Ted has used Finale to arrange for marching band since version 1.0, and taught music composition/theory and a multimedia class that he designed for Bay Shore students. A fervent advocate of technology in the classroom, Ted was honored as an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2005, was twice appointed to the NYSSMA Music Technology Committee, and teaches a course on music education technology at Hofstra University.


Recruiting and Developing Violists in your School Orchestra

Recruiting and Developing Violists in your School Orchestra

While teaching viola is slightly different than teaching the other string instruments, it’s not more difficult. Below are a few suggestions for helping the school orchestra teacher develop violists, including recruitment ideas, technical assistance, and ways to fully engage violists in rehearsals – and your program.


First, we must recruit violists. Many times, students are unfamiliar with the viola simply because it doesn’t live in the limelight as often as the violin, cello, or bass. However, recruiting the right student for the viola is important. Viola students must be drawn to the timbre of the instrument. If they do not like the way it sounds, they won’t want to practice it!

Viola students must understand the musical role the viola plays in the string and full ensembles. The viola is an important harmony timbre but also produces a beautiful, rich, velvet melody timbre that enhances the ensemble as a whole. Here are some suggestions for recruiting beginner violists:

  1. Demonstrate on VIOLA!  Let the students hear a mature viola tone to help draw in students to the instruments’ unique timbre.
  2. If a piano student expresses interest in joining orchestra, encourage them to consider the viola. Since that student knows how to read treble and bass clefs, the note reading application to the instrument will be the same for them as the other students as they learn a new clef, alto clef.
  3. You can start beginning violists! In fact, start lots of them! The viola instrument is made in smaller sizes, too.
  4. Encourage students who may develop an interest in switching to the viola to try it by offering a summer “Switchers” class or private instruction. Make sure the instrument is fitted for the student.

Considerations for Beginner Violas

I would encourage parents to rent since violas change sizes by inch (or partial inch), i.e. 15.5 inches and 16 ¼ inches. Check with your string instrument dealer to see what size increments they typically carry for violas. Do they move up by half inch or a quarter inch?

You’ll also want to be aware of the rib height, or how tall the instrument is between the back and the top. The student needs to be comfortable with this measurement as well. Also, always make sure the tone is round and resonant from all strings.

Setup and Positioning

Technique considerations are where the instruction on the viola typically differs from other string instruments in the school orchestra. A few considerations are listed below. Regarding instrument set-up, using a shoulder rest is a must. Sponges do not provide the support that the size of the viola necessitates. As the student grows, the shoulder rest may need to be “built up” by adding extra layers to the vertical rise to help support the level of the viola as the neck has lengthened. The size and shape of the shoulder shelf will also affect the type and angle of the shoulder rest.

Chin rest height and shape should be adjusted to fit each viola student. Make considerations for a center chin rest as the student gets closer to their adult sized instrument to balance the growing instrument body if necessary.

The angle of the instrument can be slightly forward and slightly down. Typical violin placement, which can angle up and further to the left, can cause tension in the left arm AND it causes tension in the right arm as it is forced to reach across the body to place the bow on the string.

Regarding left hand shape, the left arm must have more swing from right to left because of the need to reach back towards the C string and to maneuver around the upper bout when playing in position. To focus on the dexterity of the left hand fingers, focus on the “lift” of the finger.  A player should be able to comfortably place fourth finger on the C string in 1st position and 3rd position. If this is not comfortable, then the viola may be too large for the student.

Tone Production

To help students develop the distinctive viola sound we need to encourage them to critically listen to violist artists for a tone model (live or recording). Here are a few suggestions to get them started:

Helen Callus, Kim Kashkashian, Lawrence Power, Yuri Bashmet, Yuko Inoue, Paul Neubauer, Jeffrey Irvine

Also encourage students to listen to world-renowned ensembles performing viola intensive works (whether solo or section presence). Again, here are just a few suggestions (not an inclusive list):

Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K. 364
Berlioz, Harold in Italy
Bartok, Viola Concerto
Walton, Viola Concerto
Bruch, Romance
Hindemith, Trauermusik
Hindemith, Konzertmusik
Hindemith, Der Schwanendreher
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, “Romantic,” (movt 2, Andante quasi allegretto)
Vaughan Williams, Suite for Viola


Regarding pronation and supination of the bow hand, you’ll want to encourage students to use natural arm weight rather than applying pressure. You will find that many violists use more supination than pronation to achieve their desired tone. Therefore, there is minimal wrist motion and more rotary motion from the forearm.

Encourage students to use full right arm weight. They should feel the hang of the right arm all the way from the lower back. Also encourage students to use a slower speed and heavier weight of the bow. Give feedback and instruction about adjusting the speed of the bow FIRST before addressing the weight. Most times, in doing so, the weight will correct itself.

Stress the importance of bowing lanes as a factor towards achieving a greater palate of dynamics and tone colors; 5 at bridge, 1 at fingerboard. In general, violists focus much less of their performance in the upper half of the bow than their violin colleagues. Balance point and lower half playing allows greater control and contact with the string. Instead change the weight of the bow stroke and the lane placement of the bow.

Finally, encourage students to approach articulations more like cello and bass players. This includes:

  • Compact usage of the bow
  • Anticipate the beat
  • Stay closer to the string
  • Start from the string


In the rehearsal, violists are the true mediator. “Sitting between the violins and cellos, and listening with great care to more than one musical line at a time, the violist enjoys a unique perspective on the music—and on the dissonance that can arise between players. As a result, violists often find themselves hearing both sides of an argument, then helping to bring it to a harmonious resolution…You’re the people person, the glue that holds things together” (Green, 2003, p. 142-143).

Here are a few ways to challenge and involve the viola section in the normal rehearsal routine:

  1. Again, demonstrate and model on the viola allowing students to hear and mimic appropriate, strong viola tone.
  2. Have violists who need a music reading challenge perform their part from the Violin III part, increasing their treble clef music reading skills.
  3. Challenge violists who need to work in positions to perform sections of school music in other positions (3rd, 2nd, or half to start). Better yet, have them identify areas that could better be performed in other positions and explain why (finger pattern, tone, shifting issue, string crossing issue, etc.)
  4. Have the principal violist tune the orchestra (try rotating this responsibility to each section principal in the ensemble!).
  5. To achieve balance with the ensemble, have the violists turn their chairs out toward the audience so that more of their sound goes out into the audience instead of into the ensemble.
  6. Work to achieve bowings that not only fit the violin or cello line, but accommodate the viola as well. Include students in the decision making process as they are able.


Musically, the school orchestra violist may become less than excited about another piece for the ensemble that features predominately the violins and perhaps the cellos, while they, yet again, have the opportunity to play the chick, chick to the basses BOOM (which would also be boring for the school orchestra bassist…but that is another article). Of course, performing that role in the ensemble is important as well, but a variety of pieces should be performed so that each section has the chance to perform melodic and harmonic lines.

Consider the suggestions below to challenge and embrace your violists’ need to PLAY the instrument they were drawn to in a more significant way in the school orchestra:

  1. Bring in artist violists to perform with your orchestras or demonstrate for your classes or just the violists!
  2. Know who national and international artist violists are. Provide videos and websites to your students.
  3. Program repertoire that features challenging yet approachable parts for violists. Include repertoire that contains notes on the G and C strings for violists, chromatic alterations, significant melody and harmony lines. Bob Gillespie and I co-wrote an article in August, 2013 for the American String Teacher entitled “Making a musical life for violists in school orchestra.” We polled string/orchestra teachers from around the country to gather their favorite pieces with prominent and high-quality viola parts. The article includes a list of 24 pieces for Elementary/1st and 2nd year players (grades .5 to 2), 57 pieces for Middle School/3rd and 4th year players (grades 2 to 4), and 28 pieces for High School/5th, 6th, and 7th years players (grades 2.5 to 5). See the reference list below.
  4. Feature the entire viola section in a concert.
  5. Use a variety of seating arrangements in the ensemble to allow other sections to hear the viola section (and others) in different ways.
  6. Have a Play-In! An afternoon where the violists comes and you play viola ensemble music.
  7. Offer viola chamber ensembles.

Meet Other Violists

Social opportunities within your school orchestra program, collaborating with other school programs, and attending workshops and camps can be a great way for student violists to meet other violists and learn from viola teachers. Below are a few suggestions for creating those social opportunities for your student violists:

  1. Search for a Viola Day that may be offered by your local college or university. These are fantastic outreach programs where young violists have the opportunity to meet other young violists and learn from viola teachers.
  2. Encourage students to attend music camp where specific time is focused on viola technique building and perhaps offers viola performance ensembles.
  3. Create a viola ensemble.
  4. Facilitate a mentor program from the high school to the middle school with viola mentors/mentees.
  5. Look into side-by-side opportunities with other school orchestras, semi-professional or regional orchestras, and collegiate orchestras (non-major ensembles or ensembles for majors).
  6. Encourage student violists to become members of Facebook pages for violists (American Viola Society, International Viola Society, and Young Violists’).
  7. Create special outreach projects or performances organized and led by violists.

Opportunities for Educators

Violists are a welcoming bunch and we welcome YOU! Here are a few ways that you can learn more about the viola to be more informed about the unique history of the instrument and its performance as well:

  1. If you are not a violist, attend a summer teacher workshop or simply contact a viola teacher to take lessons on the instrument. Understanding the instrument comes from playing the instrument.
  2. Become involved with the American Viola Society and its state chapters.
  3. Acquire and read the Barnes and the Barrett texts from the resources list below. These resources are gold mines for gathering information about enhancing the musical life of the school violist
  4. Additionally, read the books below by our viola forefathers, Lionel Tertis and William Primrose.
  5. Become a member of the Facebook pages listed above for violists and those for string and orchestra teachers (School Orchestra and String Teachers, Network of Positive Orchestra Directors, Asta America, and American String Teachers Association).

The characteristics about violists that Barry Green discovered when writing his book on the traits of musicians in The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry was that, besides being excellent performers, violists are leaders, organizers, and managers of tasks and individuals as well. These are traits for all 21st century citizens.

Integrating some of the suggestions above may help your school orchestra violists to take on not only a more challenging performance task, but leadership, organizational, and managerial tasks that will help them to develop as violists and as citizens for a 21st century world!

Blair WilliamsBlair Williams (PhD, The Ohio State University; MM, Kansas State University; BME, Baylor University) is the Assistant Professor of String Music Education at Texas Tech University. Her duties at Texas Tech include supervising string student teachers, teaching courses in string pedagogy, music education, and instrumental conducting, and directing the Texas Tech University String Project. She also serves as conductor for the Youth Orchestras of Lubbok. Dr. Williams began her string career as a violist and has been an advocate for student violists throughout her career. Dr. Williams thanks her viola teachers for instilling the love of the viola — Brian Wiebe, Kevin Monroe, Kay Buskirk, Kathryn                                                                          Steely, Julia Hardie, Cora Cooper, Kristin Mortenson, and Juliet White-Smith.

References and Resources

Barnes, G. (Ed.). (2005). Playing and teaching the viola. Fairfax, VA: American String Teachers Association.
Barrett, H. (1972, 1978). The viola: Complete guide for teachers and students. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Butler, M. (2006). Which switch? Strad, 177(1394), 34-38.
Dalton, D. and Starker, J. (1990). Playing the viola: Conversations with William Primrose. New York: Oxford University Press.
Davis, L. (1978). The transition from violin to viola. The Instrumentalist, 33(1), 90.
Fischer, S. (2010). Secrets of tone production [DVD]. London: Edition Peters.
Gillespie, R. and Williams, B. (2013). Making a musical life for violists in school orchestra. American String Teacher, 63(3), 40-45.
Green, B. (2003). The mastery of music: Ten pathways to true artistry. New York: Broadway Books.
Menuhin, Y. and Primrose, W. (1991). Violin and viola. New York: Schirmer Books.
Pounds, D. (2006). Viola for violinists: The conversion kit. Dallas, TX: American Viola Society.
Primrose, W. (1978). Walk on the north side: Memoirs of a violist. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press.
Riley, M. (1991, 1993). The history of the viola, 2 vols. Ann Arbor, MI: Braum-Brumfield.
Scott, H.K. (2011). 6 ways to improve your viola tone production. Strings, 25(7), 25-26.
Steely, K. (2003). Refreshing your palette. Viola Studio Notebook
Stuen-Walker, E. (1992). Viola column: Tone takes time. American Suzuki Journal, 20(2), 54.
Tertis, L. (1953). Cinderella no more. London: Peter Nevill LTD.
Tertis, L. (1974, 1992). My viola and I. London: Paul Elek. (1974), London: Kahn and Averill Publishers (1992).
White-Smith, J. (2000). From violin to viola: Making the switch a success. American String Teacher, 50(1), 56-61.
Whistler, H. S. (1947). From violin to viola: A transitional method. Chicago: Rubank.

3 Tips for a Successful Band Camp

3 Tips for a Successful Band Camp

As a former drum major of the Blue Knights and an instructor for multiple Colorado marching bands, I have seen my fair share of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to summer marching band camps. As we begin the season, I’d like to share three tips I’ve found helpful from my perspective as both a member and an instructor.

1. Water Breaks

Being in “the box,” it’s easy to get wrapped up in putting more of your show on the field or repping a section until it’s polished because that’s the logistical goal of the camp! However, inserting a routine water break between reps can boost the efficiency of your rehearsal.

When you break up the drill and kill of repping a chunk of the show with a water break, members are often more engaged and focused when they return. It may be handy to set an alarm every 20 minutes for a water break – or as we called it, the “water clock” – so that members are both keeping themselves hydrated while on the field and allowing themselves to re-focus when they get back. Though a seemingly small task, it can have a hugely positive impact if this responsibility of keeping a “water clock” is assigned to a member of the band, especially if they are aspiring to or are already in a leadership role.

Keep in mind that water breaks don’t have to be a 5 minute, hang-out, goof-off, type of thing. I’ve found it to be very effective to make the water break a kind of game: The water clock would go off, then at the end of that rep, a drum major would give the command, “Equipment down, water up!” The whole band would set their instruments down in whatever set they were in, run off the field to drink some water, and whichever section was back in that set in the standby position would earn a point. At the end of the rehearsal, whichever section had the most points didn’t have to do their section task (pick up tape off the field, move scaffolding, etc.).

This made water breaks efficient for rehearsal, healthy for the members, and fun for the whole band.

2. Building Community Through Fun

Bands often grow stronger when students get to know members of their own section just as well as members in other sections.

Though it is important for the production to have each section work as a tightly knit group on the field, it’s also important to avoid the “section cliques.” I know that may sound like an oxymoron, but when the heat is on, tensions are running high, and nothing seems to be going right, the last thing you want is a band where members in one section are isolated from members in another section. The better everyone knows members of other sections, the easier it is for everyone to come together in both difficult and celebratory times. And having a membership that is “tight” can produce many positive results for your program both on and off the field.

Now, this isn’t to say that if all of the trumpets eat lunch together or if the clarinets organize their own section running block is a bad thing – on the contrary – it’s to say that I have seen success in programs that have a culture where members aren’t “afraid” to interact with other members just because they play a different instrument.

Part of what makes that culture possible goes beyond having personable leadership and icebreakers, it’s taking the time to have fun together which is as crucial for a successful program as the rehearsal itself. Having your leadership plan what would be fun your ensemble is definitely the best way to go, but here’s a couple activities that I’ve seen help us band geeks get to know each other in a fun atmosphere.

Setting up woodwinds and percussion against brass and color guard in a game of capture the flag, having a good ol’ fashioned march off with the whole band and have the eliminated cheer on the ones still marching, and my personal favorite, creating “ensembles” that have one member from each section in them and have them sing through their show music for the band using only the names of the members in their ensemble as the singing syllables. There are countless activities that you and your band can do, but regardless, the only surefire way to build a positive community is by taking the time to have fun.  

3. “Flip the Switch”

Coming off the note of “fun,” it can be difficult for members on the field, especially new ones, to know when it’s okay to have fun and be a bit more lax, and when it’s time to put their nose to the grindstone and get down to business.

In my experience, every day has it’s own set of challenges and requires different approaches to getting the same task done. That said, before membership can expect consistent results, they need to create an environment where members are confident they will see consistent behavior from their instructors.

For example, we used this phrase “Flip the Switch.” This was our way of changing our mindset (flipping the switch) from the silly to the serious. Rarely did we ever use it the other way around, but it was that command that helped focus in the rehearsal whenever things started getting a little loose. This leads to a more bigger picture of consistency, both rehearsing on the field and with expectations off the field, but I digress. Flipping the switch, and having a solid/consistent expectation of what that means can be very helpful, again, for new members especially, but the ensemble as a whole.

So put on that sunscreen, fill up those water jugs, and take these tips along with everything in your 8 to 5 stride as we all gear up for the next marching band season! May the .1ths be forever in your favor.

CJ-GarciaCJ Garcia is an engraver and quality assurance technician at MakeMusic, where he helps create and edit content for the SmartMusic library.

CJ earned a B.M. in composition from the Lamont School of Music, and was a drum major for the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps from 2012-2014.

When he isn’t writing music or absorbing the Colorado scenery, CJ enjoys losing himself in the land of Hyrule while playing the Legend of Zelda series.

Help Your Students Practice This Summer

Help Your Students Practice This Summer

It’s an unspoken rule of music education that students don’t practice over summer break. As teachers know, the appeal of Netflix and naps can easily get in the way of productivity (be honest, you haven’t organized your library of sheet music or large instrument closet), but we also know how important it is that students do something on their instruments over the summer so that the long break doesn’t undo all the work that happened during the school year.

When I was teaching middle school band, my philosophy for summer was focused on getting instruments on faces. Of course, I would have preferred beautiful scales, long tones, and endless sight-reading exercises, but I found that it was more productive to encourage practicing in any form. If possible, work with private instructors in your area to help give students feedback. You could ask the private teacher, for example, to focus on high register playing. Many students, however, don’t take lessons over the summer either. Helping these students spend some consistent time practicing over the break pays huge dividends when everyone returns in the fall.

Share Fun Repertoire

One way to keep students engaged over the summer is to help them find repertoire that they want to play. With no all-state audition, ensemble contest, or big concert coming up, this is the time of year where practicing “Star Wars” over and over is acceptable practice (at least it gets them playing!). Here are some helpful resources you can share with students so that they can find new repertoire:

  • This repository of public domain music is excellent for finding “famous” pieces for students to try. It’s a great place for low brass players to discover that “Ride of the Valkyries” is a tough piece and string players to practice that Vivaldi solo they heard at a summer symphony concert.
  • Play by ear. Learning music by ear combines ear training with execution on the instrument, and students can learn any jingle or pop song they hear on the radio.
  • The SmartMusic homepage/carousel. The homepage features music categories designed to inspire students, including movies, songs about pirates, and a new list of repertoire called “Summer Favorites” built based on the most popular SmartMusic titles from summers past.

Make Practicing Social

For many students, the idea of sitting and practicing alone is the problem. For these students, find ways to make summer practicing social:

  • Encourage duets (even the unison kind) with friends. Playing together helps gamify practice and improves intonation and listening skills.
  • Tap into your students’ more competitive side with contests like the Bumblebee Challenge. Remind students that intonation, articulation, and musicality are as important as speed and accuracy.
  • Find ways for your students to join the community at large. Summer festivals in your community (like Make Music Day) often have events that offer students a way to perform.

Convincing students not to take a vacation from music can be tough, but by helping students discover new repertoire and making practicing fun you can avoid some of the summer rust this year.

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. Because he plays in a wedding band, Ryan doesn’t get a vacation from practicing.

Music Practice Tips from a Dog

Music Practice Tips from a Dog

Sometimes it takes looking at something in a different way to truly understand it. More than a decade of private tuba lessons, symphony concerts, brass quintet rehearsals, and a music degree taught me a lot about music. But, surprisingly, it taught me less about learning than training two hyperactive Australian Shepherds did.

The Dog and Pony Show

When Cooper the Aussie joined our family in January of 2015, he knew “sit” and “shake.” Now he knows more than 50 different commands, can clean up his toys, and ride a skateboard. He also has a little brother, Pip, who’s not far behind.

In my never-ending effort to keep both dogs happy, entertained, and (most importantly) out of the trash, I work with them daily on everything from basic manners to ridiculous comedy routines.  

Learner Frustration

Despite using positive reinforcement techniques (read: lots of treats) in all of our training, sometimes lessons just don’t go the way they’re planned.  Something as simple as “roll over” can go south fast when a dog isn’t comfortable on his back or just thinks you’re trying to play.

It’s easy to ask for the same thing over and over hoping for sudden comprehension, but that usually results in an exasperated trainer and a very confused and frustrated dog. Learner frustration is something most dog trainers deal with on occasion, but we try to avoid it wherever possible.

Errorless Learning

Once I started looking for solutions to learner frustration in my dogs, I started noticing something I wish I had practiced more in my own musical study: errorless learning. It’s an extraordinarily effective method of training in such tiny increments that the student simply can’t fail.

B.F. Skinner, American behaviorist and psychologist wrote, “Errors are not necessary for learning to occur. . . Errors are a function of poor analysis of behavior, a poorly designed shaping program, moving too fast from step to step in the program, and the lack of the prerequisite behavior necessary for success.”

Errorless learning changed the way I approached training. Instead of teaching Cooper to skateboard, I taught him commands like “paws” (front paws on the object), “perch” (all four paws on the object), and “back up.” He practiced different positions on mats, stools, and couch cushions before he ever saw wheels. Then, when the skateboard finally showed up, he hopped on like an old pro.

By focusing on small steps initially, we built the confidence and understanding necessary to succeed. But how can we make the same principle work in a music classroom?

Stop Repeating the Same Mistakes

You’ve probably seen a scenario like this before. A seventh grade french horn player repeatedly misses one rhythm during rehearsal. In an effort to fix that tricky measure once and for all, the director asks the horn section to play it on a loop. After a few rocky repeats, they’ve got it; the whole section plays the rhythm in perfect unison and the director continues forward with the band.

Here’s the problem, though: even though that student can now play along, he likely doesn’t understand that tricky rhythm any better than he did before. He simply imitated his peers. What happens the next time he encounters a similar phrase? The exact same thing: repeated failure until he can copy someone else. He lacks the confidence and/or the ability to learn new music on his own.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By that definition, this kind of practice isn’t just a waste of time; it’s insane. In attempting to eliminate symptoms of a problem through repetition, you cause small repeated failures and actively build bad musical habits.

There’s a better way to learn.

Identify the Root to Fix the Symptoms

Let’s consider what caused the problem to start. Likely, the horn player doesn’t understand the rhythm on the page or simply lacks the confidence to play it correctly. But maybe he doesn’t know how his triplets should sound against the trumpet section’s eighth notes. Perhaps he slowed down for an awkward interval or took too long a breath between quarter notes. What if he’s just cutting off air supply to hit the high notes and isn’t driving to the end of the phrase?

By identifying the root cause, we can work to fix isolated symptoms and improve musicianship as a whole. Instead of all that painstaking repetition, lead students in breathing exercises and show them how to clap polyrhythms with their neighbors. Practice slurs at varying intervals to keep them on their toes. Most importantly: don’t rush.

Practice Success

In the interest of time, educators often try to work students backwards to solve problem areas. They’ll rehearse the same two measure phrase on a loop. The student doesn’t get it. The educator slows it down. If that doesn’t work, they rehearse just the three most troublesome beats at an even slower tempo. Eventually the student will succeed. However, the student will have practiced failure 15 times before he succeeds even once.

We can set students up to succeed instead by isolating problem areas to identify what exactly needs work. Rather than working backwards, start with the very basics when students struggle. Turn on a metronome and lead them in clapping small pieces of the rhythm on the page slowly, focusing on the tiniest increments. When they are clapping correctly, gradually add more notes, then have them sing the phrase slowly. Then play slowly.

Though it may seem tedious at first, this allows students to actively practice success. And when problems do present themselves in the process, it’s infinitely easier to identify, isolate, and move forward, building the student’s fundamental skills along the way.

By practicing with purpose, you make it easy to succeed one piece at a time. It’s worth every effort when you’re leading confident students (or dogs) who truly love to learn.

Kait CreamerMakeMusic’s conversion marketing manager, Kait Creamer works to share SmartMusic and Finale with musicians around the world.  She received her B.M. in music industry with a concentration in tuba from Middle Tennessee State University and currently plays in the Gunbarrel Brass Quintet.

After learning to work with herding dogs in New Zealand, she returned stateside to train two Australian Shepherds, Cooper and Pip, who can often be found doing tricks for popcorn at the MakeMusic office in Boulder, CO.


Transfering Skills from Concert to Marching Season

Transferring Skills from Concert to Marching Season

When a great screen actor takes on a stage role, they significantly adapt their technique for the larger venue. I think that’s a reasonable analogy for the challenges we as educators face when taking the music ensemble to an outdoor setting. Today I’d like to provide you with some techniques, concepts, and tips that may be helpful for your program as you begin the marching season.

The following are basic considerations we need to initially consider when moving the music ensemble from inside to the outdoor stage.

  1. Your fundamental routine should begin to incorporate elements related to marching and movement training.
  2. The listening environment is much larger, always changing, and highly organic.
  3. Balancing musical elements becomes a bigger challenge, on a much larger scale, when outdoors.
  4. The range of dynamics and expression often need to be at a much wider level and intensity to reach and connect with an audience.
  5. Be aware of spatial demand challenges due to location of front ensemble, battery percussion and winds.

Maintenance and Overtraining

Let’s begin by discussing the fundamental routine. As we know, the basic training of skills is crucial to musical development and fundamental work is likely already a mainstay in your concert program. In addition to this, I prescribe to what I call the Maintain and Overtrainapproach. This approach allows us to find a healthy balance between daily maintenance and overtraining exercises.

Overtrainers push us beyond what is typically expected and force us to work harder at basic skill set objectives. Be creative and think outside the box in your approach.

The fundamental program should be designed to make performance easier, not harder. For overtraining exercises I highly advocate the use of advanced breathing concepts, such as those found in the book, The Breathing Gym, by Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan (Focus on Music Publishing). There are also some wonderful exercises with balloon and resistance training that focus on airspeed matching and dynamic definition, which I plan to expound upon in a future blog post.

Get Moving!

Incorporating movement training can perhaps be the biggest game changer in terms of your musical success on the field. Although many programs have separate musical and visual warm ups, very few combine these effectively as a regular part of the daily training regimen. We must learn to play simple exercises on the move before we can expect to achieve a high level of performance and musical demand on the field. I think of this as the “bridge.” To further enhance this concept, use show excerpts and rhythms in your daily fundamental routine. Be creative and explore!

Intonation and Outdoor Performance

Tuning becomes much more challenging when we are outside due to climate changes. Maintaining basic indoor tuning skills are appropriate for the outdoor arena, but we must also give consideration to matching wind tuning with mallet and keyboard instruments. As all instruments have different tendencies in hot and cold weather, we must learn these and relate them clearly to students and our ensembles to achieve great tuning in the marching activity.

Battery percussion tuning is very individual and while there are many different sound preferences, the importance is that there is a clear approach and consistency to tuning them as an ensemble. At the very least, having someone come and tune them several times during the season will ensure better matching and blend amongst the battery.

As the overall art of outdoor tuning is not always an exact science, try to use the following creed when approaching this topic with your wind players:

Above all else, winds should focus on matching and playing in tune together.

This will ensure that priority number one is always to play together within your tuning and your ensemble.

To Watch or Not to Watch, That Is the Question!

The marching activity places many timing and listening challenges on the performer that are not a part of the concert ensemble experience. Indoors, performers remain in a static position within the ensemble and essentially have one set of listening responsibilities for the entire process. During any given marching show, performers literally have hundreds of different spots where they are required to watch, listen and at times, both. We must also consider timing as it relates to “front to back” placement as well as “side to side” spatial relationship. Listen through the ensemble for time and balance and have a plan in place for each scenario and challenge.

You Want Me to Put the Beat Where?

Based on various field placements, performers will often have to adjust “where” they put their time in relationship to the drum majors hands and ictus. Adjustments both ahead and behind the beat may be needed based on field placement. Ideally, having the students playing as close to time on the hands is preferable, but the basic understanding of the various concepts should be clear to all members.

Understanding Timing Between Winds and Percussion

For those who utilize a battery percussion line, field placement will greatly dictate a group’s ability to play in time as a total ensemble. Due to this, the wind players must know how to manage tempo with both a static and fluid percussion ensemble on the field. The following is a simple formula or checklist that may aid you in achieving a better overall listening environment for your ensemble.

  1. Drum major watches battery percussion feet (center snare)
  2. Winds watch and/or listen back to the battery when in given proximity
  3. Front percussion ensemble ALWAYS listens back to battery and/or winds, except when playing alone

Balance and Staging/Acoustic and Electronic

From an acoustic standpoint, balancing the musical ensemble should always begin and end with attention towards the primary, secondary and tertiary musical lines. ALWAYS aim to give precedence to the primary musical material. Visually, trying to achieve great staging can help greatly in achieving this sense of clarity and transparency in your program.  As we should work to present primary melodic material in the easiest listening environment possible, much of your success can be determined by the quality and staging of the overall visual design.

Electronics are becoming a major component in today’s marching arena and while they may add a wonderful element to your overall program, they can also present major problems if not balanced correctly. Balancing electronics to the acoustic performers should be a focal point of ensemble rehearsals. If all else fails, err on the side of caution as it is much easier to “turn it up” than to not overpower the acoustic performers.

Teaching like a Judge

As an educator who spends a great deal of time judging throughout the year, I have worked to align my own teaching with how I approach judging. A specific concept I use is objectivity in rehearsals. Look and listen to every phrase as experiencing it for the first time and ask objective questions during each repetition. Don’t assume that because you know the music program and the drill that everyone else will recognize all the elements upon an initial viewing. Treat every rehearsal as if you are judging this group and work to separate what you “know” from what you “really hear.” This will enable you to step back, be honest, and develop a more critical ear within your program.

I highly encourage all band directors to judge at least once per fall, especially if your primary area of expertise is the concert program. This will allow you to work side by side with other experts and grow and learn from each of them. This may be one of the most effective ways to help develop your own program.

“Top Ten” Adjudicators Comment List

Below is a list of top adjudicator comments complied from many of the premier judges in DCI, BOA and WGI. They present a cross section of concepts and can be used as a “checklist” to help guide you in design and rehearsal setting. They are presented in no specific order.

  1. Improve coordination of audio and visual
  2. Percussion writing should enhance, not compete with winds
  3. Balance of amplification to winds and percussion
  4. Transparency and clarity of musical voices
  5. Create a wider range of dynamic expression throughout the performance
  6. Give direction and completion to all musical phrases
  7. It’s ALWAYS about fundamentals
  8. Logical staging of musical elements – clarity of melody vs harmony
  9. Perform with the same level of consistency and musicianship throughout the entire show
  10. Vertical orchestration too thick – overuse of tutti writing (winds/percussion or alone), overuse of voice doubling, etc.

While there are specific differences in how we prepare an ensemble to be successful outside, our primary focus remains on music making and creating a great product for our organization, our supporters and the marching activity as a whole. By creating a healthier balance of fundamental skills, you will see improved success in not only your outdoor ensembles, but in your total program as well.

Good luck and see you all on the field!

Chip CrottsDr. Chip Crotts serves as director of jazz studies and assistant director of bands at the Georgia Institute of Technology. A GRAMMY nominated artist and a Yamaha Performing Artist and Clinician, Crotts has worked with artists such as Ray Charles, The Manhattan Transfer, Natalie Cole, Frankie Valli, The Temptations and Maynard Ferguson.

Presently the brass caption manager for the Santa Clara Vanguard, Chip also remains an active adjudicator for several organizations including Bands of America, Drum Corps International and Winter Guard International.

Dr. Crotts received degrees from East Carolina University, Penn State University and a D.M.A. in trumpet performance with a jazz emphasis from the University of Texas at Austin.