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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.






Summertime Band Instrument Repair and Storage


School’s out and it’s time to look at which instruments need repair. Some of the key things that need to happen with instruments over the summer are:

  1. Instrument cleaning (I recommend  ultrasonic cleaning whenever possible)
  2. Cases vacuumed and cleaned
  3. Mouthpieces washed and inspected for damage

Today I’d like to offer some tips, from my perspective at the repair bench, to help you both correctly store instruments over the summer and be ready for the back-to-school season which sneaks up on us so fast.

Scheduling an Inspection

If you have a relationship with a local repair shop and can set-up an inspection time, do so before the end of June. Our shop does this with many of our local schools. Such an inspection offers two benefits. One is an extra set of eyes; the repair person may see or notice problems that could otherwise be overlooked. The second benefit is in providing a good working cost estimate. Making a spreadsheet with needed repairs and associated costs is a great tool for your administration and can result in getting a budget approved for school band instrument repairs.

Scheduling Repairs

Especially when specific parts have to be ordered, overhauling large instruments can take the entire summer. Again a good relationship with a local shop can be greatly beneficial. Rule one is to get your “biggest” jobs in as soon as possible.

If you require many of your instruments to fulfill marching obligation, don’t  panic. Our shop, for example, early July is still sufficiently early in the summer to accommodate many school repairs. That being said, as mid-August approaches most shops stop answering their phones. While that might be a little bit of an exaggeration, it really can get busy from August 15th to Labor Day so plan ahead. The general public often thinks of the repair shop a week before band begins, often with the hope of bringing Aunt Sophie’s clarinet back to life.

Another thing to keep in mind when scheduling repairs is that sometimes it’s not necessary to send in the whole instrument. For example, if some neck cork needs to be replaced, it may be easier to simply send the neck. If a saxophone only requires some guard screws, it may not necessary to send anything at all.

Brass Instrument Storage

The most frequent repairs we see in our shop have to do with slides and valves that are stuck. This condition is usually combined with very dirty brass that needs a good cleaning after things are pulled apart. However, we have also received very clean instruments that have seized up. One cause could be that the instrument’s oils and grease has evaporated leaving slides and valves stuck in place.

If you have instruments likely to sit in storage for a long time, start by cleaning them. Then, instead of reassembling them, wrap the slides and valves in paper towels and place them in baggies. Ideally you’d store these baggies with the instrument, but if room doesn’t permit simply make sure you include a piece of paper with the instrument name and serial number in each bag (and mark the cases as well). Then when it comes time to use the instrument again, all you need to do is assemble, grease and oil as needed. No need for a trip to the repair shop.


Some instruments are especially susceptible to mold due to their design. For example, the bow of the saxophone is a common place for mold to develop. If you find mold growth in your instrument the best way to remove it is have it professionally cleaned by a shop that offers ultrasonic cleaning. They will disassemble the instrument, remove the keys, and fully clean it before reassembly.

Is there anything you can do to prevent future mold growth after such a cleaning? My shop has been testing a new technique. Today many shoes, electronics, and other items made overseas are shipped with silica gel bags in the packaging. The often say something like: “DO NOT EAT: THROW AWAY” on them. We see them in new instrument cases too; they’re there to absorb moisture and reduce mold growth. As a preventative measure, we’ve begun putting them in the cases of instruments that have been cleaned and treated for mold. So next time you come across a few of those bags save them (don’t throw them out) and toss them into your instrument case.

Pad Bugs

Another reusable item that can prevent problems during instrument storage is the thick plastic bag. When we receive new instruments from the factory, the cases are wrapped in heavy plastic before being placed inside a box. We keep these bags because they are made of very thick plastic (which is key). These bags come in handy for thwarting the efforts of the “pad bug” which is actually a moth or carpet beetle larvae.

Problems with pad bugs begin when the insect lays eggs on the seam of the case and the larvae crawl inside to feast on the wool found in felt clarinet and flute pads. If you have holes in your pads you know they’ve been there, although by then you’ve probably seen bug carcasses in the case as well.

If you’re going to store a woodwind instrument for an undetermined length of time, and you’d like to prevent pad bugs, bag it. Remember use a thick (3 to 4 mil) plastic bag and cover the entire instrument case. Cinch it up close and tie it tight with a zip or twist tie. This will make it difficult for the pad bug to stick to the case and make the initial entrance. This is especially important if it’s possible that the instrument will remain in storage for a period of years rather than months.

Hopefully you’ve found some useful ideas here. If you have any questions, remember your local repair shop is always ready and willing to help (but there might be a waiting line if you wait until August).

Al AsmusAl Asmus has played saxophones for almost a half of century, having performed with the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Johnny Rivers, Bobby Vee, Ben E. King, Andy Williams and many others.

Asmus spent three years with the 6th Army Band in San Francisco, and later graduated from the band instrument repair program at Red Wing Vocational School. He began repairing wind instruments full time in 1981. Always looking for ways to improve the craft he started using ultrasonic technology for instrument cleaning in 1997.

Today he runs Al Asmus Band Instruments in Saint Cloud, MN. A full-service band shop, they offer new and used instruments, repair service, rentals, supplies, and lessons. After 35 years of experience in the industry Al still loves it each and every day.

SmartMusic Repertoire Update: June 2016

SmartMusic Repertoire Update: June 2016

This week we added 26 new ensemble titles to the SmartMusic Repertoire Library. Included are new pieces for concert band and string orchestra:

Title Comp/Arr Publisher Music Type Pepper Level
Cubano Bueno Rogers, Mekel FJH Music Company Concert Band VE
Escape! White, Terry Alfred Concert Band E
Flutes Forever Balent, Andrew Carl Fischer Concert Band VE
Glory in the Sky Griebling, Stephen LudwigMasters Concert Band ME
Klezmer Clarinets Loest, Timothy FJH Music Company Concert Band B
Melody Park Sheldon, Robert Alfred Concert Band ME
Onslaught Herring, David B. Grand Mesa Concert Band ME
Open Space Balmages, Brian FJH Music Company Concert Band M
Out of the Blue Scott, Steven Grand Mesa Concert Band M
Quasar Owens, William FJH Music Company Concert Band E
Sky Bound Stalter, Todd Alfred Concert Band M
Star-Spangled Banner, The Key, Francis Scott; Barber, Clarence E. LudwigMasters Concert Band E
Zombie Tango Meredith, James Carl Fischer Concert Band E
Alice’s Wonderland Bobrowitz, David Grand Mesa String Orchestra M
Armory Standridge, Randall D.; Law, J. Cameron Grand Mesa String Orchestra ME
Camptown Races Foster, Stephen C.; Christopher, Keith Belwin String Orchestra VE
Danza Oscura (Dark Dance) Standridge, Randall D.; Law, J. Cameron Grand Mesa String Orchestra M
Darkened Shadows Reznicow, Joshua Kendor String Orchestra M
Escape Sluder, Kevin; Law, J. Cameron Grand Mesa String Orchestra E
Fire Dragon Mountain Grice, Rob Belwin String Orchestra VE
Funky, Funky, Funky Turner, Matt Carl Fischer String Orchestra M
Menuet and Rigaudon Ravel, Maurice; Gruselle, Carrie Lane FJH Music Company String Orchestra A
Rhythm Dances Balmages, Brian FJH Music Company String Orchestra MA
Southern March, The Cerulli, Bob Belwin String Orchestra E
Toreador from “Carmen” Bizet, Georges; Gruselle, Carrie Lane FJH Music Company String Orchestra ME
Voices in the Shadows Balmages, Brian FJH Music Company String Orchestra M

You can request a piece for a future SmartMusic release here.

Update on the New SmartMusic Beta Test: May 31, 2016

Update on the new SmartMusic beta test

As we did on April 14 and May 2, today’s post is a progress update on the collaboration between the SmartMusic development team and the hundreds of music educators who are participating in the beta test of the new SmartMusic. While we are no longer adding new testers to the SmartMusic beta program, these posts make public some of the accomplishments that have been made in the last few weeks.

18 Bugs Identified & Fixed

These were mainly small bugs, the majority of which involved assigning a task or grading a student.

35 Features Added

In addition to numerous design improvements, we added:

  • An initial batch of content with several thousand pages of sheet music
  • A search engine to find, filter, preview and open music
  • Improved performance on Chromebooks
  • Visual feedback to students about assignment constraints and submission requirements
  • Gradable rubrics

More Improvements Coming in June

Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce:

  • The ability to send and grade assignments to actual students
  • Unit functionality
  • Improved assessment for pitched instruments
  • A new percussion assessment engine

Again, this progress is made possible thanks to the generous participation of music educators across the country. If you’re not familiar with what the new SmartMusic is all about, you can learn more at

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

Wrapping up the School Year

Wrapping up the Schoolyear

You’ve completed all of your performances. Summer break is around the corner. Now what? Planning at the end of the year is just as important as the beginning. Careful preparation can reduce the amount of vacation time you spend on work-related issues AND greatly reduce stress at the start of the next school year.

At the end of my first year of teaching, my organization was not fully developed. I was teaching band, orchestra, choir, and general music by myself and was completely overwhelmed. At the end of May, my classroom looked like the site of natural disaster. I had to spend extra hours throughout the summer cleaning, organizing, and repairing instruments. Since then I’ve learned to use a checklist to ensure a smooth transition.

Download a copy of my Year-End Checklist

Retention and Recruiting

Many items on the checklist include focus on recruiting and retention. Some of these can wait until things are slightly calmer and you can focus on getting next year’s prospective students interested. Others may have ideally been addressed in the spring. Hopefully by now you have worked with potential students to gauge who will participate again next year. If you’re teaching high school, you will want to set aside time to talk with the junior high director and the students about your program. Recruiting can be tough, but it’s even harder if you don’t make enough time to gain student interest.


An equally crucial component in building your program is working with parents. Regular, clear, consistent communication is key, as is making yourself available. There are many ways to do this and I’d like to share one way that is simple and can have a big impact. When I was teaching I would work with the 3rd and 4th grade teachers to help me meet with parents. The easiest and best time to do this is on Parent Teacher conference day. I would set up a desk and have a pamphlet of information available for them. The 3rd and 4th grade teachers would ask the parents to see me on the way out. This is where I could start that conversation and give them more details on what the next step would be from here. For my program, the next step was a scheduled day to try out instruments.

There are many different ways to demo instruments to prospective students. I prefer to set up an “instrument petting zoo.” This is where you set up a station for each instrument. I also recruit volunteers that know how to teach the basics of each instrument. This could be a private music teacher, or even a responsible high school student. It can be overwhelming to have to show each instrument yourself, it’s inefficient and results in less hands-on time for each student. For some, this opportunity will be a life-changing moment! Many local music stores are willing to help set this up for you and to provide the instruments. Take advantage of this! They also want to be able to meet with the parents and talk about rental fees and their business. It is a great way to get everyone together that will be involved in this process.


Probably most tedious part of wrapping up the year is collecting and taking inventory of the school’s music and instruments. Be sure to plan time for handing in all school items and don’t make it on the very last class day: there will always be someone who forgets their music. I like to assign student leadership positions to help with this; the title of “Music Librarian” was surprisingly popular. Find the students that love organizing, give them a list of score order, and they will take care of the rest!

While instruments are being returned, keep a list of anything that needs to be repaired so this can be done as soon as possible. I always kept an organized database for school equipment. The database also helps to maintain an accurate inventory from year to year to prevent equipment from disappearing.

I would also make a list of repertoire and/or supplies you’ll want to purchase for the upcoming year. This is useful if you have a “use it or lose it budget” and you have some money leftover to spend before the year is done.

Student Development

Anything you can do to motivate continued development (or to slow backsliding) over the summer will pay dividends for you and your students next fall. On my checklist, I’ve included several ways to get information out to parents and students to keep their musical education flowing over the summer. I’ve found that informational packets are helpful towards this end. I make a handout for parents that includes private teachers, classes, summer camps, and suggested material to get them ready for the next year. So many parents don’t know where to begin to find these resources. Having this handy and keeping it up to date makes it easy for the parents to help keep their child active in music, and also gives them a variety of options to choose from. With the battle to get scholarships for college, parents are always looking for ways to help their children succeed.

I also make a summer packet for the current students. It includes warm-ups, lists of repertoire to play at various levels, and recordings of musicians for them to discover. The lists are specific to each instrument. It’s important to keep introducing students to a variety of music, and at no time in history has been easier to do. One year I put Trombone Shorty on a list of recommended listening for my trombone students. Next thing I knew one of my trombone students began to experiment in that style. He started to beatbox and play bass lines on his trombone, eventually composing and performing his own music. All I did was encourage students to explore music outside of class.

Your Development

I believe strongly in the power of an end of the year class evaluation. Have students fill out a questionnaire, indicating what they liked about your class, what could’ve been better, etc.. I suggest making this anonymous so they feel comfortable being honest. Student feedback can be a great way to identify areas ripe for improvement.

I would also encourage everyone to take some time to reflect and write down some thoughts about how the year went. It’s something you will be able to refer to in the fall and make any appropriate changes. It will never be as fresh in your mind as it is right now.

Next Year

Don’t be stressed if you can’t accomplish everything on my list this year; it’s intended as a starting point as inspiration to get you thinking about your own list. If you’re a more experienced teacher perhaps you can pick up one or two ideas here, or are simply inspired to share your own list with your less experienced colleagues.

Please take a look at my checklist and let us know what you think, and share your additions, on Facebook or Twitter.

Stephanie DoctorStephanie Doctor is a saxophonist, instrumental music educator, and private lesson instructor. When not on skis and crushing it down the mountains of Colorado, she works at MakeMusic as a music production engineer & quality assurance technician. She has worked as a K-8 music teacher instructing band, orchestra, choir, and general music. Stephanie received her Master’s in saxophone performance and pedagogy from the University of Colorado and her Bachelor’s in instrumental music education from Millikin University.


Video Resources for Orchestra Parents

Video Resources for Orchestra Parents

As we approach the end of another school year, many orchestra directors are already planning the things they’ll do better next year. In hopes of helping, I would like to provide a few general videos that might make good supplements to your classroom handbooks or other information you send to parents of beginning students at the start of the school year.

The Brightly-Colored Violin

There are a couple of topics many of us are desperate to cover with parents of new students. Foremost among these concerns is the inappropriate instrument purchase, often made online or from a pawn shop. Many of us have experienced the appearance of more than one  purple sparkly violin and have wished that we had been able to either catch these parents beforehand, or had more successfully explained the importance of a “real instrument.”In an attempt to avoid such purchases altogether, feel free to share this video with your new parents who will see that it’s not just you who feels this way:

Concert Etiquette

Do you, like me, often feel like the audiences at our concerts think they’re at a sporting event? In an attempt to educate the families of your new students, here’s a video on how to be a supportive audience member. It covers topics like arriving on time, how to handle younger (restless) siblings, and leaving concerts early:

Eager Students

If you have students who are super excited about orchestra and wan to get a head start, I have some more tips to share. We’ve made a few videos in the hope of slowing eager students down just a bit…at least until we can monitor their progress. These steps include how to pack and unpack their instruments and to identify the parts. If you’re interested, we have additional on this theme at

Rehearsal Etiquette

Before students come to their first class/rehearsal, you may also want them to watch a video explaining some important rehearsal etiquette. We hope this preview will allow them to get comfortable with the idea that your orchestra classes are, in fact, rehearsals.

While I understand that not everyone is thinking about next fall just yet, I hope that knowing you have some new resources at hand today will make your preparations go more smoothly this summer.

Wendy DevaneyWendy Devaney took up the violin at the age of 12 (the viola came later). She was soon performing with an El Paso mariachi band with whom she eventually toured the southwest – and France – and recorded several albums. She earned her B.A. in music performance from Texas State University, where she was principal violist in the Texas State Symphony.

Wendy has performed and recorded with several mariachi groups, local bands, and classical ensembles and is a guest clinician at the Texas State String Camp. After running a successful private studio in Austin, Wendy founded Orchestra Tutor, a tutorial website designed to help string students.