If you work at a very small school, you may not have a concert band, wind ensemble or an orchestra. More likely, you direct some sort of “instrumental ensemble” which, if you’re lucky, has at least one instrument of each family (winds, brass, percussion, and strings). While these small, eclectic ensembles have their own unique sets of challenges, they can also be incredibly rewarding for all involved.
My Experience with Eclectic Ensembles
During the first dozen years of my teaching career, I was chair of traditional studies at Berklee College of Music. I was also the conductor of the Berklee Concert Band. Most of these students were fine readers and quite advanced on their instruments as you might suspect. The challenge there was that a large percentage of those wind and brass players were at Berklee to play music other than what is in the standard concert band repertoire. So I was teaching a lot of classical/traditional phrasing, interpretation, etc.
In 1983 I became director of music at a small, independent Massachusetts high school, a position I held for thirty years. Over that time I served as choral and instrumental director in addition to teaching theory, music technology, and other music electives. The chorus of 20-30 singers was a standard SATB voicing, so no problem there. On the other hand, my instrumental group was an ensemble averaging 12-20 musicians of mixed and non-standard instrumentation.
I am currently the director of music at an even smaller charter high school for the arts in southern New Hampshire. My instrumental ensemble here varies from 8-20 or so depending on the semester.
Over the years I tried and tested many solutions to the problems inherent in smaller, non-standard ensembles. As I’ve looked for solutions, I haven’t found much published on the topic, and this has inspired my interest to share what has worked for me.
Recruiting in the small school should be global. By that I mean you need to beat the bushes for instrumentalists in general and not just by specific section. The idea is simply to increase the number of students who participate.
Ultimately, news of the fun your students have playing together may filter out to all the students who might be interested. Until then, you have to prime the pump with active recruitment. Your outreach should extend to everyone in the school who plays an instrument, might want to play, or has played in the past. Just like in the big schools, your recruitment efforts need to be on your mind all year long and need to take advantage of every communication method available.
As you encourage students to participate, make it clear that every student is welcome, no matter what instrument they play or wish to play. Now I hear you say “But if I do that I’ll get twelve guitarists!” If that happens, take the best two for your instrumental group and start a guitar ensemble to train the rest.
Berklee Press and others publish a lot of great music for guitar ensemble that includes multiple guitars with bass and drums. This music can help guitarists learn to read single-line notation and it’s great fun to see how excited 4 or 5 guitars can become when they begin to sound like a horn section.
If you insist that your group is going to play only music by the great masters of the 17th to 19th centuries, your recruitment will suffer. I guarantee it. Conversely, the more genres of music you embrace, the larger the group of interested students can become.
You can present concerts which include classical, jazz, early rock, a march here and there, and more. These days Broadway show music is really hot with high schoolers. Don’t be a classical or jazz nerd. Embrace music from all styles. Try Morton Gould’s Pavanne from the 1940s and/or a tune from a Broadway show like Dear Evan Hansen, Beautiful or even dare I say, Hamilton.
Most importantly, include your students in the choice of repertoire. Remember you are the teacher and have the power to veto anything but you’ll win a ton of respect if you let them suggest some of their music, or even choose it from a list you provide.
This is a big part of the challenge. One does not go to the local music store or JW Pepper to buy music for an ensemble consisting of, for instance, flute, trumpet, alto sax, 2 violins, cello, 2 ukuleles, 4 acoustic guitars, electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit and percussion (as seen above).
In addition to the challenge of finding repertoire for diverse instrumentation, diverse ability and experience levels within the same ensemble make the search even more difficult. Unlike the big schools that can segregate ensembles by grade and/or ability level, you likely have everyone in one class.
For me, the solution is to write arrangements for every piece my ensembles perform whether it’s jazz, pop, rock, or a Broadway musical. It’s time-consuming and there’s the added time and expense of acquiring legal “permission to arrange” from copyright holders of music not in the public domain, but it gives me the ability to accommodate the needs of every student. I can tailor the individual parts to each student’s level of ability. I am able to challenge each student to improve without frustrating them with a part that is too difficult. In the performances, the audience is totally unaware of the sometimes quite disparate abilities and levels of the students playing in the same ensemble.
What do you do if you have no arranging experience? Start with charts sold for piano/rhythm and C, Eb, Bb, and F parts. You can find these at retailers such as sheetmusic.com and Pepper has a few or by searching for “arrangements with parts in C, Bb, Eb”. You might also explore bigbandcharts.com. While these won’t necessarily solve the ability level issue, they can get you started. From there you can begin to transpose a few parts as necessary.
If you don’t have arranging experience, I also suggest applying for professional development money to take a basic arranging class during the summer. A number of colleges even have such classes online.
If you’re not currently using music notation software, you have more options today than ever before. In addition to Finale and Sibelius, there are some basic options out there that are free.
In our eclectic small school ensembles, sectional rehearsals also pose a problem because of the small number of members in each section. My feeling is that the coaching we would usually do in a section rehearsal must still be done, but this can be accomplished in the context of a full group rehearsal period. I also believe that it is necessary and can be very effective.
Regardless of the size of our school’s student population, we need to build and present thriving groups in order to stimulate interest among the student population and secure the support of our school administrations. I believe the key is being flexible. Be open to different instrumentation, ability levels, and musical styles. Rather than despair, rise to the challenge.
Welcome everyone. Watching the students in your small, odd ensemble grow as musicians and present exciting concerts is just as rewarding as presenting a large concert band or orchestra. In fact, it might even be more rewarding. Everyone likes stories when the underdog triumphs and we all know that every small-school student deserves a chance to shine.