One of the biggest challenges with being a band director is dealing with ensemble size and instrumentation. You never know from one year to the next how many students you will have and what your instrumentation is going to be. Even though it is more common to have instrumentation problems with smaller bands, large bands can still have instrumentation challenges. One common myth is that bigger is better. A small band with poor instrumentation can be an extreme challenge, but with a little extra time an effort you can take a small ensemble and make it sound just as good as a full sized concert band. It may seem like there are no pieces for your ensemble, but you just need to know where to look. Below are some great places to look for quality pieces for concert bands of all sizes and instrumentation.

Places to Look for Music

  • Hal Leonard– One of the largest music publishers Hal Leonard has a wide variety of pieces avaliable for all ensembles types and sizes. There website is easy to search and find what you are looking for. Each piece has a short description and lists the instrumentation recommended for the piece. After searching for a piece of music Hal Leonard also recomends other pieces that are similar in style and difficulty level. Many of the pieces also have sample recordings available.
  • Alfred– Another great music publisher similar to Hal Leonard. They also have a wide selection of music for all ensembles. Gives a detailed description of each piece that helps give you an idea if it may be suitable for your ensemble. Many pieces also have recordings and some even have sample PDF of the full score.
  • JW Pepper– Another great resource for searching and purchasing ensemble music. Many of the pieces include free MP3 recording samples and PDF files of the score.
  • Teaching Music through PerformanceA great book series for band, orchestra, or chorus that contains detailed descriptions for each piece helping you chose the best literature for your ensemble. There website allows you to browse pieces by grade level and allows you to see the composer, grade level and what book series it is in. You can also listen to sample tracks of all the songs in each book.
  • Smart Music Library– A new great way to find music and study scores to see if they will fit your ensemble instrumentation. You are not able to view the entire score, but you can view individual parts so you can see the level of difficulty for each instrument. Also you can listen to full professional recordings of each piece. SmartMusic is also a great way to help students learn their individual parts.
  • Wind Repertory Project– A comprehensive database of wind band literature. Here you are unable to view, listen to, or buy pieces, but it is still a great resource to find information about pieces you are considering performing. Each piece lists information on instrumentation, diffficulty level, program notes etc.  This is also a great place to find pieces that may work for your specific instrumentation. Also more pieces and informattion are being added regularly to the database.
  • Reading Sessions– Reading sessions can be a great way to get ideas for music to play with your ensembles. Many state and national conferences and graduate programs offer reading programs where band directors can bring their instruments and play through the different pieces. Reading sessions can be a great place to find music that works for a specific instrumentation. When you are at a reading session you should ask whoever is leading the session if you can try pieces with a certain instrumentation to see if they will work for your ensemble.
  • Collaboration- You are not alone when dealing with challenging instrumentation because most band directors face this problem at some point in their career. Collaborating with other band directors is a great way to find pieces for your ensemble by asking them what has worked for them and see if they have any advice for what pieces you could try. In today’s age collaboration is made easier in that you can easily communicate with other music teachers through Twitter and MusicPLN.

Ways to Deal with Poor Instrumentation

Below are some ways that I believe can help band directors deal with ensembles that have challenging instrumentation.

  • Focus on your strengths– when looking for pieces to play with your ensemble try to find pieces that are going to feature your strengths. For example if you have a majority of woodwind players you would not want to pick a piece that has a lot of brass fanfares. On the other hand if you have a very strong French horn section you may want to pick a piece such as American Overture for Band. Also if you have a few players that are extremely talented you may want to try and find pieces that will feature them. Playing pieces that showcase your strengths will help to draw away from your ensembles weaker areas.
  • Students switch instruments- This is a strategy that I am not as familiar with, but my student teaching co-op does this and is very sucessful. In her high school band she has a lot of strong players that are able to play multiple instruments. For example there is one student who plays both flute and saxophone and a few who switch between trumpet and horn. If you have students who are able to play multiple instruments you could have them switch depending on the song. This way you could better meet the instrumentation needs of each individual piece.
  • Transpose/Arrange Parts- If you are missing a certain instrument that has a very important or exposed part in a certain song you can take that part and transpose it or arrange it for another instrument. Many composers take care of this by writing cues in different part, but many times there are not cues where you need them. For example if you don’t have any French horns you may need to re-write that part for saxophone or trumpet.
  • Have students compose- This strategy will usually only work for higher-level ensembles such as a high school band. Often we have students in our ensembles that are extremely talented and interested in music. If you have these students you could have them compose a song for your ensemble. This way it would be specific for your instrumentation and it would also be a great teaching moment.
  • Compose yourself- When the above methods still don’t work you can always compose a few songs yourself specifically for your ensemble instrumentation. This way it is tailored for your group and most ensembles love playing pieces written by their directors. This is also a great way to save money if you are on a tight budget.
  • Combine ensembles together- If there are pieces that you would like to play, but are unable to because of your instrumentation you could combine your ensembles for a few numbers. For example you could pick a few mid-level pieces and combined your junior and senior high concert bands. This is a great experience for everyone involved. The younger students are getting to hear higher-level musicians and the older students will have the opportunity to be role models.
  • Have faculty or college students play with your ensemble- Another great way to get to play more challenging music is to ask faculty or band alumni to play a piece or two with your band. Again this is a great opportunity for your students to hear higher quality musicians and play higher-level music with success.
  • Have a good attitude- Overall I believe the most important thing is to make sure you have a good attitude. You need to keep a positive attitude and show that to your students. If your students constantly hear you complain about your instrumentation or can tell you have a negative attitude they will begin to have the same attitude. Keeping a positive attitude will help both you and your students have a more positive musical experience.

Over the next few weeks I will be facing this same challenge. At my high school student teaching placement my junior high band only has 11 musicians (1 flute, 2 clarinets, 1 alto saxophone, 1 tenor saxophone, 3 trumpets, and 3 percussionists). My high school band will also be a challenge as it has only 22 members (15 woodwinds, 4 brasses, and 3 percussionists). It is hard to find music for this instrumentation and make it sound good, but I am very excited for the challenge and hoping that using some of the strategies above will help me be succesful. I believe being faced with challenges such as this only help us to become more creative, innovative, and better teachers all around. If you are faced with a challenging situation such as poor instrumentation the best thing to do is don’t give up. I believe with time, paitence, perseverance, trying some of the different strategies listed above, and an open mind both you and your students can have a successful experience.