Take a look at ensembles all around the United States and what do you see? Chances are you will see a much smaller ensemble than you would have 10 or 15 years ago. Many music programs are continuing to diminish in numbers, but that doesn’t mean that they do or have to diminish in quality. I believe that a small band, choir, or orchestra can still be a quality ensemble and produce a mighty sound. Over the past year I have gotten the opportunity to work with a lot of small bands, which is different for me as I came from a fairly large band program. Through working with these small bands I have found that there are many myths about small bands and that with hard work and perseverance it is possible to get a small band to sound big.
Common Myths About Small Bands
In regards to ensemble size, bigger does not always equal better. I have heard many small bands that produce a better quality sound than bands that are double or triple their size. Just because a bigger band produces a louder sound it does not mean the sound is of better quality. Another myth is that smaller bands cannot play challenging repertoire. I believe that this is not true. I know of a few bands that have fewer than 30 members and are playing level 4 or higher music. It may take hard work and some creativity, but produce a strong quality sound with a small band is very possible when approached in the correct way.
Techniques to Achieve a Small, but Mighty Band
- Ensemble Balance- While ensemble balance is a challenge with a band of any size, it is often even more difficult to get a smaller band to produce a balanced sound. I believe it is very important to make sure what a balance ensemble sounds like for them. A small band balance will sound much different that a larger bands balance.
- Director Attitude- When a director is faced with low numbers it is very easy to get discouraged and believe that your band will not be successful. It is extremely important as the director to believe that your band, no matter of its size can be successful with hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, I have seen the results of a director not believing in their ensemble due to its size. If we as directors do not believe in our groups, no matter how much work we put into them they will not succeed.
- Quality Over Quantity-As directors we need to realize and find ways to show the community that quality over quantity is more important. I would rather have an ensemble of 25 dedicated players that work hard and sound good instead of 100 players that don’t really care about what they are doing and produce a not as high of quality sound.
- Be Yourself- We must find an identity for our band and not try to be like another larger group. Each band needs to define their own sound and look and work on perfecting that sound. Not every band, whether the same size or not, is going to look and sound the same so it is important to define your style and stick with what will help to make your group the best quality as possible.
- Repertoire Selection- One downside to smaller bands is that the instrumentation is often not ideal. When working with a small group with poor instrumentation it is best to stick with publishers that provide flexible instrumentation and part choices. No piece of music will be perfect for every situation so you still may have to arrange parts and customize the piece to work for your particular group. In order for a small band to produce a good quality sound choosing the correct repertoire is imperative.
- Play to Your Strengths Not Your Weaknesses- With a small band it is not as easy for students to hide or cover up mistakes. This is why it is even more important to play to your bands strengths. For example if you have a 25 piece band with only 8 brass players, you probably do not want to pick music that features the brass a lot. Find repertoire that is going to show off your strengths and help to hide your weaknesses. I believe that it is possible for a 25 member band to sound like a 50 member band, but only if the music correctly fits the ensemble.
- Add Weight Not Volume- As I said before it is important to remember that a bigger sound doesn’t always mean a louder sound. The want to have a small group fill up a venue through volume is understandable, but asking the students to play louder can often be a double-edged sword. This can play havoc on intonation and tone quality. Instead make sure that the students are playing with proper posture and horn positions appropriate for their instrument. Good posture will automatically increase a students breathing capacity and will help the player play louder with a better tone. Also the way a small ensemble is positioned on the stage or on the field can also help to improve the sound.
- Student Pride- I believe one of the biggest factors of improving a small bands sound has nothing to do with music at all. It is all about attitude and pride. The students need to respect themselves, the adults and charge and most importantly what they are doing to have a good outcome. With a small band you as the director have to be very supportive and help to develop the ensemble as a team. Without pride an ensemble will not be able to reach their full potential.
I believe that a small band can be just as powerful as a band twice as big. As band directors we can’t always choose the size of our band, but no matter how many players we have there are many techniques we can use to bring out their best. While none of us want to see our numbers dwindle we can still produce a quality sound and give our students a quality musical experience with a small group. There is no magic of how to produce a quality small band, but remember that every band small or large has untapped potential and it is our job to bring that potential to life. As ensemble directors we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of “bigger is always better!!” Your band may be little, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be mighty!!