Category: Band Director

Small and Mighty

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed performers can accomplish great things. 

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!!


If you think you can or you think you can’t, either way, you will be right.”- Henry Ford

Another session I attended at PMEA 2011 was entitled “IEP’S and What Do They Mean to Music Teachers” presented by Carol Burgman of Pace School. As most educators would agree IEP’s can be a daunting document to have to sift through and follow. This is especially true for music educators as we often think there is not much valuable information for us in a student’s IEP. Through this session I learned what exactly an IEP contains, what parts of an IEP are most useful for music educators, and how can music teachers best include special education students in their classrooms. Hopefully this blog post will help music educators (especially newer teachers) know which parts of a students IEP is the most important and give ideas for how to help these students succeed in the music classroom.

What is an IEP? 

  • IEP= Individualized Educational Plan
  • An IEP starts by the student being identified by a teacher, administrator, or principal
  • It is a document that specifies a year-long comprehensive educational program designed for an individual student to help them succeed
  • The IEP drives the educational process and the IEP mandates must be done in the time frame allotted and described in the document
  • An IEP is a legally binding document between the educational system, teachers, school therapists, and the parent or guardian
  • The document can be challenged through a legal procedure known as due process
  • It is usually written by the special education teacher, but the regular classroom teacher bears primary responsibility
  • Must be re-written yearly by a specific team
  • Rarely mentions music class except indirectly as an opportunity for inclusion
  • Includes academic or behavioral goals. Some of which may apply to the student’s entire program (including music class)
  • An IEP contains specifically designed modifications that are useful for all the students teachers. Modifications listed as “throughout the school day”, or “at all times during student attendance” apply to the music classroom.

What Matters to the Music Educator

  • Communication Plan– describes the students communication needs. This sections specifies the challenges and interventions for the student. It will state if the student has an alternative reading plan
  • Positive Behavioral Support Plan– an accompanying document that supports the IEP if the student has specific behavioral issues. It specifies triggers, the student’s process when in crisis, methods to intervene, and recovery information
  • Present Levels of Achievement and Function– gives specifics of the student’s academic abilities, strength, weaknesses, and overall function of the student.
  • Goals and Objectives– Review this section to determine your role in assisting with objectives implementation
  • SDI (Specially Designed Instruction)- Special methods or modifications to help the child. Modifications indicated as constant or cross-curricular are your responsibility
  • It is important to read the IEP because there is a lot that we can learn about the student that may help us better serve them even though it doesn’t specifically mention music
  • The special education classroom teacher or resource room should be your contact for specific information on adapting activities

Tips for Successful Inclusion

  • Treat all students with utmost respect no matter of their disability or ability level
  • Keep your focus on the objective- functional inclusion
  • Modifications should be simple and transferable
  • Present your lessons in a structured, well-organized, appropriately paced manner. Allow enough time for students to respond
  • Remember to consider your sub-skills and prerequisite skills when students struggle. Back up and then move forward
  • Make sure your classroom expectations, rules and consequences are clear and concise
  • Keep expectations high and allow students to rise to the occasion. NEVER settle and use the excuse that they have an IEP so they can’t do it
  • Think outside the box, be creative, and think quickly on your feet
  •  Remain positive!!

Where is Music Education Highlights Heading?

Unfortunately due to job searching, starting to substitute teach and a recent death in my family I have been unable to post as much as I would like. Hopefully over the next few weeks I will be able to post more regularly again. After I finish a few more PMEA recap posts I will begin a new series on Music Education Highlights. I am planning on starting a series of posts covering the job search process, application process, interview process, common interview questions, applying for substitute teaching, and tips to succeed as a substitute.

If you have any suggestions for posts that you would like to see at Music Education Highlights please let me know. Also if you would like to write a guest post please contact me. I am always looking for post suggestions and new voices!

“The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, the children are now working as if I did not exist.”- Maria Montessori

During student teaching especially at the high school level, one of the most frustrating things I encountered was students not transferring knowledge. For example I would teach the students about a sforzando or forte piano at a certain spot in the music and the students would perform it with no problem. The next time we would come to this in a different spot in the music or most of the students ignored it and did nothing. Sound familiar? I believe that dealing with this transfer of knowledge is an issue most music teachers deal with at some point. How can we get our students to transfer their learning from one situation to the next? While at the PMEA State Conference one of the sessions I attended was entitled “Getting Your Students to Perform the Sforzando Every Time.” This session was presented by Dr. Scott Meier, Associate Professor of Music Education at Mercyhurst College Pennsylvania. During his session Dr. Meier presented some great tips and resources for getting our students to transfer their knowledge and learning.

Things that Inhibit Transfer:

  1. The creation of subject based “compartments”. As music educators we need to try and combined all subjects together instead of putting each subject into a compartment.
  2. The tendency of learning to be situated.
  3. Transfer is inhibited when the creation of systems based on social behaviors are disguised as learning.
  4. We inhibit transfer when we teach groups of facts without striving for learning that is founded on principles.
  5. Telling students exactly what they have to do to receive and A. Instead we need to emphasize learning for learning sake and learning because you love what you are doing.

Things to Avoid:

  1. Mentioning rather than teaching. Transfer is more likely to occur when learning has become conceptual knowledge. Teach more about less!
  2. Avoid presenting learning that is considered to be essential basic knowledge in just one experience or situation. It is best to create multiple visits to a key concept in a variety of situations.
  3. Try not to only teach to the next concert, but instead, teach to the future success of independent musicians and critical thinkers.
  4. Negative transfer of learning is also possible and something that all educators want to avoid.

Tips for Transferring Knowledge:

  1. We must teach our students about transfer of knowledge/learning and why it is important. Without this step transfer of learning is almost impossible to achieve. Students must know what it is and its importance before it will ever take place. In order to do this we must give the behavior an identity and purpose.
  2. There must be a role model present who values and practices transfer. This role model should be us, the educator. Just as like anything in music that we want our students to accomplish we need to model the behavior.
  3. The students must be immersed in an environment(the classroom) that fosters and supports the idea of transferring knowledge.
  4. It helps if students are exposed to the outstanding transfer thinkers who have already mastered transfer and its resulting creative output.
  5. Students need to practice transfer. The simple act of recognizing transfer when it occurs in class should be rewarded and in some cases celebrated. We need to celebrate and reward each transfer experience we see taking place in our classrooms. It is important to find an age appropriate way to reward a students transfer of knowledge. This shows that transfer is an important skill and that you as the teacher value that skill.
  6. One reason certain concepts transfer more easily than others is because it is almost identical to something else the student already knows.
  7. Allow students to explore and learn on their own. We shouldn’t always just tell the students exactly what to do.
  8. Getting transfer of knowledge is very possible, but as with most things there is not one sure fire fix or solution.
  9. Most importantly we need to get the students out of the “what do I need to do to get an A” way of thinking. When students are thinking in this manner transfer of knowledge is never going to take place.

Resources for More Information:

  1. Transfer of Learning: Cognition, Instruction, and Reasoning by Robert Haskell
  2. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

As I found during student teaching getting students to transfer knowledge can be a challenging process, but can save a lot of time and shows that students are truly grasping and understanding the concept. While the above tips deal with transfer of knowledge in general and not necessarily dealing with music, there are a lot of concepts that can still be used in the music classroom and ensemble. I hope you found the tips from Dr. Meier on how to successfully get your students to transfer knowledge helpful and also please share other ideas and resources of how you accomplish this in your classroom.

“Jazz does not belong to one race or culture, but is a gift that America has given the world.”- Ahmad Alaadeen

Jazz music is such an important genre and art form in today’s society. It is very important that our students are exposed to and given the opportunity to both play and listen to jazz music. It is our job as music educators to bring jazz to our students. While at PMEA 2011 one of my favorite sessions that I attended was entitled Basic Jazz Tips for Music Educators. This was an extremely beneficial workshop where the presenters gave basic tips for successfully teaching and exposing our students to jazz music. Many music teachers are thrown to the wolves when it comes to teaching jazz because they aren’t exposed to it during their undergraduate careers or do not immerse themselves in the jazz literature. It is our responsibility as music teachers to become familiar and comfortable with teaching jazz music. Below are some basic tips on teaching jazz that all music educators should know before teaching jazz.

Where to Begin: 

One of the hardest parts of teaching jazz, according to the presenters at the workshop, is knowing where and how to begin. Below are some suggestions for beginning to teach students jazz. 

  • We must start by teaching and providing the students with the necessary jazz vocabulary first in order for them to succeed. This can happen in either the general music class or ensemble setting.
  • After teaching the vocabulary we must show students how to apply the vocabulary. They need to know how to apply what they know not just have a head knowledge about jazz.
  • In order to get the students to understand this new language we must we need to immerse them in jazz music. We can do this by having them both play and listen to jazz music.
  • Playing jazz music is all about responding to what the other musicians are doing. We must teach our students to quickly notice and respond to what others around them are doing. This is even more important in jazz than in the traditional ensemble setting.
  • A good technique to introduce students to playing jazz is to have them take an etude they can play and have them play it in a certain jazz style. For example for trumpet players have them play a Clarke study in a certain key and jazz style. This gets them playing in a jazz style, but makes it easier for them because the study is already familiar.

Dealing With the Rhythm Section:

  • The rhythm section is a band within itself so we need to treat it in that way.
  • All music educators should have the opportunity to play in the rhythm section of a jazz band so that we can better teach them. Playing in the rhythm section of a jazz ensemble is completely different from playing in one of the other sections.
  • A universal function of the rhythm section is to play the correct style. The entire rhythm section must be in a tight groove and playing in the same style. It is important for all music educators to be familiar with the different styles so we can help the rhythm section find the correct style for each piece of music.
  • Each player in the rhythm section has a different role so as the educator we need to know those roles so we can help the students fulfill the duties of each role.
  • Each role in the rhythm section changes depending on the style of the piece.


Improvisation is one of the most challenging aspects of change both to do and teach successfully, but is also one of the most important aspects of jazz music. Below are some tips for how to successfully teach jazz improvisation.

  • When teaching students improvisation, especially younger students, we want to make sue that we approach it in a way that we are setting them up for success not failure.
  • Improvisation is NOT making things up as you go along. Instead, it is using existing vocabulary that you already know and applying it very quickly on the spot.
  • If you are teaching someone to improvise who never has before start with simple rhythms and only a few notes of a scale.
  • Get the students to take a melody they love and have them try to play it on their instrument. This gets the students used to using their ear in a fun way. Students have to know how and be able to use their ear to improvise successfully.
  • Do a call and response with your ensemble which will help them to build confidence. Base the call and response from a scale and encourage the students to play something, even if it is only a few notes and then pass it down the ensemble.
  • A good way to teach improvisation is to include it in your ensemble’s warm-up routine. This makes improvisation much less threatening for the students.
  • Teaching jazz and improvisation makes the students more musically aware in all areas. It doesn’t just make them better at jazz.
  • Improvising may be difficult at first, but with practice everyone can improvise to some extent.
  • Worse piece of advice that you can give to a young jazz musician when improvising is, “just stand up and blow.”

Other Tips for Teaching Jazz:

  • Any instrument can play jazz music. You don’t always have to have the traditional jazz ensemble and instrumentation. Make it work for your students and community.
  • There is some published jazz literature for limited instrumentation, but many times you need to arrange your own pieces to best fit your needs and students.
  • There are charts available just in different keys so that any instrument and any instrumentation can play.
  • Many music educators have problems with beginning jazz trumpet students. The number one problem is range and endurance. Always address these issues first and a lot of your problems will probably be solved.

All music educators need to get comfortable with jazz because chances are at some point in our careers we will end up teaching either a jazz history course or jazz ensemble. For me jazz is an area where I have had some experience, but definitely is not an area of expertise for me. I found the above tips to be very informative and I hope you also find some valuable tips for teaching jazz music. Feel free to comment and leave more basic tips that all music educators should know when teaching jazz music.

Over the next few weeks I will be doing a series of blog posts based off of the sessions I attended at the PMEA Sate Conference in April. My goal for these posts is to share the invaluable information I learned from these sessions for music educators who were unable to attend the conference or attended different sessions. I hope that from these posts you will learn something new or find some valuable resources to use in your classroom. The first session I attended was titled Selecting a Music Theory Textbook: A Guide for High School Teachers. This is an area where I do not have much experience so I found the information given in the presentation very useful. The presenter was Dr. Daniel Perttu, Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Compositions and Coordinator of the Music Theory Program at Westminster College Pennsylvania. For each textbook that he presented he shared the advantages and disadvantages that he has found focusing on what book is best suited for the high school level.

What to Consider When Selecting a High School Music Theory Textbook

There are many very good theory textbooks on the market that can work in the high school theory classroom. The challenge is to figure out which book will work best for your personal situation. Many of the theory books presented by Dr. Perttu are also good options for teaching theory in band, orchestra, and chorus as well as for music theory classes. The biggest thing to remember is that there is not one theory book that is perfect. You made need to choose one main textbook and then use other books to supplement, to cover the material that you need. When selecting a music theory textbook here are some of the most important items to consider:

  • How the material is presented
  • Quality of musical examples
  • Web resources
  • Does the book address different learning styles
  • Does it progress in a logical order from the basics to more advance concepts
  • Is the format of the book easy to follow
  • Pace of the book
  • Is all the information correct

Choices, Choices, Choices

As I said there are many options when beginning the search for a high school music theory textbook. Dr. Perttu presented 9 options for high school theory texts, Based off of his presentation I will share the advantages and disadvantages of each book and an overall summary about the books

1. Harmony and Voice Leading, 4th edition by Aldwell and Schachter (Schirmer/Cengage)

  • Advantages:
    • Incorporates rules of counterpoint early on
    • Has a good context of chords in context of music
    • Good musical examples
    • Includes web resources for teachers and students
  • Disadvantages:
    • Moves quickly through the basics
    • May have too many details for the average high school student
  • Overall Summary: A thorough text, but moves fairly quickly

2. Music in Theory and Practice, 8th edition by Benward and Saker (McGraw Hill)

  • Advantages:
    • Addresses multiple learning styles
    • Spends a lot of time on the basics of pitch
    • Introduces species counterpoint early
    • Good musical examples
    • Web resources
    • Introduces melodic organization and harmonic context early
    • Mentions the history of theory
  • Disadvantages:
    • Spends little time on the basics of rhythm
    • Doesn’t always follow a logical progression
  • Overall Summary: Good, but doesn’t spend enough time on basics of rhythm and sometime can be hard to follow

3. The Musician’s Guide to Music Theory and Analysis, 2nd Edition by Clendinning and Marvin (Norton)

  • Advantages:
    • Comprehensive introduction to both rhythm and pitch
    • Introduces counterpoint early and comprehensively
    • Balances discussion of melody and chords well
    • Requires student interaction with book
    • Good for multiple learning styles
    • Online learning center for students
  • Disadvantages:
    • Some of the workbook exercises are too challenging for high school students
  • Overall Summary: Good and very comprehensive. May need to skip some exercises due to difficulty.

4. Basic Materials in Music Theory, 12th edition by Harder and Steinke (Pearson/Prentice Hall)

  • Advantages:
    • Has good rudiments
    • Cut-out keyboard for students
    • Requires students to take an active role in learning
    • Lots of review questions
    • Good for multiple learning styles
    • Web resources
    • Talks about the physics of sound
  • Disadvantages:
    • Doesn’t introduce species counterpoint at all
    • Pace may be too slow
    • Requires a lot of teacher explanations-book explanations are vague
    • Format is very different
  • Overall Summary: Good book to cover the basic rudiments of theory.

5. Tonality and Design in Music Theory, Vol. 1, 1st edition by Henry and Rodgers (Pearson/Prentice Hall)

  • Advantages:
    • A good balance between harmonic and melodic discussions
    • Good basis in pitch fundamentals
    • Good musical examples
    • Web resources
  • Disadvantages:
    • Fast paced
    • Not much time spent on rhythm fundamentals
    • Introduces counterpoint very late in the text
    • Many chapters are very unfocused
    • Hard to follow
  • Overall Summary: Good approach to both melody and harmony, but has many disadvantages that can be hard to deal with.

6. Tonal Harmony, 6th edition by Kostka and Payne (McGraw Hill)

  • Advantages:
    • Comprehensive approach to using chords
    • Great musical examples
    • Web resources
  • Disadvantages:
    • Section on pitch not comprehensive enough
    • Chapter on rhythm is very confusing
    • Doesn’t cover enough about melody
    • Information is very compacted
    • Mis-leading information in certain chapters
  • Overall Summary: Good approach to chords and musical examples, but is limited in many ways.

7. The Complete Musician by Laitz (Oxford)

  • Overall Summary: Too difficult for high school students. May be a good recommendation for seniors who are going to major in music.

8. Harmony in Context, 2nd edition by Roig and Francoli (McGraw Hill)

  • Advantages: 
    • Harmony is placed in context
    • Counterpoint is covered in detail
    • Good musical examples
    • Web resources
  • Disadvantages:
    • Moves very quickly through the basics
    • Goes into a lot of detail for high school students
  • Overall Summary: Great discussion of harmony and counterpoint, but may be too advanced in other ways.

9. Theory for Today’s Musician by Turek (McGraw Hill)

  • Overall Summary: Probably too challenging for high school. Very good discussion of melodic writing, but moves very quickly through the basics and goes into too much detail for high school students.

Which One Should I Choose?

Below are Dr. Perttu’s recommendations for different situations.

  • For Incorporating Music Theory into a rehearsal setting
    • Basic Materials in Music Theory by Harder and Steinke
      • Good for covering the basics
  • For Regular High School Music Theory Classes
    • The Musicians Guide to Music Theory and Analysis by Clendinning and Marvin
        • Very well balanced
    • Music in Theory and Practice by Benward and Saker
      • Also very well-balanced and great if your students don’t need as much time on rhythm basics
  • For AP Music Theory 
    • Harmony in Context by Roig and Francoli
    • The Complete Musician by Laitz or Theory for Today’s Musician by Turek
      • For very advanced students considering majoring in music in college

As stated, there is no perfect book and you may have to use more than one book to achieve your goal. Dr. Perttu recommends having one main textbook and then have many different desk copies so you can pull other musical examples, theoretical examples, and supplement your curriculum.

I hope this information has been helpful when considering what music theory textbook to choose. Please feel free to comment and leave your suggestions on the books mentioned above or any other books that you have found useful from your experiences. My next blog post reviewing the sessions from PMEA 2011 will be on tips for creating a performance in the elementary general music classroom.