Tag Archive: technology

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!!

“Don’t try to fix the students, fix ourselves first. The good teacher makes the poor student good and the good student superior. When our students fail, we, as teachers, too, have failed.”- Marva Collins

Last week I taught each grade level (K-6) for at least part of the class period and many classes I taught the entire lesson. It was great to start taking over the classes instead of just observing. While observing is great, there is a lot in elementary general music that you can only learn by doing. Also, I believe that until you begin teaching multiple classes for the full period you don’t realize how crazy and elementary general music teacher’s schedule is. Last week I taught ten different lessons and taught a few of them multiple times. Through these ten lessons I learned a lot of invaluable information that is helping me to continually grow as a music educator. Below are what I feel are some of the top challenges and most important lessons I learned during this past week in my elementary placement.

Challenges Faced

  1. Lesson Pacing– Knowing how much to plan for one lesson and how long each activity is going to take has still been a challenge for me. I am getting better and figuring out how longs an activity will probably last, but there is definitely still room for improvement. It is really challenging because it depends on each class, how well-behaved they are, how interactive they are etc. I have found that you can do the same lesson 3 times with the same grade level and will probably end at a different place each time. I am hoping that the more I plan and teach lessons I will get better at judging this. One piece that I have found with planning lessons is to always plan for more than you are going to need. It is better to not get to all of your activities than to run out of stuff to do and have ten minutes left in class!!
  2. Adapting Lessons for all Students– Adapting your lessons so that all of your students can learn and succeed is definitely a challenge in the elementary general music classroom. We have such a variety of needs and ability levels that it is hard to individualize instruction for each of them when you have twenty-five kids in your class. One of my most challenging classes is one of my first grade classes. This class has almost thirty students in it and is mixed with sever special education students from the Intermediate Unit. There are around 10 students from the IU that need a lot of extra attention. This makes teaching a challenge because you are trying to make sure you are reaching them while not leaving the other twenty behind. I believe this is something that comes with experience.
  3. Technology Issues– I am a firm believer in implementing technology in the classroom in as many ways as possible to help the students learn. Unfortunately this has been a big challenge for me in this placement. First of all the district does not have much technology and does not put much emphasis on it at all. Thankfully there is a Smartboard in one of my three schools, but other than that there is not much technology to work with. The main challenge is that the school blocks tons of websites. For a lessons last week on instruments I had quite a few websites to play music examples from and all of them were blocked. Also, sites such as youtube and Twitter are blocked as well. This is not something that I really can fix during my student teaching, but it is definitely a challenge that I am faced with during this placement.
  4. Being aware of entire class-While in high school you also have to be aware of the entire class or ensemble I feel it is much more of a challenge at the elementary level, especially in kindergarten in first grade. There are many days where I feel like I need extra hands and a pair of eyes in the back of my head. There is just so much going on in the elementary music classroom and the pace is very fast so it is extremely hard to be focused and aware of the entire class at one time. For example, you are trying to teach a lesson, plus deal with kids mis-behaving, answering questions, and focusing on students that need help or are not getting the concept all at the same time. While I am getting better at this I feel that this is an area that I will need to continually practice until it becomes more second nature.
  5. Different Room Layouts– One challenge of travelling between multiple buildings is that the layouts of each room are completely different. Most of the rooms that I am in are not ideal situations, but some are better than others. This makes for an extra challenge because you have to take into consideration each room layout when planning a lesson. For example, last week I taught a boom whacker lesson and Orff instrument lesson to kindergartners and first grade at two different schools. At each school I had to structure the lesson completely different based on the layout of the room. While this is definitely doable, it just takes more advanced planning and consideration on the part of the teacher.

Lessons Learned

  1. Know Songs Inside and Out-While this seems like common sense I have found that is imperative that you know the songs you are teaching inside and out. My advice especially for new teachers is when you feel like you have practiced the song enough and know it very well, practice it a few more times. It may seem like you know the song, but when you get in front of students and are focusing on ten other things at the same time it is very easy to become flustered and forget. With elementary students when we have to look back for the words or keep our head buried in a book we lose the students and more behavioral problems occur.
  2. Student Involvement– It is very important to keep the students involved at all times during the lesson and not to expect them to just sit around and listen too much (especially younger children because this is when behavioral problems often happen). For example last week I did a few lessons/demonstrations on French horn for kindergarten and first grade. While they loved the lesson I had to continually think of ways to involve them such as asking a lot of questions, letting them ask questions, and letting them predict what would happens if I did certain things. This helped keep them involved and they were more attentive than if I would have just talked the entire lesson. It is easy to get going on a lesson and forget to actively involve the student.
  3. Lesson Setup– Another thing that I am learning is how to correctly or best set up and elementary general music lesson. There is not one way that is necessarily the best, but it is important that you find what works for you and I believe that student teaching is a great time to do that. For me I like to start of each class with either a song we did the week before or a review song of some sort. This gets the students active right away and ready for music class. Then the middle of my lesson is where I put the most challenging activities and teach new concepts. I believe you need to do this when the students are still fresh. Then  end my lessons with either another review song or another fun musical activity that the students will enjoy. As I said there is no sure-fire method, but this is a format that seems to be working well for me.
  4. Limit Number of Directions– With elementary students I have found that it is extremely important to make your directions concise and limit it to 2 or 3 important directions at a time. If you tell the students to do too much at once they will either forget or shut you off after two or three directions. I have found that it is best to give the one or two most important directions first and then after they completed those go on with your other directions. If you find that students are continually not following your directions you will want to reflect and make sure that you are not overwhelming the students with too many directions at once.
  5. Remember Purpose of Music Class-With elementary general music there is so much information that we want and need to cover that we often get going on a tangent and forget the purpose of music class. While part of the purpose is to teach students about musical concepts and help them enjoy music we need to remember that the students are their to sing, play instruments and have fun. It is important to make sure that you have a balance between those activities and talking so that your students don’t get bored. My cooperating teachers are always reminding me “Talk little, Sing/Play/Do MUCH!!!

While I undoubtedly have a tons more to learn and was faced with many challenges this week, I also saw that a lot of teaching comes natural to me  and I am able to quickly think on my feet. I believe that one of the main goals of everyone’s student teaching experience should be to find your strengths and weaknesses and then find ways to challenge yourself to improve in those areas of weakness. So many times I have heard undergraduates  not attempt a lesson because they feel that it is too challenging for them or that there are too many things that could go wrong. These are the types of lessons that I want to teach and think everyone should teaching during their student teaching experience because that is how we learn. I tried a few challenging lessons this week that definitely didn’t go perfect or as well as I wanted them to, but I learned a lot that I probably would have learned if I would have shied away and not taught those lessons. While teaching elementary general music is very different, I am loving the challenge and the experience that I am getting and am looking forward to what else is in store for me during my last few weeks of student teaching.