Book Review: Essential Musicianship for Band -- Ensemble Concepts

This past year I used Essential Musicianship for Band with my high school group. It had been four years since I first used it, and I was able to tweak some things about the way we approached it this second time. Read on for my take on the book and how to use it.

Essential Musicianship is divided into 11 sections (plus a glossary at the end):

  1. Establishing Sound

  2. Establishing Articulation

  3. Linear Intervals Created Up and Down

  4. Vertical Intervals Created Up and Down

  5. Note Lengths

  6. Creating Intervals with a Pedal Tone

  7. Extending Skills in Lower Register

  8. Extending Skills in Upper Register

  9. Combining Elements

  10. Learning to Play Cadences

  11. Learning Even Note-Valued Technique

During the year, I typically used selected exercises from four to six sections. Section 1 contains variations on concert F as a long tone, and I used one each day to help the band focus on breathing, playing together, and playing with a beautiful sound.

IMG_0249.jpg

Section 2 was one of the most helpful to our ensemble. We used a metronome (the conductor’s score suggests using one for all exercises) and students made terrific gains in understanding and playing the rhythmic subdivisions with clarity (side note—the apps Tonal Energy and Pro Metronome are great for setting up a metronome with shifting subdivisions). Section 2 also includes a set of drills focusing on pick-up notes.

Sections 3 through 6 overlap in some ways. Much of the focus is on playing increasingly large intervals with accuracy and consistent tonal color. Some exercises are set up for a model to demonstrate a particular pattern and have the ensemble repeat it. Toward the end of section 5 and in section 6, exercises are presented as a duet, playing in an interval to practice changing notes and staying in tune.

I did not make as much use of sections 7 through 10 as the rest of the book, though I think they could be very worthwhile. Section 11 presents a helpful approach for learning to play fast passages with good technique. Basically, it takes a passage of sixteenth notes and slows it down to 25% by re-writing the music as quarter notes. It also begins with only some of the notes, gradually adding the pitches in to build confidence in the fingers. The tempo is controlled by switching to eighth notes next and then sixteenths so that the pulse remains the same throughout the whole set of exercises.

IMG_0247.jpg

Every exercise in each section is accompanied by a set of student goals. Starting with “Breathe together,” these lists help direct the minds of students as they work on fundamentals.

What is the value in a book like Essential Musicianship? First, it addresses a variety of critical concepts for band (tone, technique, articulation, etc.). Second, if used daily, the goals give students the right areas of focus. Last, critical listening is a huge part of every exercise. Whether working on matching articulation or tuning a perfect fifth, students are pushed to listen to themselves and the whole ensemble to make the best sounds—and that’s what we want!

Reflections on the 2015-16 School Year

the band at work (during posture appreciation week)

the band at work (during posture appreciation week)

This is a post I started writing three years ago! At that time, I was finishing a year that included a few fun accomplishments:

  • My school hosted a small solo & ensemble festival for the third time

  • I directed and played in the pit for a great production of Guys and Dolls

  • Our jazz band won their class at the Eau Claire Jazz Festival

  • Our concert band finished the year having learned a new piece every week

As I think back on these accomplishments and others, it is clear that most of them would not have happened without sticking around at the same place. I just completed my 12th year at St. Croix Prep, and some amazing things have happened. It wouldn’t have been possible without supportive administration, colleagues, and families! Here is a short comparison of 2007 to 2019.

Then (2007)

  • Beginning band included 29 students in 5th and 6th grades

  • Our first instrument purchase was a xylophone, and the only instruments owned by the school were a banged up cornet and beginner level drum set

  • The band rehearsed in a gigantic church sanctuary and the lobby of an abandoned eye clinic

  • The band music library went from 0 pieces to 9, plus several pieces I wrote specifically for the bands that year

Now

  • The 5th-grade band of 2019–2020 has 40+ students

  • We have a full percussion section and are within about $25k of finishing a multi-year plan for a complete instrument inventory (at least for large instruments, like tuba, bassoon, etc.)

  • We have a band room!

  • There are over 300 titles in the Concert Band library, over 100 for jazz, plus a decent assortment of music for our pep band binders

There is more to reflect on later, but for now, I’m thankful for what we have achieved!

Replacing a Wenger Legacy Basic Acoustical Shell Panel

File under “don’t try this at home.”

IMG_1139.JPG

Last year, someone damage the top panel of one of our Wenger acoustical shells. It’s the panel that folds up and down and can be set at one of several angles, and my guess is that someone was too rough with it. The braces connecting the panel to the joint where it pivots were pushing into the panel itself and didn’t seem safe to use any more. So, this summer I called Wenger to ask about getting a replacement panel.

Although the shell has a label that says something like “Don’t try to remove or repair this panel!”, there were no other options for us. After the panel arrived, our facilities manager and I took a closer look at the shell to figure out how to safely remove the old panel and replace it with the new one.

First up, we had to remove the top panel. We tried to careful to relieve pressure on the gas lift supports, but it didn’t matter much. When the panel is folded down, they are close to being fully extended. While I wouldn’t want to take one in the eye, they didn’t seem to pose a lot of risk.

Second, we had to remove the pins that held the top panel to the middle panel at the hinge. A pair of pliers were helpful to grip the pin guide at each end. This is where things get a little dangerous and difficult. Without someone holding onto the top panel when you remove the pins, it will fall to the floor. Worse, if there isn’t anyone keeping tension on the crank on the back, the lift arm will shoot up to its maximum height very quickly when the top panel is removed. (We may have learned this the hard way). If you mess up this part, you have to put enough tension on the lift arm to allow someone to turn the hand crank slowly back to the bottom position.

IMG_1141.JPG

It probably requires 4-5 people to do the job. After the old panel was removed, we put the new one back, replacing the pins first and then reattaching the lift supports.