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.

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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.

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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!

Favorite pieces: All Ye Young Sailors

Another of my favorite pieces for 2nd year band is Pierre La Plante's All Ye Young Sailors, an arrangement of the sea chantey "Blow the Man Down." Of course, the moment the students hear the melody, they recognize it as the theme from Spongebob Squarepants. Since I'm not a fan of the show, why do I like the piece?

Melody

While some composers and styles minimize melody, most people (and that includes most students) thrive on good melodies. Recognizable, hummable melodies stick with band students for days, weeks, and months (and yes, years for some), so great tunes are high on my list of priorities when I select music. La Plante's skillful scoring provides every section with the opportunity to play at least part of the melody, so even the low brass players and saxophones have a chance to shine.

Time Signature and Rhythm

There aren't as many pieces in 6/8 for young band as ones in 4/4. All Ye Young Sailors has a great mix of beginning 6/8 rhythms, and there is just the right amount of independence in the parts. Note and rest values include eighth, quarter, dotted quarter, and dotted half. There are no offbeat entrances. Some instruments play a staccato quarter (or a single eighth) followed by an eighth rest (or two), but everything else looks pretty much like the early exercises in 6/8 from common method books. The most complicated section rhythmically is a round at the end.

Compositional Techniques

The round at bar 41 is not the only cool compositional technique in the piece. The melody travels between sections in two bar segments as a call and response (for instance, 13-21). There is an example of stretto at 19. Trumpet 1 plays an augmented version of the melody at 23. I don't dig into all of these with my sixth graders, but I'll spend at least some time on the ways La Plante disguises the melody. After all, knowing who has the melody is an important part of playing your own part, no matter what you have!

Be Prepared

I always start working on All Ye Young Sailors with a review of 6/8 in the book and then take brief sections of the piece with the ensemble. We may speak or clap some parts before playing them as well. If a group is doing well with 6/8, they can likely get through the whole piece on the first read-through, but watch out for the tempo changes at 35 and 37. I typically conduct 35-36 in 6 and watch the flutes carefully--once they can play their eighth notes with me, I make sure the clarinets and saxes are watching and listening to sustain their pitches. Good cues at 41 and following for the round are also important.

If you're interested in purchasing All Ye Young Sailors, doing so through the affiliate link below benefits my school.

Cover tiny file look inside All Ye Young Sailors Composed by La Plante. Score. Published by Daehn Publications (DH.DP2509-SC).