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):
Linear Intervals Created Up and Down
Vertical Intervals Created Up and Down
Creating Intervals with a Pedal Tone
Extending Skills in Lower Register
Extending Skills in Upper Register
Learning to Play Cadences
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.
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.
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!