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.


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!

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


  • 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: Allegretto from Beethoven Symphony #7

I'm not usually a big fan of dumbing down the classics just so that students can play them, but once in a while I really appreciate someone's arrangement for a student-level ensemble. One such arrangement is Douglas Court's grade 1 version of Beethoven's Allegretto from Symphony No. 7. I have used in several times in the past 10 years with my 6th-grade band (a group of second-year players) and continue to find it valuable as a powerful piece of music and a vehicle for teaching important concepts.

[If you're not familiar with Beethoven's Symphony no. 7, go listen to it and read about it now before you go read on].

Court's arrangement is simple. After the opening minor chord, the middle and low voices begin the ostinato rhythm which continues through most of the work. The melody trades off between trumpets, clarinets, and flutes/oboes. Clarinet and Trumpet 2, along with horn and alto, take the counter melody, and though the low winds never get the melody themselves, getting to play eighth notes in the ostinato pattern along with some other rhythmic patterns keeps them engaged. The flutes have a long rest (about 16 bars) before coming in after the first chord, so this piece may be a nice break from having to carry a lot of the piece themselves.

My favorite section of the piece is a 12 measure long crescendo. Starting from piano, the ensemble builds to a powerful climax, sustains full volume for eight bars, and then fades out over the final eight bars. It is in this section that I most challenge students to play longer phrases and hide their breaths.

Two other important concepts to address in the Allegretto are chromatic pitches (of which every instrument has some) and the contrast between tenuto and staccato articulation. Every player must listen to to match and play the right note lengths.

The percussion parts are not that complicated. They are not original to the piece, so they can be safely omitted. The mallet part doubles the flute line. The timpani plays only the tonic and dominant with no tuning changes. Snare drum and bass drum add a little oomph to the louder sections, and suspended cymbal and triangle parts are a tasteful addition if you have plenty of percussionists. Bonus--I haven't used it, but there is a piano accompaniment if you find yourself in need of it.

In the end, I have used this piece frequently not just because of the musical concepts it teaches, but because it has the power to connect well with students and audiences alike. Many have heard it before, and it is a great piece to push students to play with more emotion. Usually I take one rehearsal to talk about and listen to the original, and I love seeing how it unlocks something special in the way students play. 

Cover tiny file look inside Allegretto from Symphony No. 7 Grade 1 - Score and Parts. Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Arranged by Douglas Court. Curnow Music Concert Band. Hal Leonard #014897. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.44000440).