Band Together: Part 4 - Full Rehearsal Day!

Over the next few days, I will be posting about my trip to clinic my latest commission, Band Together, with the Northstar Middle School 8th grade band. The premiere will take place at Northstar's cafetorium on Thursday evening, April 21st.
Part 4 - Full Rehearsal Day!

Today I got to work with a couple of the 7th grade percussionists. One was playing the snare part, the other the suspended cymbal part. It was a little tricky trying to figure out how to make the entire time we spent together seem relevant after going over the opening section with them, since the two parts are placed almost opposite one another in the score. After explaining the aleatory, however, I ended up having them both play through each other’s parts together, so neither felt singled out when I gave advice.

Here the red  in the score marks main melodic lines, 
as well as important percussion entrances. I was able to show 
this score to the percussionists I worked with today 
to help them better understand how their individual parts 
fit into what the ensemble does as a whole.
One of the students was particularly shy about playing loud on the cymbal, and I exercised my right as a “not teacher” to make a suggestion. There has to be someone that you get mad at pretty frequently, I said. When you need to play loud, I want you to imagine that this cymbal is their face. Never, ever hit them personally, but you can always pretend this cymbal is their face. Looking at them, I could tell right away they had someone in mind, and their friend said a name immediately. I have never seen a suspended cymbal so decimated by a single stroke—from a yarn mallet, no less. Since this person they were thinking of isn’t involved with the ensemble, I took it a step further and wrote [name]’s face next to every f hit in their music. I felt like I needed to tell their teacher what I had done, but the teacher just laughed and said as long as it never went beyond the music, they could keep the note in their part. While I was relieved that no one was mad, it did reaffirm my belief that I’m probably not meant to teach younger students.

After working with the percussionists, I had a chance to work with the six or seven mixed ensemble students from Monday. This time we went over more of the non-aleatoric music, and they were focused almost the entire time; we were really able to make some good progress, and I even showed them parts of the score to demonstrate how their parts fit together. I personally believe that middle schoolers can handle looking at a score now and then, and that doing so can really help them understand more complex relationships. Sometimes it’s difficult to hear when you’re supposed to be counting and doing the right fingerings and breathing, etc. to know if you’re actually playing something right (especially with less familiar music), and being able to see what is going on can help students who are more visually-oriented.

It was exciting to see the horn students helping each other out with fingerings, and watch the students talk to each other about the new challenges they were facing – the flautist turned to the saxophonist and they both started talking about their concert Db fingerings, and how much air they needed. I was also able to get some of the students to keep time while I worked with the others, so they felt helpful even when they weren’t playing.

Here is one of the more difficult spots to put together in the piece. The red
shows the main melody, while the green and blue sections show two different
lines of accompaniment. With all of the independent entrances, the students
really have to be careful when they're counting so the entire piece doesn't
fall apart here!
In the afternoon, I sat in on the large, 8th grade wind sectional again; this time, I was meant to work with the percussionists while their teacher conducted the rehearsal. These percussionists varied in ability, but after switching some parts around and playing a few things next to them, they were all playing their parts really well. It was interesting to see how much faster these students grasped changes and corrections when someone was right there to explain “you were off there because you played those eighth-notes like sixteenth notes” or “you’ll have that rhythm with the winds here, so listen to them.” Just having some more individual attention to each part really goes a long way with this group, and it made me wonder how much faster students could learn more difficult music if they had a “section helper” even once a week during the larger rehearsals.

It was interesting to see the students really start to understand the piece enough today to ask questions, as well – what does “Bittersweet” mean? Am I supposed to be playing the same thing here as the second part? How do you do a forte-piano? It shows that they’ve become invested in the piece, and they want to do a good job. It was really encouraging to see that they cared enough to ask questions, to write things down, and to even correct each other when something went awry. One of the best things that happened today was when the teacher announced we’d be cutting the 5/4 measure entirely, and skipping on to the next measure; a few students said why?! and one girl said Nooo!! I love that part! Best composer-ego boost moment of the week thus far, for sure.

Today was a very important day for Band Together, as it was one of only three times the eighth grade band would have a chance to work on the piece all together. Even today we were missing about fifteen students because of National History Day (which took almost all of our clarinets - be proud of your people, clarinet tribe!), but we had someone on every part, which was the most important thing. I had the director conduct today’s large rehearsal so I could listen, do some trouble shooting per part, and observe the students while they played. Where did they look confused? What parts did they seem to enjoy? What made them loose focus? Somehow, the aleatory went just fine – we had done enough work in the beginning of the week that no one questions about how it was supposed to go.

While the director rushed through the timings because she was concerned about time, it was great to finally hear the whole band play their parts. The brass looked simply giddy at getting to make so many ugly noises, and the percussionists seemed genuinely interested at how the sounds all fit together (since they had little enough going on to really listen to what was going on around them). It was interesting to hear how effective the piece worked out to be, even in sections when holding long notes got the players lost. They were able to jump right away to measures the director shouted out enough times, that I was able to get to a sense of the piece even in their first full read-through. The students were amazingly well-focused throughout the rehearsal, and seemed sincerely curious how the piece was going to sound with everyone playing.

I had recorded this rehearsal so Mrs. Francis and I could listen back and hear where they were at with learning the piece. As I edited, it was fascinating to hear bits and pieces of the music come together really well, and notice what parts were truly difficult. It also helped me realize how difficult this piece is to put together having no previous recording to match against. Are the players hitting all the right notes? Where are people getting lost? What is the melody here? And I had another oh-duh moment when editing the recording:

Premiering a piece is hard. 

How do you get the students to trust you when you say this is right, you're doing this correctly, this is how it is suppose to sound, when there's nothing for them to listen against. So much of their other music has melodies their familiar with - High School Musical 2, Summer Lovin' from Grease, etc. My piece has chromaticism, and jagged lines, and strange sounds - how do you help a band, especially one use to more popular mediums of music, prepare that kind of music? How do you help them understand something which is so innate to you by now, and so new to them?

This is from the Cook Music Library at IU when I was still
working on the piece. It takes a lot of time, energy, and
patience to write band music - let alone for an amateur
ensemble in which there are more limitations to consider.
In many ways, this type of music is much more complicated than
any other music I've written thus far.
This was a massive undertaking for Mrs. Francis and her band, but hearing the whole ensemble play through everything for the first time, both of us feel so much more hopeful about the process than at the beginning of the week. The students have already come a long way on the piece, and it has been so exciting to work with them. Not everyone can handle the stress of learning a new piece, let alone meet the challenge with the maturity, grace, and patience that these middle schoolers have. Mrs. Francis, especially, has been a great collaborator during this process. She has a complete understanding of what her students might struggle with and why. This role of the educator is crucial to making such an intense learning experience a success, and I couldn't have asked for someone more knowledgeable, empathetic, and patient. All of our educators really deserve so much more than they get.

Tomorrow I have one more day with the students (brass again!), and then we're giving them a well-deserved break from the piece. In the meantime, however, I'm feeling so much better about how the work has come together, and am so grateful the students been such a pleasure to work with!