Band Together: Part 5 - Last Day

This is the final post 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 5 - Last Day

I spotted a wild Mrs. Francis! 
Today was my last day at the middle school to work with the students, and despite the changing weather, the imminent arrival of break, and all of the other worries they carry with them throughout the day, all of them were focused and ready to rehearse today! This morning was 7th grade brass again, but I worked in smaller groups, as the director and I had decided to make a few changes to the score after the large rehearsal yesterday; it would be easier to explain those changes in a more intimate atmosphere that didn’t rely too heavily on student patience! Starting with two trumpet players, who had very little to change in their parts, I asked them what they felt went the worst at 8th grade band rehearsal yesterday – what did they feel the most uncomfortable with? To my surprise, they both offered the same answer almost immediately, saying our whole section fell apart here! I think we were playing the wrong rhythm! I always come in late there. I don’t think I understand the rhythm. One of the trumpet students also said Now that I heard the whole band play and I’ve heard it, I can actually practice it now. It was great to see that they already had ideas of what needed to be done in order to fix that part (and that they were planning to practice, no less!), and that they were eager to address it.

After playing what it should sound like on the piano, and going over the rhythm with them (which mostly involved helping them find what is the same in these measures? What is different?), we even got to work on their fp’s – which had been a struggle of the whole band. While I’m not a wind or brass player, it felt great to help them explore the best way to get that effect – especially since these are the younger players in the ensemble, and they would get to help pass this information on to the older kids. We also had a little time for me to show them the score and show them how their part was in unison with the other brass for part of their melody, and how it turned into harmony for a different part. One of them commented it was similar to this Adele song on that keeps playing on the radio. Being able to make this kind of music relevant to the music they listen to every day was a great feeling, especially since they made it relevant for themselves.

The lower brass I worked with next was similarly enthusiastic. There were five (three trombones, two euphoniums), and every single one of them said the same section they wanted to work on – without even looking at their music, they even said the correct measure numbers!

Title page for Band Together. Notice we had to
regrade the piece to a Grade 3. These students are
preparing some rather advanced music for their
level of experience!!
This part was especially tricky for the trombones; the rest of the brass section has the ability to finger notes and faster rhythms, while the trombones have to move their entire arm. Because I knew this ahead of time, while the other brass were playing eighth and sixteenth notes, I broke some of the trombone part up so they had time to change. This meant that, while most of the time they were homorhythmic, there were some parts of this passage they were not playing the same rhythm as everyone else. Once we worked through notes (one at a time, held individually so they could hear the harmony between parts), I showed them the score, and explained how their parts were related; one of the trombonists said so THAT’S why I kept trying to play faster every time! It was awesome to hear that 1) he was able to find the source of his confusion and fix it, and 2) he knew what mistake he kept making. So often it’s easy to hear that you’re wrong, but these students were all very aware of what was off – they just needed help figuring out why it was happening. 

By the end of 15 minutes, we had fixed the entire section, and they almost had it up to tempo. It was an awesome feeling, getting them to work through a problem, and see them excited about it. All of them were really taking the piece seriously, and seemed genuinely curious about the process. One of the trombonists, as they were leaving said, I wonder what kind of program they use to put this stuff together? The student would be surprised to learn how similar the amount of code was involved with music notation software as with video game software. I have no idea if they’ll ever look into it any further, but it was another music is relevant to so many other fields moment, so it felt like a composer victory.

While Mrs. Francis and I were wondering just what this week was going to hold for everyone, my time at Northstar has felt wildly successful. Being able to engage with a bunch of eager, young musicians who are still learning just how big their world really is (and how small) has been such a privilege as a composer and artist. I so hope their parents all recognize what wonderful kids they have in these students - and that these students continue to ask questions, investigate, and remain curious about the things teachers ask them to do and participate in. 

While I don't know exactly what the piece will sound like by the time I visit again in April for their concert (a not-so-rare composer feeling), I leave the week feeling hopeful, happy, and accomplished. I also leave it feeling inspired, humbled, and genuinely impressed by this star group of students.

We'll return to weekly updates now that the Northstar special is concluded. Read more next week to find out how the performance of Suite-A** Cycle for flute and clarinet went, as well as updates about my newest project!