Guiding and Learning from the Process

Educators use a variety of strategies to guide students
through the application process for the NAfME All-National Honor Ensembles—
and pick up new strategies for themselves along the way.

By Stephanie Jones

This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Teaching Music.


Daylight wanes in Brunswick, Maine, as afternoon slips into evening. Ashley Albert locks eyes with her student for a moment, and together they begin recording the final take. For weeks, the Brunswick High School choral director has been burning the 3:00 PM oil straight through to 5:00 PM, making sure each of her students applying for a place in the All-National Honor Ensembles (ANHE) Mixed Choir has everything they need to feel thoroughly prepared with their submissions.


Photo: Bob O’Lary


“It’s kind of a long process,” she says, “but I really enjoy doing it.” For Albert, a NAfME member who has been teaching for eight years, the opportunities that each NAfME ensemble provides outweigh the discomfort of overextending herself across early mornings and into late afternoons.

ANHE—whose mission is, in part, to provide high-quality music education for every student—offers young musicians across the country a chance to perform live in one of six ensembles: Concert Band, Guitar Ensemble, Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble, Mixed Choir, and new this year, Modern Band. The 2019 performance destination is the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.

When her students have the chance to perform in the Mixed Choir Ensemble, Albert strongly believes the impact of that experience has the potential to resonate with them for the rest of their lives. To help them get the gig, her approach is clear: Ensure students have what they need to succeed, every step of the way.

guitar ensemble

Photo: Bob O’Lary


“If they made it into All-State, I put a packet together for them with all the application info,” she says. “I have my students who have attended the All-National festival in the past tell them a little bit about their experience and what they found to be positive.”

Deadline to audition for the All-National Honor Ensembles is May 1.

In the spring, Albert sets aside afterschool hours for what she calls “help sessions,” in which she assists her hopefuls in learning the audition material. “We’ll end up doing a couple of days after school where we’ll all learn the parts together; we’ll take one afternoon where I’ll have them fill out their online application—I’ll help them put in all the info and make sure it’s correct.” But the most laborious component of the Albert’s joint teacher-student application process, by far, is the recording sessions. She and her students typically wind up spending several days preparing and selecting the best take to send with their applications. “I’ll book them in time slots after school, and I’ll spend two hours with a student until they feel like they have the best snapshot of their capabilities.”


Scott Sheehan, NAfME All-National Honor Ensembles Program Chair. Photo: L. Woods.

In the fall, Albert schedules morning sessions with those students who have been accepted, so she can help them feel prepared with their repertoire. Ensuring that her students have the tools they need to succeed on their own is a commitment close to Albert’s heart. “When I was growing up, I really loved these festival opportunities,” she says, “but if there wasn’t an opportunity for me to meet with my teacher to have them help me prepare, I felt like it was a little bit outside my realm of capabilities to prepare on my own. So, it is time-consuming, but I find [the application process] to be so rewarding for those kids who get chosen.”

And according to Albert, the payoff for even applying to participate in ANHE has rippling effects—but the process isn’t only for the kids. After attending the event every year for the past six years, Albert has found that the professional development she has received to be life-altering. “In my eight years of teaching, the best professional development I’ve experienced has been to go watch these conductors work,” she says. “To be able to go and share that experience together, and for me to spend three days just watching them work, has been invaluable. Every time I come back, I’m so energized. It’s changed my teaching and my whole program.”

“To be able to go and share that experience together, and for me to spend three days just watching them work, has been invaluable. Every time I come back, I’m so energized. It’s changed my teaching and my whole program.”—NAfME member Ashley Albert

This year, ANHE’s collateral professional development offers a new layer for visiting educators: Rehearsing with the Standards. According to NAfME member and ANHE Program Chair Scott Sheehan, integrating the Standards into the rehearsal environment is a natural part of the learning—and teaching—process. “We asked all the conductors to incorporate aspects of the 2014 Music Standards in their rehearsals, purposefully,” he says. “And we’re going to [record] and archive some of this work so we’ll be able to produce a webinar for directors across the country to be able to see the Standards come alive within a large ensemble setting. We’re really targeting that with the conductors, and they’re really excited. We’re making sure that the process is meaningful and purposeful—and that’s what the Standards do for us.”


Photo: Bob O’Lary


One educator sure to pick up on every nuance of this new integration is Lauren McCombe, a NAfME member who serves as co-director of orchestras at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Georgia. In 2018, she marked her fourth year attending ANHE with her orchestra students, and she admits their fervor accounts for most—but not all—of her interest in attending year after year. “[Professional development] is a huge reason I love to go,” says McCombe, “and I’m sorry to say I haven’t been to the Directors’ Academies because I’m learning so much just sitting in the rehearsals.” She laughs, remembering her personal professional development quest that routed her through every ensemble during last year’s event. “I love listening to all of them and getting all their techniques to address rhythm, pitch, balance, blend—and thinking about ways I can adjust what the choir director is talking about to fit strings.”

“We’re making sure that the process is meaningful and purposeful—and that’s what the Standards do for us.”—Scott Sheehan, ANHE Program Chair

McCombe takes a different approach than Albert when guiding students through the application process. Each ensemble has its own unique application criteria, and McCombe appreciates the cushioned timetable ANHE offers, so her orchestra students have a chance to review excerpts for the following year’s event almost immediately after the current year’s has ended—with ample time to hone their selections before sending in their applications. “It’s great for my students because they can record at home and send it in as soon as they feel like it’s ready,” she says.


Photo Bob O’Lary


While McCombe allows her students to handle recording themselves on their own, she makes herself available to any students who desire an expert opinion. “Every once in a while, they have questions, especially my violinists. Sometimes they’ll have two or three recordings with different things that they like, and they’ll ask, ‘What do you think is more important?’”

McCombe’s students are not only talented—they’re driven. Gwinnett County is a highly competitive district, and her students’ fire is formidable. “This is a very competitive area, so they’re used to some serious competition and to ‘get up and try again.’” And though her students’ drive to compete at the national level fuels their audition fire, McCombe maintains it’s the experience of the event, not the competition, that leads her students to apply year after year.


Ashley Albert’s choir students enjoy a step-by-step ANHE application process she facilitates for them. Photo courtesy NAfME member Ashley Albert

“If they didn’t have such a good time, and their friends didn’t have such a good time, then they would be deterred from going again,” she says. “They’ve loved all the locations and the conductors—so they would be disappointed if they didn’t make it, but I don’t think it would stop them from trying out again.”

honor ensemble

Choir students from Brunswich High School in Maine made lasting memories at a past ANHE event. Photo courtesy NAfME member Ashley Albert


Chris Earl, NAfME member and director of bands at South Davis Junior High School in Bountiful, Utah, had three students apply for spots in the All-National Concert Band. One was chosen. Earl reflects on the application process as whole. “It’s exciting for them. They were kind of like three peas in a pod. I let them prepare their audition and said, ‘When you feel like you’re ready, come to me and I’ll give you some feedback.’” His students rose to the challenge, but sometimes a high level of self-discipline isn’t enough to combat the emotional hit of not placing. “One of the students was pretty let down that he didn’t make it,” he says. “He kind of ran dry, and actually he’s decided to give up the tuba.”

Earl typically opts for singling out those students whom he feels demonstrate passion for the music and motivation to audition. This past year was a bit different. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try what some of the other directors are doing,’ and I opened it up to everybody. And I see with the kids who didn’t make, they’re just not as resilient as kids used to be.”

To guard against competition burnout, Earl does his best to position students toward what’s attainable for them as individuals so they can feel good about their accomplishments.

For every educator leading students through navigating their ANHE applications, and those educators fortunate enough to attend the annual event, strategies vary and approaches evolve. But one lesson persists: The process is its own reward.

Albert packs up her bag to leave the recording session as the sun begins to set. “It’s really an informative process for the kids, even if they don’t get chosen,” she says, “especially for later on in life. My students are thinking more analytically instead of just singing through their pieces. It’s informative for all of us.”


Composing by the Standards

NAfME All-National Honor Ensembles Program Chair Scott Sheehan believes in music education that is process-driven by the 2014 Music Standards. This year, he and his colleagues are deploying a new, compelling vehicle for integration: Rehearsals that offer elite student composers an unusual opportunity.

“Each year, a different Honor Ensemble gets to premiere a select composition by one of the students that’s submitted through the Composers Competition program,” says Sheehan, who also serves as music department chair at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School in Pennsylvania.


2017 Young Composers Concert in Dallas, Texas. Photo: Matt Janson Photography,


“We are using the National Standards as a guideline to show what students are able to do,” he says. “That’s really the bridge between the two [programs]. Creating, Performing, Responding—those artistic processes are found in both the Honor Ensembles and the Composition program.”

Because a major focus this year is “Rehearsing to the Standards,” the Composers Competition winner receives a unique opportunity to approach the Creating Standard.

“The composer’s parents surprised him in 2018 by going to Disney to hear his piece, ‘Reverence,’ being worked on,” says Sheehan. “The students talk with the conductors ahead of time, as the conductors are preparing the score, to go over any of the composers’ ideas. [The conductors] also offer suggestions, whether that be with instrumentation, something specific to an instrument’s range, or articulation.

“It’s the process that drives the development of new ideas. Students learn how certain chords work, a major versus a minor tonality, use of tension and release, and other various compositional techniques. But ultimately it’s their original thought that can put all that together to create meaning.”

Deadline to audition for the All-National Honor Ensembles is May 1.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 10, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (

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