Reply To: Too Many Skill Levels In One Band. Can I Make It Work?

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It always amazes me to hear about the challenges that we as music teachers have to overcome before we can get anywhere close to the teaching, learning, and rehearsing of music! I consider my situation to be similar to yours but to a lesser extent – I have a 6-8 band, so I have students with anywhere from 1-4 years of experience on their instrument. Some of the strategies I’ve used (although I admit this is a continuous challenge I work to overcome):
– Re-write parts or utilize “alternative” parts to make things easier or harder. For example, flutes with less experience that struggle with high notes can play the oboe part, and clarinets who aren’t ready to tackle faster rhythms or melodies can read the bass clarinet part and help with the harmony. The alto sax or trombone parts will often benefit from some added doubling of the melody on lower grade pieces to make them more interesting/challenging (although, that is where I currently have my stronger students).
– Find concerto or section feature pieces to highlight your advanced players. I’m finding more and more of these in the grade 1-2 range, and it’s a great way to give your older, more experienced players to chance to shine. Usually the solos are more challenging, but the accompanying ensemble part will fit within the grade of the piece.
– Choose a few pieces aimed at your lower level students, a few pieces for your more advanced students, and few that are more in the middle that they can all do together. Have alternative written or theory assignments for the days you want to focus on one group or the other, or maybe there is a teacher with a prep during that time that would agree to supervise students in his/her room while they spread out and do some individual practice. This definitely requires some creative management and planning in order to keep all students on task….this is probably the strategy I use the least just because it gets so complicated.
– When choosing repertoire, I tend to choose “serious” music that is closer to the lower end of the grade/level range my students can play. So for example, I like to do one march every year, and a certain number of “contest” pieces, and I’ll keep those in the 1-1.5 grade range. Then I’ll usually choose one or two pop or show tunes each year, but let those be up in the 1.5-2 grade range because I’ve found students will really work harder to master those and will be more motivated to try to access something that is maybe above their ability level.
– I always encourage my more advanced students to participate in music summer camps, audition for honor bands, or prepare something for Solo & Ensemble Festivals, and I always offer to help coach as they prepare a solo or audition piece that is likely above the level of the ensemble as a whole. I wish more of them would take me up on this, but giving these options allows me to show students, parents, and admin that I am presenting opportunities for extension for advanced musicians.
– Occasionally break into sectionals so that older students can coach the younger…although not too often, because your advanced students want to play and learn too!
– Offer lunchtime or after school “Practice Club” drop-in hours for the students that need extra help. If your school requires or rewards volunteer hours, your advanced musicians may want to volunteer to help tutor during this time.

You mentioned your holiday concert…I just ordered Christmas Concerto #3 by Robert W. Smith, published by Belwin. We haven’t started rehearsing it yet, but I love that it is a medley of three solos and there is a written solo part for EVERY instrument, so you can assign or have auditions for your most advanced students, and the background part is much easier (although I may still have to re-write some parts). It’s completely flexible…you could even feature a full section or duo, etc. I passed the solo parts out early so that my advanced students can begin to prepare and feel challenged. Just an idea. Good luck!