I Lost My Wind Ensemble . . . And Saved My Music Program
By NAfME Member Christian Robinson
I remember my mom getting a phone call on her car phone one summer day in 1999; we were on our way to pick up a trombone from the rental store . . . I was entering 4th grade, which means it was the instrument year! I was assigned trombone, although I really wanted to learn the trumpet. It has three buttons and therefore only three notes—and the trombone is weird and uses a slide which makes no sense to me. (Being a bit of an anxious child, I wanted something to learn that wouldn’t require much effort, folks). The school was on the other end of the call, letting my mom know a student dropped out on trumpet, so there was a spot for me. Soon enough, I learned the trumpet has more than three notes. What I didn’t know at this time was that it would take me through middle school, high school, help me make friends I still talk with to this day, help get me into my number one college choice, help me earn a spot to play on Vans Warped Tour, help me meet my wife, and provide me with a career that feels like a hobby more than a job.
When I chose trumpet, it became a hobby in middle school, but my identity in high school. The band director would hand out a new piece of music, and I remember quickly scanning the part to see if there were any solos. If I read the words solo cornet in my part, it triggered an immediate response of anxiety, excitement, but definitely more anxiety. I would then take the solo to my private teacher, and it quickly became the only thing I would fixate on in my life until after the concert, when we would get a new program of music—thus beginning the cycle all over again. Going through a traditional music program, (and a strong one at that), I still don’t remember ever being asked the question “Christian, what songs do you want to play?” . . . or having access to an exploratory singing and songwriting class in high school . . . or how to use a DAW, how to set up a recording space, how to start a band, how to produce a show . . . why was my only identity a trumpet player?
When I went on tour with Vans Warped Tour 2017, I played trumpet with Save Ferris, Goldfinger, American Authors, Dance Gavin Dance, and Gwar (that was a fun show) . . . But I didn’t just play trumpet. I was writing out horn lines with other band members, having a singer sing what they wanted me to do, and I would transcribe it. There were songs that needed another rhythm guitar, so I would put the horn down and pick up a Fender Stratocaster. When I wasn’t playing trumpet, I was recording stems for other bands to use in demos. I was singing vocals and playing tambourine like my life depended on it. I was, at this time, a musician in its purist form. So why don’t we teach this to students in high school? To be fair, there is merit to choosing one instrument to practice, understand, and learn. But why stop there?
If you’re still reading, great! That means you are open to the idea of a non-traditional ensemble. I started Studio Ensemble at my school to offer a space for musicians who would have been typically turned away from a wind ensemble, choir, orchestra, or jazz band. You know, the kids who meet after school and play in a friend’s basement, or the kid taking guitar lessons so he can be the next John Mayer, or the singer who has an incredible voice, but never wanted to sing Mozart. Stop and talk to these students in the hallway, invite them to eat lunch in the band room, go to see them at the school talent show where they will surely be the best act, and find out what music they want to play. It won’t be anything you can find on the usual sheet music seller, that’s for sure.
How to Program a Concert
Maybe you start out as a club after school. That’s great! If you’re noticing a drop in numbers in a performing ensemble (marching band, choir, jazz band), then perhaps you have enough reason to propose a course change. Programming music for this type of ensemble is intimidating, but not hard. In a traditional band, orchestra, or choir setting, the director buys the piece, the librarian copies the parts, and the student picks up the parts and puts them in the folder, so they can learn the stuff to play with the rest of the people on the stage where you have to wear the uncomfortable clothes.
With Studio Ensemble, a backwards design curriculum takes precedence. I ask the students what music they want to play for the concert. To give them some boundaries, I propose a decade, era, or genre. We pick the top three songs, and we listen to them a lot—in the classroom, for homework, during lunch, after school, we start with listening and understanding the song to the point where I can ask a student at what timestamp does Brian May’s guitar solo begin in Bohemian Rhapsody, and they fire back to me “2:35.” Once the entire class knows the song, we begin rehearsing.
Putting a Song Together
Putting the song together requires you know the capabilities and limits of your students in the class. I send out a Google form at the beginning of the year asking students what experience they have with music in general. Some can sing and play piano. Some can play trumpet or flute. Some can absolutely shred on the drum set or guitar or bass. Yes, I also have students with no musical experience who sign up for my class.
The goal of this ensemble isn’t just to put on a fantastic show, but to get curious students to open up and try something new. Last year I had three students learn to play the drums (to an extent) who came in with no percussion experience. Students who are quiet may want to play an instrument that is a little more reserved, and less “melt your face off” . . . So I set them up with a cheap midi keyboard that runs through music software on their device. I teach them a simple three- or four-note lead line or ask them to come up with a part that would fit the song, and there you have it, folks. When the group picks a song, we assign sections. There is the vocal section, rhythm section, aux. percussion section, and horn section. The vocal section reads the lyrics off azlyrics.com. Sometimes they ask me to meet during lunch or after school to come up with split harmonies. The rhythm section reads chords or tabs from ultimateguitar.com. The horn section creates their own horn lines or pads, or they read off a part from musescore.com.
Our goal for each song is to sound as close to the original recording as possible. In a 60-minute class period, we may talk about the day’s goals for the first 10, then break off into our sections for 20 minutes to do individual or group practice. The last 30 minutes of class are spent running the songs (or whole program) where we can then integrate choreography, talk about stage presence, and work on song transitions.
About the author:
NAfME member Christian Robinson received an undergraduate in Music Education and Jazz Studies from Michigan State University. His first job out of college was as a high school band director instructing a 200-person competitive marching band and a 20-person competitive jazz ensemble. After two years, he resigned and moved to Los Angeles to balance education and performing. In Los Angeles, he taught elementary and middle school general music and beginning band full-time for five years. Over the summers and on weekends, Christian toured and performed with the bands Goldfinger, Sublime, 311, Reel Big Fish, Travis Barker, Blink 182, American Authors, Save Ferris, and played on Vans Warped Tour 2017. Visit his website, and connect on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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September 19, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)