Teaching the Classics in High School Band

Teaching the Classics in High School Band

Easily Including the Classics into Your Rehearsal Time


By NAfME Member John Morrison


Are your band students familiar with great works of classical music? Could they identify an iconic melody from “Pictures at an Exhibition” or “Scheherazade”? Have they heard themes from the great symphonies or operas of the 19th century?


iStockphoto.com | kentarcajuan


Perhaps, as a band director you have decided that this type of musical experience should only be part of the general music curriculum, and you would definitely not be alone! High school band directors are always looking for the next big piece to challenge and inspire their students, and to impress their audiences and adjudicators. They are always preparing for the next performance, be it a school concert, a community performance or festival. Many educational opportunities are sacrificed at the altar of performance prep.


Classical History Resources


I submit that it’s possible to give students a solid grounding in the classics while using only part of your rehearsal warm-up time. “Themes of 19th Century Composers for Band” and “66 Festive & Famous Chorales for Band” feature classic themes by a variety of composers. And “Themes of 19th Century Composers” also features historical bullet points about each composer that makes incorporating curriculum standards a snap.


LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA – FEBRUARY 19, 2017: New statue of conductor and composer Gustav Mahler was unveiled at noon on Friday 1 July 2011 in Dvorni trg. The statue is created by sculptor Bojan Kunaver, cast by Roman Kamsek. Photo: iStockphoto.com | stevanovicigor.


An ambitious teacher can find themes of any public domain music on the website IMSLP, and can make a quick arrangement for band. One could accumulate an impressive catalogue of pieces from some of the greatest composers in history. With Wikipedia, quick facts about composers and their works are at everyone’s fingertips. Directors or students could prepare bullet-point bios of composers for distribution to all students. With music, bios, and perhaps a composer’s picture, students would gradually develop a basic grounding in the great classics of music literature.

If time permits, additional topics of discussion could include musical trends of the last two centuries: classicism, romanticism, impressionism, and nationalism. What events and people influenced the works of composers, and what personal struggles did composers experience? How did the evolution of instruments influence music composition? Teachers can trace the influence of certain composers on music of the future: i.e., the harmonies, melodies, and leitmotifs of Wagner influenced the later creation of movie scores and atonal music. The music of Offenbach helped give rise to American musical theater. And the innovations of Debussy inspired jazz musicians of the 20th century.


Why Bother?


Why bother to include the classics in a packed rehearsal? Band directors need to look beyond the yearly graduation exercises, and ask themselves what will be their students’ musical takeaway after many of them have put their instruments in cases for the last time.

Victoria Chamberlin | victoriachamberlin.com


Mark Vanhoenacker, writing for Slate in 2014, cited some alarming statistics about the state of classical music in America. Classical radio stations are disappearing, orchestras are struggling to stay afloat, and classical music album sales were only 2.8 percent of all music purchases in 2008. And the median age of classical music concertgoers continues to rise. He points to examples of popular culture, i.e., “Family Guy” and “Modern Family” with plot lines that either mock classical music or see its adherents as cultural outliers. William Robin of the New Yorker disputes Vanhoenacker’s claims, saying that “classical music endured because it has been made American,” noting that world class U.S. orchestras and music societies are still alive and healthy.

Regardless of the wax and wane of the classical music economy, pioneers of musical culture will always remain important figures worthy of study. Just imagine a society that knows nothing about Gustav Mahler, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Amy Beach, or Cecile Chaminade. And imagine a society that never drew inspiration from the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony or from the resplendent opening theme of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  Students need to experience the towering achievements of the masters before they store their instruments and collect their high school diplomas.


About the author:

 band director

NAfME member John Morrison taught instrumental music in the New Jersey public schools for 28 years. He received his BA in Music Ed from the Hartt School, and an MA in Music Ed from Rutgers University. Currently he serves as Director of Music at Lincroft Presbyterian Church and is a freelance musician in New Jersey. He may be contacted at: john.morrison18@gmail.com.

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September 8, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)