Solo and Ensemble

This weekend, students at my school performed at the Perry Band Olympics, a solo and ensemble festival in Central Iowa. We have a write-up of how they did over on the Ankeny Bands website. During this six-week grading period, our vertical team of teachers selects a solo for each student from a database of graded literature (below grade level, at grade level, above grade level) we developed over the course of several years. We help the students prepare this solo for a summatively assessed performance around the time of the Perry Band Olympics. All students prepare for this assessment, regardless of their attendance at the festival.

We are now beginning this process for our sixth through eighth grade students and their middle school solo festival in mid-April. As a professional-learning community (PLC), we are reflecting on better ways to help these students prepare. One of the results of this reflection process has been the development of a “checklist” for the students to complete before their 12-week assessment, approximately 2 weeks before their performance at the festival. The checklist includes the following:

  • Listen to your solo multiple times. Using SmartMusic or other accompaniment resources, we provide the students with MP3s of their accompaniment file and of their solo part. We ask the students to record the number of times they listen to their recordings.
  • Patsch a steady beat and speak takadimi syllables for your solo with a metronome. We use takadimi as a system for counting rhythms. Our students learn it beginning in elementary general music progressing through our high school performing ensembles.
  • Identify tonal center. Perform the scale of the tonal center. We use solfege as a system for identifying tonal patterns. Do represents the tonal center for major. La represents the tonal center for minor.
  • Perform sections of the solo proficiently at a tempo determined by your teacher. We use our Wind and Percussion rubrics to help the students determine their levels of proficiency. We also help them break the solo up into manageable chunks for each lesson, beginning with the most difficult section. Varying the tempos for this part of the checklist allows us to differentiate for the different ability levels of students.
  • Next steps. While not part of the required checklist for the 12-week assessment, we use this portion to identify what remains to be prepared prior to their performance at the middle school solo festival as well as their summative assessment of their solo.

I definitely want to begin incorporating a similar checklist with my 9-12th grade students next year during their preparation for solos. The idea for this procedural checklist was sparked by the formative “check-offs” our 10-12th grade choral students were doing as they prepared madrigals for their February concert. These check-offs included takadimi, solfege and diction using IPA.

In the past week or so leading up to Perry, I had a similar thought about our preparation for ensemble performances. When I was in high school, many of our ensembles were able to rehearse before school (jazz band was part of the school day AND before school). Groups were able to meet with coaches 1-2 times per week throughout January and February as they prepped for Perry.

While we have more “coaches” available to us because of our vertical teaching model, it is difficult to consistently access students before school because of the number of students we have involved in our 7-12th grade jazz bands. Many of our ensembles meet with coaches on Wednesdays during band or seminar, a part of our schools Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) and Response to Intervention (RTI). To be honest, this part of our preparation always felt a bit hectic and scattered.

What if we took an approach similar to our high school choral colleagues during this time of year? What if I identified specific ensembles within my 10th Grade Band (and my colleagues within their 9th and 11-12th Grade Bands) that we wanted to develop? For example, I could assign students to a brass/woodwind quintet, small ensembles of flutes/clarinets/saxophones, really any specific color we want developed within our concert bands. We could then take 1-2 days per week that are designated as ensemble days to work with these students.

To dig further into the example, the concert series that falls during this solo and ensemble prep time is 8 weeks long (3 weeks – Fall, 4 weeks – December, 6 – Spring). If we dial back on the amount of full ensemble literature we are preparing for this concert, we can further develop these small ensembles. Students in my band could be broken out into small ensembles on Mondays & Thursdays with myself and the 3 other non-high school teachers serving as coaches for these assigned groups. Students in my colleague’s band could do the same on Tuesdays & Fridays (Wednesdays are shortened schedules for professional development within our district).

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