Developing Small Ensembles

A few years ago, we began implementing a student-run Ensemble Project for the time between the Awards concert and the last days of school. The linked blog post goes in-depth with the implementation of that particular project. As noted at the end of that post, I wanted to dig deeper into implementing our district's instructional framework, specifically focusing on the productive group work aspect of the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR). This year, I used small ensembles throughout the year to help develop these skills.

First off, our school year looks a bit like this:

Performance Dates Preparation
Marching Band August-October ~4 weeks before 1st Performance
~11 weeks total
Fall Gala Early November 2-3 weeks
10-15 rehearsals
Winter Concert Late December 5-6 weeks
20-30 rehearsals
Think Spring Concert Late February/Early March ~8 weeks
35+ rehearsals
Drake Festival
IHSMA Large Group
Awards Concert
Late April
Early May
Early May
7.5 weeks, ~35 rehearsals
1-2 weeks, 5-10 rehearsals
1 rehearsal
End of Year ~May 31 ~4 weeks
~15 rehearsals

In an amongst those performances are All-State, jazz band, solo and ensemble, and pep band, not to mention the school functions like Iowa assessments, semester exams, Career day, etc.

Literature Selection

To better develop their skills for the Ensemble Project at the end of the year, I intentionally chose a piece of music for the Winter Concert and a different piece for the Think Spring Concert that would allow them to work on rehearsing in small ensembles. I set out to find music that would allow me to put students in groups with a wide range of abilities, allowing weaker students to continue to be supported. Unfortunately, I struggled to find literature difficult and engaging enough for my wide range of ability levels. I began digging deeper into flex pieces from a variety of different publishers. That link goes to Hal Leonard's website, and you will at first see a lot of pop literature, which I did not choose. Here is what I did select:

Each piece divides the wind instruments into five different parts:

  • Part 1: Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Trumpet, Violin

  • Part 2: Clarinet, Trumpet, Alto Sax, Violin

  • Part 3: Clarinet, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Horn, Violin, Viola

  • Part 4: Bassoon, Tenor Sax, Horn, Trombone, Euphonium, Cello

  • Part 5: Bassoon, Bass Clarinet, Bari Sax, Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba, Cello, Bass

  • Percussion: as needed by the piece

This way, I could divide my 43-piece concert band into five roughly equal groups by mixing ability levels. Luckily, our facilities allow us to have these students have places to rehearse simultaneously. Here is an adapted version of a slide showing the different groups; I've replaced students' names with their instruments. Row 1 shows where students rehearsed. The remaining rows move through each of the parts, respectively.


First, we sightread through the piece together like we would with a normal piece of music. We used this is a means for individuals to identify parts they may struggle with. The expectation was that students deal with these pieces prior to working in their small ensemble, so the small ensemble could work on putting the different parts together.

Next, as a full ensemble, we broke the piece down into manageable chunks. Students were aware they would receive roughly 10-15 minutes in a rehearsal to work in their small ensemble, and that this would not occur every day. As a group, they were expected to develop a plan to get their small ensemble ready for the concert.

Then, still as a full ensemble, we developed an Ensemble Rubric by taking our Wind/Percussion Rubric and extrapolating what each category would look like at the ensemble level. We used similar rubrics from other performances we had done or would be doing this year to develop this product:

The students then defined the following terms from their rubric:

  • Blending - listening to each other, playing as a group not a single voice, all parts are heard

  • Intonation - in tune each other

  • Attacks & Releases - starting together, ending together

  • Vertical alignment - confident and correct entrances

  • Horizontal motion - staying together (not getting lost)

  • Articulation - matching articulation

  • Expression - consistent dynamics to printed part

We also discussed what the different standards from our district's Work Habits Tool would look like in our small ensembles. Specifically, that being organized & ready meant having your instrument, music, pencil, and Chromebook at every rehearsal. Being productive & accountable meant having prepared your part so your ensemble could work on fitting all of the parts together in rehearsal. And collaboration would mean working together to accomplish whatever goal was set for the particular rehearsal.

Also as a full group prior to their rehearsing, we identified roles using definitions from David Vandewalker's Foundations of Wind Band Clarity:

  • Melody - 40% of the sound

  • Harmony - 30% of the sound

  • Rhythmic Accompaniment - 20% of the sound

  • Long Note Accompaniment - 10% of the sound

As students rehearsed, there was a variety of different ways I would check in with them. Throughout, I was floating through different groups to make sure they were on-task, to answer any questions, and to provide feedback on their rehearsal process and performance. Through Google Classroom, I would have Google Forms that asked them to reflect on their individual performance, their ensemble performance, or to identify their role.

Also during the process, I asked groups to record a part of the piece they were struggling with. Then, as a full group, we listened to these anonymously and provided feedback about rehearsal strategies that might solve issues the groups were having. It also provided a venue for students to see if they were effectively communicating what they wanted through the music.


For both Nettleton and Into the Clouds!, the summative assessment involved the students making a video recording of their performance. We discussed how to set-up as an ensemble as well as settings for their recording device to make sure we were hearing and seeing what was necessary for the performance. Ensembles worked on starting themselves without a verbal count-off, and using each other to phrase appropriately.

At the Winter Concert, instead of sitting in a traditional set-up for Nettleton, the students set-up in their small ensembles across the stage. I was only a reference point for pulse to keep the five different ensembles together. At the Think Spring Concert, we did not perform Into the Clouds!, but rather, shared the students video recordings with their parents to show the independent and small group work occurring in class.


I greatly enjoyed watching my students think about how best to rehearse these pieces of music, although I will admit it was quite difficult to give up that "control" of my classroom. Nettleton worked very well for this project, as all five wind parts play melody at some point, and the slow tempo was a great introduction to productive group work without being too difficult. Into the Clouds! had much higher energy and technical demand, but not for Part 5. I need to do a better job finding literature that allows all of my students to contribute to the process at a high level.

Ideally, this would be a project that flows throughout the year. The Perry Band Olympics (solo and small ensemble festival) occur mid-February. I need to be more intentional about helping students see how easily they can transfer these skills to their own ensembles as well as to the chamber ensembles that happen within more difficult pieces of literature we are doing as a full ensemble.


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.