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Flying Solo: Fostering Musical Independence in the Middle School Band Room

Gaby Tordi ·

If you’re like most people, you probably remember the first time you had to play by yourself in band class. And if you’re like most people, the reason you remember is probably because it was some degree of terrifying and possibly even traumatic. As band directors, we all want to provide a safe and comfortable environment for our students so that their positive experiences in band foster a lifelong love of music. In an effort to provide this safe environment, many of us may fall into the trap of making students too comfortable, thus accidentally creating a new generation of timid musicians afraid of their own sounds. It’s time to break this cycle!

Providing students with tools and opportunities for individual performance has innumerable benefits, and it can be done without resulting in fear or trauma. In fact, with careful planning, before you know it you will have a program full of students that want to take advantage of any and all opportunities to perform both in large and small ensembles. Emphasizing the individual performance aspect of students’ musical development starting from day one pays dividends in the long term, and can even create ripple effects that result in positive outcomes beyond musical benefits alone.

4 Benefits to Flying Solo

Developing Musical Independence

Performing individually on a regular basis helps students develop positive musical habits much more quickly than in a large group setting. When playing alone, the importance of maintaining a high level of mastery over all musical components (rhythm, pitch, expression, etc.) is magnified. Solo performers cannot rely on those around them for reinforcement or direction, but must rise up as musical leaders in their own right, taking responsibility for all aspects of a performance. Additionally, small ensemble performances introduce much more advanced musical and performance concepts earlier than in a large ensemble setting. Having awareness of all parts in the score, adjusting to ensemble balance without a conductor, and physically moving with the music to provide breath cues and expressive gestures are all aspects of small ensemble performance that students can begin mastering within the first year of playing their instrument.

Becoming Confident Performers

Confidence is a tricky component of a young musician’s training, but it is critical in ensuring a successful long-term musical journey. Students who become comfortable playing alone from a young age are typically better equipped to receive constructive criticism, administer meaningful feedback to their peers, and embrace mistakes as necessary steps on their journey. This last point is perhaps the most important lesson a student can learn at the start of their musical career - make mistakes loudly and proudly!

Conversely, students that are allowed to retract into their shells and avoid individual performance tend to be more fragile when presented with feedback. These students may also become uncomfortable with taking risks for fear of being singled out; success will come sooner to students who confidently take risks and develop the resilience to try again when they do not succeed the first time. As a teacher, knowing your students and their capabilities is crucial in determining those boundaries. Additionally, the more rapport you build with your students, the greater they will trust you when uncomfortable moments arise.

Providing Public Displays of Mastery

For the parents of young band students, it can be easy to wonder what their child is learning when only presented with a large ensemble product. An underrated benefit of fostering individual performance is that parents are made more aware of the growth of their student and how much really goes into being a musician. By providing students with solo opportunities at concerts, we can take the time to point out how impressive it is that students are able to synthesize and execute a multitude of musical concepts so early in their musical journey. This sense of “Wow, I didn’t realize that playing an instrument was so hard!”, along with the pride of seeing their student stand up and show off for the audience, helps parents buy into the program much more quickly.

Increasing Participation and Building Culture

In spite of our efforts, some students will still suffer from performance anxiety early in their playing careers. These students might feel that pursuing a solo opportunity (either an audition or a performance) is out of reach or impossible. However, more often than not, students who go through with the performance will come to realize that it was actually a lot less scary than they expected. This realization will be followed by a new sense of confidence and motivation to pursue further opportunities in the future. Additionally, one small success from a single student can inspire other students to do the same. It only takes one spark to start a fire!

We know why it’s so important to build up our students to be strong, confident individual performers, but how do we help them get there?

5 Strategies to Making It Happen

Playing Alone in Class

Developing individualism starts in the very first days of Beginning Band by establishing individual performance as part of the daily routine in the classroom. With each new concept - rhythmic literacy, note-naming, and producing the first sounds - it is essential that individual performance be a regular part of the learning process. Sandwiching individual performances in class between large group participation and teacher modeling at a quick pace allows students to experience performing alone with minimal pressure. Additionally, providing ample group practice on a concept before requiring individual demonstration ensures that students are comfortable and confident in their own understanding. As individual demonstrations are normalized, students are taught to provide positive and constructive feedback to their peers (“be your own band director”) with the understanding that any ridicule toward another band member is forbidden. Eventually students will begin to cheer each other on without prompting simply because “it’s what we do in band.”

Another in-class strategy is to provide extrinsic rewards for students who volunteer for individual demonstrations. This might be considered controversial in some circles, but especially at the beginning stages, offering a small prize to students that have the courage to raise their hand and count that rhythm for the class can be a powerful motivator. These rewards become less common as time goes on and are eventually only given out in rare circumstances. Just like Pavlov’s dog, even as the rewards are phased out, students continue to eagerly volunteer as part of the classroom routine. You’d be hard pressed to find anything that motivates the 12-year-old mind as much as a single Starburst (to be eaten after they leave the band room, of course). It’s tough out there - do what you need to do, people!

Sending Videos from Home

A natural extension of the above is encouraging students to practice at home. One way to do this is through the form of pass-off videos. The middle school band directors in my district and I developed a “band ninja”-inspired curriculum that revolves around regular pass-offs of method book excerpts, musical definitions, scales, and more. We utilize an app called Seesaw that allows students to submit their pass-off assignments and work at their own pace. In order to save time during large group instruction, students are strongly encouraged to submit these pass-offs from home, which requires that they take their instruments home and practice in front of their families (another individual performance opportunity).

Playing Solos and Small Ensemble Pieces at Concerts and School Events

As your students become comfortable in class and at home, the next step is to extend solo and ensemble opportunities at concerts, which can and should be done at all levels. In Beginning Band, after only 2 months of playing, students are given the opportunity to stand up during our first concert and play a line from the method book. Yes, it might just be Hot Cross Buns, but performing on such a large stage that early in their musical journey can be extremely empowering. And assuming I did my job by making them comfortable performing alone in class, they will seek that opportunity out as a reward and rise to the challenge!

In my combined Concert Band (intermediate) and Symphonic Band (advanced) concerts, students are also given the opportunity to perform small ensemble pieces for a large audience. During the first half of the year, these arrangements can align with Veterans Day, Halloween, or Christmas/Hanukkah and can be simple and straightforward. In the second half of the year, students can perform more traditional repertoire from the approved Solo and Ensemble list.

One further benefit of small groups is that you can toss one together on relatively short notice. A new wrinkle I added this year is having different student quartets perform the National Anthem during the morning announcements on Monday mornings. It’s the same basic SATB arrangement that we perform as an ensemble transcribed for every instrument. Very little prep work is required, and it’s simple enough for the students to play with limited rehearsal time. This is a low-stakes performance opportunity but a great way to showcase student talent and effort to the rest of the school!

Celebrating the Process, Not the Result

We all want our students to perform well, earn superior ratings, and win their auditions. But placing too much emphasis on results will discourage the students who had the courage to try but fell short of the desired result. What benefits the program most has less to do with how many students got the result and more to do with how many students went through the effort to learn their scales, practice their etudes, and prepare for the goal. As John F. Kennedy said, “a rising tide lifts all boats!” With that in mind, celebrate the students that achieved the desired result, but focus more of the celebration on all who tried. I do this by recognizing these students at the concert (calling each of them out by name), posting photos from the audition on social media, and occasionally reaching out individually to parents to tell them how proud I am of their students for their hard work. No matter your method, spare no effort to cheer on the students who went for it!

Setting Students Up for Success

Regardless of the type or setting of the performance, helping students prepare and protecting them from negative experiences ensures that they do arrive at the desired conclusion: “That wasn’t as scary as I thought!” Setting up IPT (individual practice time) sessions before or after school provides opportunities for students to play for you and receive individualized feedback. Video submissions on Seesaw can help with this too as large group instruction time is limited and valuable. These coaching sessions help students feel more comfortable with their materials and confident on the stage.

Equally important is knowing when to save a student from a negative outcome. In many band programs including mine, students must pass off all audition/solo performance materials with the band director before being approved to participate. While it’s true that telling a student that they should not or cannot audition for the All-County Band may hurt their feelings in the short term, if the news is followed up with, “Let’s work together and make a plan to get you ready for the next one!”, both teacher and student will connect earlier in the preparation process and work to make sure the student is better prepared for the next opportunity. As the musical expert, you will know which students are prepared and which are not prepared for that particular audition or performance. By stepping in, you are preventing the latter student from having a traumatic experience that might turn them off to solo performing, or even music, forever.

Additionally, implementing a screening process shows students (and their parents) that these amazing and worthwhile opportunities need to be earned and that goals must be followed up with consistent effort. Setting standards and expectations for your students is not a bad thing, and the culture of your program should reflect that.

Exceptions can be made depending on the circumstance. For example, if a beginning band student tries to pass off a solo line for the concert that is too advanced, I will encourage them to choose a line that is more achievable and try again. This way, they are set up for success and are still rewarded with the solo opportunity they were seeking.

Drive It Home with Solo and Ensemble Festivals

Solo and Ensemble Festivals have their own section simply because they are the culmination of everything that has been discussed in this article. These festivals can be an immensely powerful motivational tool for your students and allow you to cast as wide a net as possible for student participation. While S&E festivals are technically optional, I treat it as one of the cornerstone events of the school year and encourage every student to participate. With some careful planning and consideration, S&E can kick your students (including your beginners!) into musical overdrive.

Start Early

It might seem scary to have beginning students perform solos for a rating, but why shouldn’t you? If you incorporate individual performance into your daily routine from day one and encourage your students to play solos at their concerts, then by time you get to S&E, your students will be familiar with the process and comfortable playing alone. With that said, one nugget of wisdom I picked up the hard way: have your beginners play solos only. A trained accompanist can keep up with mistakes from a beginner and help them recover, but a small ensemble of beginners can be very hard to get back on track if a mistake is made (and let’s face it, mistakes will be made). My students become eligible to participate in small ensembles in their second year of playing.

Decrease Variables

If you have 100 students participating in S&E who are all playing different pieces with different accompanists, it will be nearly impossible to manage. For me, volume is the name of the game - I want as many students to participate as possible and have a positive experience. With that in mind, I help myself by decreasing the variables between students.

The first variable is programming: if I have 25 beginning clarinet players signing up to participate in S&E, all 25 of them are going to play the same piece. I will always make sure that students are playing music that is appropriate for their skill level, but I will not have more than one piece for the same instrument at the same skill level. Knowing that every beginning clarinet player is playing the same piece and not 25 different ones exponentially reduces the mental toll of managing the event. Note: Students that take private lessons are permitted to play a different solo than the rest of their “group.”

The second variable is accompaniment: with 25 beginning clarinet players all performing the same solo, it begins to make a lot more sense for those players to have the same accompanist. In addition to the decreased musical workload for the accompanist, it also has some secondary scheduling benefits (more on that below). If you have 100 participants but only 10 different pieces and 5 different accompanists, suddenly it feels like you only have 20 participants instead of 100.

Rehearse in Groups

Preparing a solo takes time, but when large groups of students are playing the exact same solo, you can kill 25 birds with one stone by rehearsing them as a group! (Or maybe that's a little graphic, we'll imagine we're teaching 25 birds to fly with one magic stone.) The students will learn the music more quickly, they will feel more comfortable having other students around them, and they can even practice together outside of rehearsal time with you. The small downside is that by playing the same piece, students lose the experience of choosing their own solo, but the logistical benefits of group rehearsals far outweigh that.

Streamline Scheduling

By having a single accompanist play for a larger number of students, bringing them into your band room for rehearsals becomes less of a hassle; driving 30 minutes to the school for 10 rehearsals is a lot more palatable than driving 30 minutes to the school for just one. In my program, our accompanist rehearses students throughout the school day for 10-15 minutes each. Depending on the flexibility of other teachers, students may occasionally miss a portion of another class to rehearse with their accompanist. My accompanists are generally happy with this approach since the time spent on preparing the accompaniment is minimized and they are all but guaranteed to have a fairly substantial number of students. Is it their most musically engaging gig of the year? Most likely not. Is it one of their more lucrative gigs of the year? With 25 students to accompany, you bet.

Bottom Line

Individual performance is a lot like crossing the break on clarinet: if you don’t tell the students that it’s hard, they won’t know that it’s hard. It takes time to develop the culture, but if you are consistent and patient, you will have a band full of soloistic musicians that have the musical tools and confidence to take the program to the next level. This culture will become cyclic as students see the work and successes of their peers being celebrated. So now’s the time - build routines, create opportunities, cheerlead your students, and let’s put a stop to the solo-performance-induced generational trauma once and for all!

Meet Our Guest Expert Author

Gaby Tordi is the Director of Bands at Davidson Middle School in Crestview, Florida. You can follow Gaby and the Panthers Band @DavidsonMiddleSchoolBand

Original article published December 13, 2023 on Band Directors Talk Shop.