Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Standards are Too Hard for Most Students.....but we keep insisting students learn them.

By Mark T. Burke

The district I live in has consistently had fewer and fewer students coming out for District Band pre-auditions year over year. In the 1990's, numbers approached 700-800 students auditioning for a band of 150. Now, fellow band directors tell me those numbers are more like 300-400 with some instruments not having enough students pre-auditioning to fill the band spots. The message I hear consistently is that few students come close to the skill level needed to convincingly perform the pre-audition pieces. 

I wish I wasn't reporting information second-hand, but my instrumental teaching friends are long-time professionals with nothing to gain from negative press. In fact, they know that positive things come from discussing the not so positive state of affairs.  Change only comes when we talk about the true condition of our educational field. 

I believe this festival is one symbol of the change needed in music education (at least locally for my area and I imagine more decide).  These students are given incredibly difficult solos, solos found on college level performance requirement lists, and told they must learn the solo for auditions.  As a trumpet player in my youth, learning pieces like the Haydn, Hummel and Neruda occurred in at then collegiate level.  And, I was a PA all-state trumpet player for 2 years in high school. If I would have had to learn these works in high school, I say for sure, I would have not succeeded.  I know some students can approach solos such as these during high school, but certainly for the majority, this level of solo work is out of reach. Yet, today, these solos, and similar for most instruments are being passed out for kids to work on.

While I agree that stretching kids, exposing them to great works is INCREDIBLY valuable, we have to have a reality check. We do little to encourage musical growth if students spend the majority of their year preparing a piece that is too hard only to audition and be told what they expected to hear, "you didn't make it."  A teacher once told me, "If you play through a solo more than 4 times and still can't come close, it is too hard."  I do believe that mentality is one we must adopt in Central PA. 

Added to the difficulty of the compositions is the complexity of teaching great works for all instruments.  The nuances to do so requires a truly diverse teacher.  Resources to learn these works have been few and far between. In fact, this is the premise behind my new "Solo Masters" program. Change takes time, experience and education.  So, I believe that helping music teachers be as proficient as they can be regarding the literature can help us be better teachers as well as assist us in making better committee recommendations on what solos we can use for audition and educational purposes. 

Rebuilding interest and skill level for festivals is important if we believe festivals contribute positively to the learning environment.  Doing the same thing and expecting different results is also a pattern we must break.  By diving into this topic and creating awareness a path to resolution will emerge. 

I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions.


  1. This is a concept I really struggle with in my teaching position. Mediocrity is so pervasive in American culture that "dumbing down" the music is necessary to keep kids involved. The lack of students' ability to remain focused on a single task for longer than 5 minutes is pretty amazing and getting worse as the Internet makes everything available NOW.

    This spring, I am conducting an experiment in excellence

    The students and I have discussed the nuances of four key terms: "Excellence," "Proficiency," "Mastery," and "Perfection." The common understanding is that they are working towards becoming proficient on their instrument over the course of several years of study by mastering smaller musical pieces along the way. I expect them to master the musical content they have to present for our concert or record for their portfolio. I expect that this mastery is helping them build their proficiency on the instrument, which will enable them not only to perform music but also compose and improvise music.

    A major part of this experiment is going to be engaging parents and getting them on board. Still working out the best approach to this, as I know first-hand how overburdened the average parent is and how over-homeworked most students are.

  2. I believe most directors do not program their ensembles or student solos with the student in mind. Unfortunately, I feel it is for the ego of the director. Too many times I hear directors discussing music that they want to play, not what the ensemble needs to be playing. We too often forget that these are high school kids. Even the very best high school students have a limit to their ability. Students need to feel a sense of accomplishment and have something they can hold onto to make them feel good about what they are doing. No one likes to fail. We need to approach assigning solo and ensemble literature by looking at who we have as students, and what we would like them to accomplish to make them better musicians. It is not unreasonable to give them something to work for, but we are still striving for success.

  3. I remember going through the audition cycle for District Band when I was in high school. I always felt the solos were ridiculously hard. When I finally went in for the audition, there were only two others vying for spots in my section. So it wasn't even a matter of making it lest we were auditioning for Regionals. So why did we have to learn a piece that was virtually impossible? Because we are striving for excellence in band.

    Now that I am a band director in another part of the country, our ensemble's repertoire is entirely based on their needs. I always want the best for them right now, not 2 years from now. I believe the concert music should correlate with what they are learning and their experience level, not mine. They love challenges but having them play something way over their heads is not fair to them and it only frustrates everyone involved.

    I wouldn't call it "dumbing down" more than building experience takes time and care. I'm making sure my students have a solid foundation in the basics before throwing them into college level pieces and letting them struggle. Giving them music they can handle will only improve what they have and build their confidence so that they can address future pieces and not shy away from its difficulty.