A Guide to Band for Parents; Episode One

I can certainly relate to parents who are lost on music. I, for one, am very lost on some mathematical concepts I’m sure they’d laugh at. We all have strengths and weaknesses, so I’ve decided to start a series of blogs to explain as much as I can about band. From the details of what to look for in an instrument, to the less tangible things like Band or “Bando” culture.

As a musician for over ten years, I can assure you I’ve had my ups and downs, from G.W. Bush’s inaugural parade- yes if you’re wondering that was a down, thank you protestors who threw bleachers in the parade way- to playing The Oyster Festival in Norwalk. In my tenure as a musician, I see the music world from both sides, giving what I hope will be a unique perspective for the parental units of said “Bandos”.

INSTRUMENTS

Certainly a complicated subject. But, for now, let’s keep it simple.

There are various ways to make an instrument sound better. For some instruments it’s using a different material, for others it could be simply replacing parts or performing some general “tweaking”. The most important aspect, in my humble opinion anyway, is action. Action is how easy (or hard) it is to press down the keys, or levers. This of course excludes most percussion instruments.

And with that, an instrument’s action will always determine it’s quality. Forget keys for a second, what happens when the tuning slide gets stuck? Most musicians don’t tune to the trumpet player.

Action, along with material and craftsmanship, basically determines the instrument’s model status (i.e; “intermediate”) and, possibly the scariest part of all for parents, it’s value. In some cases, for example a marching snare, the hardware on the instrument will ultimately be the deciding factor in it’s value.

Now, some parents outright buy the best instruments they can find for their children from the get go, which of course is highly respectable, however, unless the student is truly dedicated, almost any horn will suffice for a beginner. I can tell you as a teacher and student, it takes time to truly be able to play an instrument in tune, so why get a really expensive instrument that’s made to play in tune incredibly well?

To me, the best bet for a beginner is a rental situation. This way there’s only a minimal commitment to the instrument, and it can simply be returned, as most can be rented from a month to month basis. Another frugal option is to simply purchase a mediocre used instrument. Either is a more sound alternative to buying “the best” the very first time.

Speaking of “the best”, there’s a secret code that horn makers use. It goes a little something like this:

 

“Beginning Model”
Translation: Here, we made this. Pay us money.

“Intermediate Model”
Translation: Here, we made this. It’s a little better, so you have to pay a little more money.

“Advanced Model”
Translation: Parental nightmare.

 

Of course, the ultimate judge of a horn should be the teacher(s) involved in your child’s education. But, in practical terms, it’s much better to simply buy a “beginner horn” for your beginner! Or you can most likely even rent a better horn than that one for $30-50 a month.

The great part about it is, you can always reward the student with better equipment. For example, to get a brand new horn from a rental company only translates to maybe $20 increase in rental cost. And that’s on a really bad day.

BOOKS AND LESSONS

The most popular book series in my experience has been the “Standard of Excellence” series. These books (and their counterparts) are geared towards classroom learning. The entire class learns certain notes and rhythms progressively. The upside is, the exercises are short and playable. The down side? Most of these types of books don’t even teach the chromatic scale (every note in the musical alphabet, “E F F# G G# etc“). This course just yearns for supplemental material.

Some private instructors like myself–who became bored with repetitive pedagogy–enjoy composing their own lessons. This allows them to tailor the lesson to the student.

However, I still have a good series I like to use as supplemental material, called “Rubank Method“. Although this series starts off simply and unfortunately boringly, it still contains good duets. Even experienced players can use these books to work on their sight reading.

 

WHY BAND IS IMPORTANT!

In the long run, band is a great activity because just like a sports team, the players get to know each other and start to play as a team. Group effort is a must in any ensemble. Even beginners playing notes in unison still has to happen in unison. They are united under a teacher with a little white stick called “The Director”.

“The Director” is essentially the band’s agent, producer, morale officer, director and promoter. Obviously not an easy task with adults, let alone school children. Usually, “The Director” will give out a guide at the beginning of the year telling you what books to buy and what instruments can be played. In some school districts “band” only consists of brass and woodwind, in others it can include “strings” (i.e. violins).

As a child, I found a very, very good friend…in band class. I believe we met in either the fourth or fifth grade. We both initially played sax at summer camp, then in middle and high school we had mutual interests in music. We actually put on shows at our high school and gigged for the music department at events. We are now making jazz albums together in our early thirties. This is an essential part of “bando-ism”– camaraderie and mutual interest.

In the practical, Vulcan aspect of it all, logically, nothing beats band class when it comes to having a great in-tune sound. It’s been my experience as a teacher that those learning on their own need significantly more attention to the embouchure than anything else. Not to mention in band they’re basically forced to sight read whenever they have class, and that can never hurt. But, of course, everyone always recommends having a private instructor. Not to mention practice. Whoops. I wasn’t suppose to mention practice. Practice!

Practice makes perfect– it was sure when I played my college auditions and it’s still sure now. And when parental units plan goals for their children in the realm of practice, it turns out more gets done. Especially when there are rewards involved. Even a simple medal, a la Standard of Excellence.

JOIN US NEXT TIME FOR EPISODE II: “The Horn”

 

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