Why should we bother with six-note band pieces?

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Gene MilfordWhile discussing the grade levels of band publications, a well known band music historian remarked “and then there are pieces so easy that they should never have been written.” Obviously, this is the perspective of someone who never worked with beginning instrumentalists and young ensembles.

Performances are an important motivational tool and a culminating experience for musicians at any age. While acknowledging this I believe that it is important to program music that allows for a fully successful musical experience for performers. Students must be able to focus on the musical and ensemble aspects of the performance, not struggling with the technical requirements presented in the work. A frequently heard comment from band directors is “I want to challenge my students.” I agree that students should be musically and technically challenged. This, however, should be achieved during lessons, sectionals, and band warm-up and drill, not through concert literature. As a colleague often states, “some sounds shouldn’t leave the band room.”

The choice of performance materials is an important process, but performance literature should not be the curriculum. The selection of method books and supplemental materials, based on the learning and skill achievement goals you establish for your students needs to be the core of your curriculum. Concert literature should not be at the outer limits of student learning. Music that includes all the notes, rhythms, and other concepts students have been exposed to does not allow for top-level, musical performance.

Programming a six-note publication, when students “know” more notes and more advanced rhythms, does have an educational and musical purpose. By selecting concert music that is “easier” than where the students are working, students can focus on the musical and ensemble skills necessary for a good performance: balance and tone, precision of attacks and releases, phrasing, dynamic contrast, and following the conductor. This enables the students to give a performance that will be listenable and one that students will feel confident they performed successfully. No parent, after a first-year band performance of six-note compositions, ever complained about the limited number of pitches. What will impress and amaze parents is “how good the band sounded.”

Years ago, at a new band music reading clinic, when hearing one of the six-note pieces by Sandy Feldstein and John O’Reilly, a director sitting in front of the two composers quipped, “it took two of you to write that?” Sandy responded, “I write notes, he erases them.” Henry Fillmore stated that it was more difficult to write his Harold Bennett works than his more difficult music. Composers who write very easy music do so from an educator’s perspective, thoughtfully and with the intent to provide satisfying music for performers and listeners. Choosing quality, age-appropriate literature for young performers should be the goal of all directors, not the number of notes.

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As a public-school music educator who has arranged and composed music for students throughout his career, Gene makes music that is grade level appropriate while being musically interesting.