Junior High Band
Organizational Tips

Balance Instrumentation

When I started teaching it seemed like everyone wanted to play either flute or trumpet. It gradually changed to sax and drums.

To limit the number and improve the quality of saxes I required all potential saxophonists to play clarinet the first year. They auditioned for saxophone the following year.

Since so many of the percussion instruments are keyboard instruments, I required two years of piano experience for potential drummers. I also auditioned them and checked their coordination, motor skills, and rhythm recognition as well as their piano proficiency. More than anything, the audition sorted out those who weren’t really serious. (See 7th-Grade Drum Audition Form)

A word of caution - One of my students had had no piano experience but really wanted to be drummer. When I told him he couldn’t, he began to weep. My heart softened and I told him that every quarter there would be a test on one of the mallet instruments and he would have to work extra hard to keep up with the students who had piano skills. He told he would, and he did. He ended up being one of the best percussionists I ever had and he plays professionally today.

Trombone players are often hard to come by. A teacher at a neighboring school solved the trombone problem and the drummer problem by requiring all potential drummers to spend the first year on trombone. They also had to get A’s at least three of the four quarters that year. There was no piano requirement. She always had good drummers and oodles of trombonists.

Many articles have been written about how to assign the correct instrument to each student based on the student’s physical characteristics. Here are some of those guidelines:

  1. Someone with a “cupid’s bow” should not play flute. (A cupid’s bow is caused when a piece of flesh in the middle of the upper lip splits the aperture when the embouchure is formed.)
  2. Someone with large lips should play a low brass instrument.
  3. Someone with thin lips should play a high brass instrument.
  4. Someone whose fingers are so small they fall in the clarinet tone holes should not play clarinet.
  5. Someone with a pointed chin should play clarinet.
  6. Someone with extra short arms shouldn’t play trombone.
  7. Someone with only two fingers shouldn’t play anything. (I’m being a little facetious.)

In my experience, if someone was undecided these guidelines were helpful. But if they knew which instrument they wanted to play, it was counterproductive to talk them out of it. I had students who did not meet the above guidelines but were still successful. The flutist with a cupid’s bow learned to close one of the holes and played off to one side of the embouchure. The clarinetist with small fingers started on bass clarinet until the fingers grew. The trombonist with a short arm bought a trombone with an F attachment and didn’t have to reach sixth or seventh positions. A student playing his instrument of choice is more likely to practice and give the experience his best effort.

Having said that, there is a need to create a well-balanced band. Guiding the students to select the instruments needed is part of the job. The best-balanced band I observed was in that small town in rural Utah. Each day the band director had a flexible period when he worked with the elementary students. When it was time to select an instrument the students had already tried them all and chosen their three favorites. Each student met with the director individually. Knowing his instrumentation needs and the desires of the students, the director was able to create the perfectly-balanced band. He told me most of the students got to play their first-choice instrument, some were asked to play their second choice, and only a few were asked to play their third choice. All of them got to play an instrument they chose.

I didn’t have a flexible period in my schedule and I had six elementary feeder schools. I met the students for the first time when they registered for band. I asked them which instrument they wanted to play and kept a list of each section hoping all would end well. I did require the would-be sax players to play clarinet the first year and then to apply for saxophone the second year (See 8th-Grade Saxophone Application).

There were usually at least twice as many would-be drummers as available spots. During registration I scheduled drummer auditions for the following week.

The beginning drummer audition was as follows:

  1. They played their prepared piano piece.
  2. I pointed to a few notes in the treble and bass clefs and asked the students to name them.
  3. I had them stomp their foot on the beat and clap on the off-beats at various speeds - the "Boom-Chuck" drill.
  4. I asked them to hit a pad with two drum sticks alternating as fast and as evenly as they could.
  5. I clapped several short rhythm patterns and asked them to echo me. (See 7th-Grade Drum Audition Form)

Video Disclaimer

The attached videos are not perfect examples of how each tune should be played. They are recordings of junior high students, some of whom have had their instruments for only a few months. Also, they are not professional recordings. They were taken by band parents using home equipment and naturally focusing on their own children.

I include them for two reasons: (1) To give you an idea of what the arrangements are like, and (2) To illustrate the kind of performance you can expect from your junior high students.