ReBand…A New School Year, A New Gig

September 25, 2008

Let the Parent Phone Calls Begin!!! (and they have)

Filed under: Uncategorized — reband @ 10:27 pm
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An explanation is for the title is in order I suppose. In the area that I teach, the beginning band teacher assigns instruments to students, the students and family do not have total choice. I finally finished the 6th grade testing and now have determined and distributed the instrument selections for each student. Obviously I’m not going to make everyone happy. Unhappy (or disappointed) kids equal unhappy or frustrated parents equal parent phone calls and emails to me…and like I said in the title of this little post, they have.

First I’ll freely admit that my testing process and instrument selection method is or may be flawed. Perhaps my reader (thanks mom) would care to weigh in on it as I’ll describe it. Don’t hold back, I want to try to fix it so I have fewer problems in the future.

It starts with each student testing every single instrument that they would like to (flute head joint, clarinet mouthpiece reed and barrel, alto sax mouthpiece reed and neck, bassoon reed bocal and neck, whole oboe, brass mouthpieces buzzing and then with full instruments for trumpet, trombone, baritone, tuba, and french horn. Percussion is done by playing two measure quarter and eighth note and quarter rest patterns and playing rhythmic and melodic-close stepwise only-on the bells). Each of the wind instruments are graded on a scale from 1-10 on embouchure and sound produced for a total possible of 20. Percussion is graded by the number of mistakes made.

After all that was done, I totaled the scores and figured out the averages for each instrument. I gave each student their individual scores on each instrument that they tested as well as the average for all students who tested on that instrument. I then asked the students and parents to discuss those results and their feelings and turn in a form signed by both parent and student that listed three choices that the student could be excited about playing. Once I got those letters back, I did my very best to give each student their first choice as long as proper (OK passable) instrumentation was achieved. In some cases their second choice had to be selected if they were not eligible for their first choice due to low score or the number of students on that instrument being reached. The same if their third choice was selected.

I came up with instrumentation where I have: 4 flutes, 3 oboes, 5 bassoons,  12 clarinets, 6 alto saxes, 3 tenor saxes, 12 trumpets, 4 french horns, 11 trombones, 6 baritones, 2 tubas, and 9 percussionists. I’d also welcome comments on my instrumentation. For the choices I had 57 first choices assigned, 8 second choices assigned, and 11 third choices assigned. I had 3/4th…75% place on their first choice, 11% on second, and 14% on their third.

Of those 19 who didn’t get their first choice, I already have had 7 phone calls and/or emails. I expected this. I’m sure I’ll hear from at least 10 more. I have had 3 emails and/or phone calls from students who GOT THEIR FIRST CHOICE!!! I guess I expected that I would at least be able to make that 75% happy, but I guess I can’t even do that.

Here’s what I’m hoping to do about it. As I’m hearing from or meeting with troubled parents, I’m sharing with them how the conclusions were made and that I share frustration with them that they are not playing their first choice. I make sure they understand that to allow their student not assigned to a high level choice to one of higher preference would be absolutely unfair to any other student who is in a similar position as they are. Here is what I’m doing for them and something that I probably should not be doing. I’m allowing them to switch off their second or third choice to an instrument that I have need or availability for instrumentation wise. As you can tell I have space available in flute, possibly clarinet, french horn, trombone, and tuba. So far I’ve switched one clarinet to trombone.

What I’m going to be struggling with is giving equal chance for all to do this and wondering why they put the instrument that they do not want down on the preference choice paper when they actually would have rather played an instrument that they did not write down. Oh well. Please let me know what you think. Remeber this is the first time I’ve done this. Am continually grateful to my fellow MS band directors in the area who have shared their methods and ideas on this process. What I came up with is an adaptation of a couple different peoples’. I’m hoping I won’t get a lot of drops, but I’m sure I’ll lose a few. I am very thankful (at this point) that my administration is aware of the situation, my success in allowing so many their first choice and support (at least currently) of what I did in assigning instruments. Whew, this was a long one, but it does help to write about it.



  1. Hey ReBand,
    It sounds to me like you have a very complicated system for mouthpiece placement. Maybe it’s just that I’m a percussionist posing as a wind band teacher, but I rarely try students on the horns…just the mouthpieces. I generally try to complete the fittings in five minutes or less (though I rarely make that goal) as I get swamped with kids in short windows of opportunity. I generally try each kid on flute, clarinet (which I also use to look at sax embouchure-somebody tell a percussionist how bad an idea is that, anyway?), trumpet and trombone. I keep a French horn and a tuba mouthpiece in my fittings kit but only try them based on the trumpet/trombone buzz. I choose my percussionists based on (a) piano experience, (b) a brief coordination exercise, similar to playing drumset, by tapping on table or knees, and (c) input from elementary teachers about academic ability, personal organization and behavior.
    So, my process is this: around April-ish, I send home the second letter (the first went out in early spring) with an info sheet to be filled out and brought back (which asks student instrument preference) and do as many fittings as possible as pullouts from the 5th grade music classes. During the fitting, I collect their info sheet and use it to record my suggested instruments for that student. After I have completed all the fittings, I go back through all the sheets to match up student interests to my suggestions (and my ideal instrument distribution). There are always a few kids whom I need to go talk with again to come to an amicable agreement.
    Here’s the key: every time I speak to any student or parent (or, as you pointed out, administrator) about instrument fittings, I point out to them that “students have input, but they don’t necessarily pick their instrument”. I tell them that the most successful Band students are the ones who want to play music and be “on the team” regardless of their assigned instrument. I tell them that in the instrument selection process, the priorities are (1) the student’s ability to be successful on the instrument, (2) the student’s preferences, and (3) ensemble balance. I also tell them that 10% of students get their first choice, 10% of students end up playing something not in their top three (but are likely to be great at and happy with) and the other 80% land on their second- or third-choice instrument. I find that the more times and the more people to whom I say these, like a parrot, then the more students and parents understand the variables, help the process, and buy into the resulting assignments.
    I have known directors who let the students play whatever they want, and are unhappy with their ensembles. I have known directors who stuck a horn in each kid’s hand with no discussion, leaving much unhappiness an higher attrition rates. I am by no means an instrument-assign-tologist, but I have found that the above process seems to smooth the most ruffled feathers.
    And, as a last resort, I ask what the kid’s favorite sport is. Soccer? Great. Listen: how many kids on your select team get to play (midfield) like (Ronaldinho)? How many have to play (defence)? Yeah? Now tell me this: what would the coach of your select soccer team say if you threatened to quit the team if he/she didn’t let you play your favorite position? What would happen if everybody on your team played midfield because they liked it best? That’s right, son, your team wouldn’t win the tournament. Please, my boy, join our select team, but only if you are a team member and a team player.

    Comment by Cary — October 3, 2008 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

  2. …Sorry for writing a book…

    I would also suggest trying to finish your fittings in the spring if possible, or at least by the end of the first week of school if possible, even if that means making several evenings available for parents to bring their kids in. The sooner kids can squeak and squawk, the more energy you’ll generate.

    One director who really has his recruiting and his mouthpiece-fitting act together is Darrel Crowder at Barbara Bush Middle School in Carrolton-Farmers Branch ISD. Look him up and ask him some questions.

    Comment by Cary — October 3, 2008 @ 5:02 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Cary,

    Thanks for your input. You have some great ideas here. I’d like to continue the conversation and please don’t take anything as criticism, I’m in NO position to state anything with true authority. I would have to shift from trying to make the students choices happen (1) then ability (2) with balance (3) right? I understand that philosophy and both agree and disagree with it. In the agreement part, I’d love to have my students who are mostly likely to be successful on the instruments they are most likely to do best on. For the disagreement part, first of all, I don’t believe that most people can tell for sure that a student would truly have more success on one instrument or another based on trying all tests in the amount of time I gave them, about 5 minutes each for ww, brass, and for perc. I’m sure that I didn’t get it all right. I’m sure that I will get better at it with time, but I’m not there yet. Secondly, I figure that a student is more likely to be more successful on an instrument that they are more interested in rather than one that they just are assigned. What do you think about this? Thirdly, I had enough trouble with students who didn’t get their first choice when there were only 25% who got their 2nd or 3rd to really want to make that change. I can’t imagine the fallout if only 10% got their first choice. I’m sure a good portion of this is because it’s my first year at this school. The evening hours has true merit. I absolutely agree that I need to get this process over more quickly. Thank you for the suggestion of Mr. Crowder. Please let me know what you think…all three of you. =)

    Comment by reband — October 6, 2008 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

  4. Hi ReBand – I was just cruising through the ME Blogger list and clicked onto you.

    I am rather biased in my thinking that kids should be playing the instrument that they want to play. This has mostly been a gut instinct for me, but it partly has to do with my feelings about teaching music. I think the instrument is just the medium for which I am teaching the child music… sure I would love to have a balanced band, but if the kids aren’t happy with their instrument or if they are not loving the sound that they are making… what good will they contribute? Will they have a personal connection with the instrument? Will they actively seek out ways to improve their sound and their playing? Will they have lifelong learning in music? I hope I do not seem overly critical of your decisions… just sharing mine.

    I started teaching in 1994, and have always done this… never had perfect instrumentation, but I always had good retention.

    Every single time that I have seen a kid get pushed onto a certain instrument that they didn’t really want to play (have a family horn laying around, is told by someone that they can’t do the one they want, etc) it has been a negative experience. I have seen anything from just quitting or switching a year later… to a child who dropped her sax and claimed it was broken because she really just didn’t want to play it (she’s on cello this year).

    I will 2nd the suggestion of doing fittings in the spring. In my district, we (4 of us teach elementary band) spend a week going into all the schools and schedule appointments for the students who want to try an instrument.

    The students check off a couple instruments that they want to try… if we have time, we let them try as many as they want. If we find troubles making a sound on their first choice, we offer suggestions and let them try another one, until we find a good fit for the child. Sometimes, you can see the child’s face literally light up when they make a sound on the instrument that they love. It’s precious.

    There are 3 local dealers who come with us, and they supply the instruments and pass out their paperwork to the kids on their way out.

    I don’t know if any of that helps… I know my ideas are radical to some… but I would rather teach kids who have used their hands to pick up their instrument, rather than ones who are not into the one that they have been handed.

    Comment by voeglergranite — October 17, 2008 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  5. Hello Voeglergranite,

    Thanks for cruising on in. Cruising is my favorite way to vacation! I appreciate you contributing your thoughts. As far as the instrument selection process I totally understand your position and don’t necessarily disagree with it at all. I do think it’s important to try to get close on acceptable instrumentation, but in prescribing and mandating certain guidelines, troubles like the ones you mentioned above are certainly possibilities, although obviously some teachers have had great success with those procedures. As for me, I was “raised” on the system that you advocate. Each child and family picks their own instrument and the band director just has to suffer through it. I agree that a student placed on an instrument that they are not excited about playing poses a potential problem and at least an initial push back. In the procedures that I used, I did my very best to get each child on the instrument of a child’s first, second, or third choice and as I indicated, 75% were on #1 (which you would probably be supportive of). The other 25% got 2nd or 3rd, mostly to address balance issues, but also (and this is the biggie) to place a child on an instrument where they might have the best chance of being successful based on their testing. While I know I’m not great at testing instruments yet, I also know that some kids just don’t have the face or brains for certain instruments. Putting them on those instruments, even if they reeeeeaallly wanted to play them would in all probability be an exercise in frustration for all involved.

    All of that being said, for the most part, I was being a company man on this issue this year as it was my first time doing this and I wanted to be consistent with the procedures that are used at the other MSs in the district. I would actually change things a little more and not even start saxes at all. Every potential sax player would start on clarinet in my world, all potential horn players would start on trumpet, all potential tubas on baritone. No percussionist until the spring after they have played a wind instrument for a while. Like you said, these ideas might seem radical to some, but I think it would work out very well. I would also like to do testing and fittings in the spring, but that was not a possibility this year and would be unlikely to be available in the future.

    I really appreciate your comments and would welcome others as well. Thanks for contributing!

    Comment by reband — October 18, 2008 @ 10:28 am | Reply

  6. Hi, me again. I promise no books this time.

    Yes, student choice is important. No, I am not the “instrument nazi” (apologies to Seinfeld), nor am I a mouthpiece fitting guru. Surely, somewhere, somebody has written a really good book on relative embouchures and the analysis thereof, and I want to find it and buy it and sing from it on Sunday mornings.

    I find that even with my flawed system, I get lots of satisfied customers. I do NOT force kids onto any instrument…but I do try to set them up with knowledge of more than one instrument before we begin, and set them up to go into the process with an open mind. I find that discussion between the student and myself is best, while the two extremes (totally student choice, totally director choice) have not been satisfactory for me.

    Comment by Cary — October 25, 2008 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  7. Thanks for writing again Cary. I would agree and extend your last sentence. First of all, once an instrument is chosen/assigned, I’ll speak with a child about a problem or a switch, but only talk seriously about a switch to parents. I don’t like middle men (especially when they are 11). I don’t think that there is a system, one, other, or in between that is completely satisfactory. I suppose one has to be so laid back with this process that it doesn’t bother one if issues come up. I’ve never been that laid back, I don’t think many of us have.

    Comment by reband — October 25, 2008 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

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