If you are an orchestra or band teacher, solo and ensemble festival is one of the events you prepare your students every year. This year, make these simple changes that will make your festival preparation even better!
Before you read on you can check other music director articles here:
- How to Prepare Your Students for Sigh Reading at Music Festivals
- 3 Harmless Habits That May Cost You Lower Scores at Festivals
I started writing this article after talking to a colleague who organizes Solo and Ensemble Festival in my district. She shared that our the enrollment has dropped. Curiously, the enrollment from my school has been very high in the past years. Most of my students participate, they are prepared and have a good time.
Talking to other teachers who also have successful participation of their students of the festival, I noticed some similarities that we all do. They are simple, yet very effective. Find the ideas below.
As my background is teaching orchestra for the past 11 years, this article is mostly directed toward orchestra teachers. Don’t go away if you teach a different music class though! The procedures for scheduling and preparing students for Solo and Ensemble festival are the same for band, guitar or choir. The article will be beneficial to all music directors running an instrumental or choir music program.
1. Choosing Pieces and Grouping the Ensembles
Organizing the different ensembles and choosing a piece for each one is the first and most important step in preparing for solo and ensemble festival. This is where some teachers feel overwhelmed. This is especially if they have a large program or very different levels within their classes. instead of changing things just the week before the ensemble, make it a longer unit.
Often less is more. Instead of choosing a different piece for every single ensemble, consider starting with just two or three pieces. Pick one easy, one more intermediate and one challenging piece. Then have the WHOLE class learn them together as a big group. After the students know the pieces, then separate them into ensembles. At this point they can chose within the parameters of their given pieces.
This procedure makes scheduling large orchestra, guitar or band programs so easy! I have been doing it this way for a few years and I am never going back!
2. Consider Rounds for Beginning Orchestras (or Bands)
In the past two years I have done something that has been a real game changer with my beginners. I give my beginning orchestra students rounds. I will pick two or three that work well for the level of the class. Same as the procedure described above, I would group the kids and have them pick their own piece to play after they they learned the pieces as a large group.
Using rounds has completely removed the stress from grouping kids and/or worrying that kids may not show up at the festival. If there is an emegency and a student is absent, then the quartet can easily become a trio, the trio can become a duet. The kids from other ensembles can also quickly jump in and help out. It has been so nice working this way. This has also made it possible for me to have large numbers of kids participate. As I can find different levels of rounds, this can also reflect on the needs of more and less advanced students in the program.
list of specific pieces for Solo and Ensemble?
- Tuning a round. This is a relatively older book very helpful to teachers of beginning orchestras. Very nice selection where the round start from beginning level and get to a more advanced level. Here is a sample of first page scores. Great to use for beginners or lower intermediate players.
- Learning Together by Laurie Scott, Winifred Crock and Bill Dick. There are three rounds as a part of the book. They excellent! This is my first choice for my beginning orchestra class. I always have my kids do these three rounds. They work perfectly for brand new beginners. The pieces also provide many opportunities to work on different technical elements and rhythms.
If you think that rounds may not be the best choice for your groups, then consider books with flexible instrumentation. This takes away the stress of having students be in the appropriate levels and having the right instruments.
- Progressive Quartets by Doris Gazda is a good place to start. The same book is available as duets and trios. And it is written for orchestra or band. You can find very easy arrangements as well as more challenging ones for more advanced students and high school orchstra students. I am very happy with it.
- There are quite a few books with flexible instrumentation for orchestras and bands. If you are using one that you love, by all means, share in the comments for other music teachers to see.
3. Make it an Unit
Chamber music is so important for the development of your school music program. Yet, the format is different from a regular orchestra rehearsal. The only way the students can get the benefits of playing in a chamber music ensemble is when they have a chance to spend longer time doing it. As a teacher you need to ensure that the students practice in this new format and have enough time to feel comfortable playing in a small ensemble.
Once the students’ groups have been chosen, have them set up and rehearse with their newly formed ensembles. This may involve changing the physical set up of you music room. re-arrange the chairs and stands so that students are always with their ensemble. Or you can send some students in the or practice rooms and even outside the music room so that they have their ensemble spot (for older students and if you feel comfortable with student behavior). It is important that the students set up and practice with their ensembles in order to develop bonds while developing chamber music skills.
A week or two before the Solo and Ensemble festival, have the different ensemble simulate a concert and play for each other. They can also complete sample judging sheets and give positive feedback to one another. Some students may feel nervous to do this at first. Once this becomes a regular practice for your program, it becomes an invaluable experience for both teacher and the students.
4. Assessment In the Orchestra Classroom For Solo and Ensemble Unit
How do you ensure that the students stay on track, they are being given fair grades, and at the same time keep documentation for your administrator?
Print out the judging sheets required of your state. Find example here. You can also create a simple form to use in your classroom. Have the students work exclusevly with the rubric. Once an ensemble plays, the rest of the students fill out the judging sheets and provide feedback. If your administrator is requiring different ways to do assessment and document in the orchestra class, keep the judging rubrics the students complete. As the kids are working with the rubric they are also practicing the most “pure” form of performance-based assessment. They are working in a format that directly reflects the professional world and they the performance assessment they will receice at the festival.
It is also a great idea to create a simple rubric for the students about team work. They need guideline as of how to work in an ensemble. They could have a simple check list of what it feels like to work in an ensemble: be positive, make sure all members of the ensemble are heard and respected, etc. At the end of the day, every student would turn in their check list with a check plus or check minus on the categores. If all categories are checked, then this is 100% or grade A for the student for that week.
You can also have a discussion with the students at the beginning of the unit talking about rules of the ensemble playing and how they would be graded. This may involve what the grade will be if a team member is disrespectful or not involved in the process, cell phone use, etc. This will provide a student driven assessment and curriculum. The students then need to be responsible for the rules they set for themselves.
5. Should You Make Solo and Ensemble Festival Required or Not
Having Solo and Ensemble festival be optional creates the danger of many students dropping out. This ensemble is schedule on a weekend in most states. This also created challenges with students in sports. Many may simply say No without even thinking about the possibility. It is much better to make it required. Then if there is a problem with a certain students’s schedule you can make one or two exceptions as opposed to loosing your whole class due to making the festival optional.
You know your community best. My experience is that if you do not require the festival from mine, they simply don’t make it. That creates problems with trying to match students in ensembles. in the past I have handled this two different ways. I used to get ALL of my beginners to do Solo and Ensemble. Once they are in more advanced classes, they had to choose whether they wanted to participate. However, I made sure that they suit their registration forms early enough to give me time to organize the students. Now I have all my students do a camber music unit and work on ensemble pieces (whether they make it physically to the festival). I have found out that his is much more beneficial to the students and to the growth of the orchestra program in general.
Solo and Ensemble Festival can be so much fun for both the teacher and the students. It provides many benefits to the students. It also provides teachers with a “lighter” time and change of pace in the music classroom. I feel that the biggest success we teachers can achieve is when we analyze every year taught and try to make the next one smoother. I hope the ideas above have helped in the process!