The development and maintenance of instrumental ensembles is often compromised by budgetary constraints, facility space, feeder schools and available instrumentation. So, for parents with little or no musical background, choosing the right path for your young musician can be a daunting task.
The academic hierarchy of instrumental ensembles is ambiguous at best. How do you know which ensemble your middle schooler is best suited for? Is band class enough?
The National Association for Music Education, NAfME (formerly MENC), is considered to be one of the world’s largest and most significant arts education organizations. Over the years, members of the organization have set out to communicate to states and local school districts
basic standards of music proficiency. These standards encompass the major ways in which people interact with music in our culture. By the time your student reaches middle school, you should notice significant growth in at least some of these skills:
1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.
5. Reading and notating music.
6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.
7. Evaluating music and music performances.
8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.
9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.
Use these standards as a starting point when conferencing with your child’s music teacher. Then ask for a verbal tour of the instrumental ensembles that best suit your child’s needs. You’ll likely be given offerings that are either curricular or extra-curricular. But don’t think of this as an “either/or” decision. Quality, extra-curricular ensembles use classroom-based knowledge as a starting point for more in-depth music exploration.
As you can probably guess, curricular ensembles are directly linked to a class. A typical middle school band class addresses intermediate level woodwind, brass and percussion players. String players attend orchestra class. Both classes have specific requirements and assessments that should be spelled out in the school’s curriculum. Most likely they include at least one performance which may be part of your student’s grade. Ideally, the middle school Band/Orchestra class offers students intermediate level skill enhancement from September to June. Generally speaking, academic goals include range extension, tone enhancement, rhythmic development and interpretive awareness.
Hopefully, your district offers a host of extra curricular ensembles that allow students to show off their newly-developed skills. Specific ensembles (jazz, woodwind, brass, string, percussion) offer students an opportunity to try their hand at a high-exposure repertoire. Often, these groups are smaller and less formal than a traditional classroom-based ensemble. But availability of these ensembles will not only vary from district to district, but may also vary depending on the instrumentation in any given year.
In any event, by the time your student finishes a well-balanced middle school program, you can reasonably expect a noticeable transition from merely playing the right note at the right time to actually making music (and liking it).