Having judged a number of solo/ensemble festivals (contests), I feel it is reasonable to state that this activity has the potential for accomplishing more of the fundamental goals of music education than almost anything else we, as band directors, can do. Solos and chamber music can teach independence of musical thought, improve sensitivity to balance and intonation, provide musical opportunities specifically tailored to the ability levels of the students and provide a host of other beneficial results.
Studies have provided the data to show the benefits of chamber music and/or solo performing. A study by Sorensen (1971) concluded that students who participated in a specially designed program of chamber music scored significantly higher on a musical achievement test than their counterparts in a traditional band program. As study by this author (West, 1985) found that success in solo/ensemble performance was much more strongly related to musical achievement than was success in band performance. Another study by Jarrell (1971), also indicated the value of solos and small ensembles within the band program.
If we accept the premise that solo/ensemble participation can be a valuable component of a school music program, then one could expect that the festivals which evaluate these students would be given the same priority as festivals for marching and concert band. This, however, has certainly not been the case at most of the festivals at which I have adjudicated or simply observed.
Problems abound at these events. Many students simply fail to show up on the day of the contest. Among those who do appear, many are completely unprepared to perform. On more than one occasion, I have stopped a student in the middle of stumbling through a piece to learn that he/she had obtained the music the previous day. Other students come in with music which is totally inappropriate for serious study. Once,
for example, I sat through a spirited performance of two snare drummers playing an unaccompanied rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever. Still other times, students will prepare music incorrectly. A colleague of mine recently listened to a trumpet trio where all three players performed the first trumpet part. Undoubtedly, anyone who has judged these events could relate many such tales.
It seems clear to this writer that if solo performance and chamber music are to become an integral part of our programs, then music teachers must lead the way. Here are some suggestions for making the most of the solo/ensemble experience:
1. Encourage the performance of solo and chamber music in your school by whatever methods are available to you. Incentives such as extra credit towards grades, band awards for performing in these groups and public recognition are just a few of the many ways available.
2. Schedule recital nights so that the students have performance opportunities. The students need places to play other than the contest/festivals. Civic groups such as Kiwanis or Rotary clubs love to have student chamber groups perform at their gatherings and brass ensembles have innumerable opportunities to perform at church services and special functions. If the groups are well prepared you will soon have more performance opportunities than can be easily accommodated.
3. Start emphasizing solos and ensembles early in the school year. It takes time for a group to select and obtain suitable music and even more time to prepare it for performance. None of us would think about waiting until two weeks before concert festivals to start looking for music to perform. Yet that is regularly the case for many solos and ensembles.
4. Find accompanists for your student soloists! A student who performs a piece without a pianist (unless, of course, the music is written without accompaniment) is not deriving full benefit from the experience. That student will not learn much about the composition or about the subtle communication that exists between soloist and accompanist.
I often hear the lament that there are just no piano players around - a situation which is certainly a common problem. Many directors who voice this complaint, however, are the same ones who spend hundreds of dollars bringing in experts to work with their flag, rifle and percussion sections for marching season. Would it be so unreasonable to set aside a certain portion of the budget to pay a competent pianist? After all, many of the solos composed for beginning to intermediate levels have accompaniments which are not terribly difficult to work out.
5. Listen to your students before they perform in public. Inexperienced players need coaching and advice. Many errors which mar a performance could be easily corrected by the band directors if they could spend a few minutes listening to the ensembles.
6. Help your students choose music for the festivals. There is a wealth of good music available for all ability levels. In the absence of a state approved list, band directors might contact the instrumental faculty at nearby colleges or universities. No one can be an expert on the solo/ensemble literature for every instrument, but knowing who to ask can be almost as effective.
7. Instruct your students on basic performance decorum. They should know the essentials of how to act "on stage" - seating arrangements (Don't turn your back to the judge), tuning procedures, how to start an ensemble (not: "one, two, ready, go"), and all the other little things that tradition and common sense dictate. These are things that should not be taken for granted. You may event want to suggest appropriate attire. We don't permit our students to perform at concert festivals in tee shirts, faded jeans and tennis shoes. It is amazing what coats and ties or nice dresses can do for the attitude of a chamber ensemble.
I believe that the solo/ensemble experience is a valuable one. If students can learn the joy of making music in a small group or even in the solitude of a solo performance, it is possible that they would be more inclined to continue making music throughout their lives. Encourage your students to participate in these activities - after all, the results can only help you, your students, and your band!
Jarrell, James Aubrey. (1971). An Analysis of Achievement, Procedures, and Activities of Selected High School Band Programs in Oklahoma Doctoral dissertation, The University of Oklahoma). Dissertation Abstracts International, 32, 4045A.
Sorensen, James Merlin. (1971). The Effects of Small Ensemble Experience on Achievement and Attitude of Selected Junior High School Instrumental Music Students (Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Dissertation Abstracts International, 32, 5832A.
West, John Thomas. (1985). The Effect of Performance Success on the Musical Achievement of High School Band Students in Four Florida Counties (Doctoral dissertation, The Florida State University).
The article above was written in 1987 - almost a quarter century ago! Unfortunately, most all of the problems and shortcomings discussed in the essay are still with us as a profession. Admittedly, there is great variation between regions, states and individual programs as to how solo and ensemble participation is emphasized. I think it is safe to say, however, that the programs that really stress and reward solo and ensemble participation as a vital component of an overall music education experience are still the exceptions that prove the rule.
Since 1987, there have been some amazing technological developments that impact this area of discussion. Software programs like SmartMusic (originally called Vivace) enable students to practice with a virtual "accompanist" as often as they like. They can adjust tempos to their progress level, set practice loops and even record their
performances. A number of states have embraced this software as part of their state sanctioned solo/ensemble "festivals" allowing the students to perform for an adjudicator using computer based accompaniment.
Unfortunately, many band directors have not yet begun to use this type of program. At a recent honor band clinic I asked the band members (who were drawn from a dozen or so different schools) how many had heard of the SmartMusic program. To my surprise, not a single hand went up! I certainly wish that I had access to this type of technology when I was teaching high school.
With the percentage of households with personal computers rising each year, using instructional software like SmartMusic could help solve several of the problems noted in the article. Ultimately however, like so many other factors in music education, it still comes down largely on the shoulders of the teacher in charge of the band program. If that person values the solo/ensemble experience, they will find a way to make it a part of the band program.