Perhaps one of the most difficult decisions a middle school band director must make is choosing appropriate music. Balancing the pedagogical value and the musical integrity of each piece is not a simple task. In addition, often schools have specific curricular goals which music teachers must be aware. For example, many elementary schools use various themes throughout the school year such as Black History Month, the Presidents, or Celebrating Patriotic Holidays and it is incumbent upon band directors to choose music that enhances these themes. Of all these factors, most importantly the music teacher most choose music based on the musical skill level of musicians in the band.
One of the common mistakes many new band directors make, particularly at the middle school level, is choosing music which is too difficult. I recently adjudicated a band festival in which a small school 7th grade band played a piece with 1st trumpet parts above the staff, exposed low brass parts, and overly technical clarinet parts. The piece was simply not appropriate for the band and the fault for the low ratings was directly the responsibility of a band director that did not take the time to realistically evaluate the students in the band.
Evaluating the performance level of the students in a band should be the first task of the band director before making any sheet music selections. I’ve heard it said that a band is only as strong as the weakest player and this may hold some credence, although I personally don’t completely agree. Perhaps the easiest way to evaluate exactly where the band is in terms of performance level is to use any of the excellent band methods available on the market today. Pass out a level 3 book to the most advanced middle school band to discover quickly where the strengths and weaknesses are. As you play exercises in the book, take notes and record exactly where problems exist. You will very quickly know what your students can and cannot play and you are ready to move on the the next step of choosing music.
Most music on the market today is rated from grade 1 to grade 5. Grade 5 music is primarily restricted to college or professional level bands. Middle school music teachers should be looking at levels 1 and 2. Generally, level 1 music will be limited to rhythms which include whole, half, quarter and eighth notes. Trumpet range is limited to notes within the staff. Clarinets parts do not normally cross the break, although when 2 parts are present, the 1st clarinet may cross the break.
Level 2 music simply expands on level 1. Rhythms may include sixteenth notes and dotted rhythms. Some level 2 music also is written in 6/8. Ranges for brass extend upward one or two notes and clarinets are expected to play over the break.