Preparing high schoolers for graduation

  • Blog

When I mentioned to a pre-collegiate student of mine that I played in the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, she was a little confused. “I thought orchestra was for strings?” she asked. Another one of my students spent a summer at Interlochen Arts Camp and noted how few of the trombonists even auditioned for the orchestras rather than defaulting to the bands. It seems to be a recurring theme, at least here in the midwest. Brass and wind students play in concert bands, marching bands, brass bands and jazz bands but rarely have any contact with their string colleagues.

I have nothing against bands, of course – great music is written for all ensembles, whether it’s just strings, or just winds, or a combination. However, these restricted ensembles that do not include all instrument families are not representative of the post-academic world. After graduation, students who enjoyed their instrumental music experience and want to attend a concert may be frustrated by the lack of a professional wind ensemble in their region. Many might not even know to look for a symphony orchestra or opera company if they had no previous exposure to those formats.

I remember when I started college, I had graduated from a very good public school band program, and I had even played in all-state orchestra and some other mixed ensembles. However, I had a huge learning curve to catch up with the expectation that I knew what Beethoven sounded like or had heard of Shostakovich. The same kind of content that will prepare students to attend concerts after graduating high school band will also help make the transition to college level study a little easier.

We can do our students a service by adding a little more “music appreciation” type content into our pedagogy. I’m not advocating making students sit through lectures instead of their normal ensembles or lessons. However, occasional discussion of major composers or guided listening assignments would give students a framework from which to ask more questions or browse Spotify on their own if they’re interested.

Professional symphony orchestras should see high school instrumental music programs as a huge opportunity. Most orchestras play a kids concert for elementary school students which is a pretty good advertisement to get kids excited to join their school’s band or orchestra program and play an instrument. Many symphonies also have a youth orchestra for the top echelon of students. However, a large number of students in between those two extremes fall through the middle.

I suggest adding another youth concert to the season specifically for high school students enrolled in band and orchestra programs. Programs designed for high school musicians won’t have to spend time introducing the instrument families, because these students will already know the basics. Instead of converting kids into music students, these concerts can focus on converting music students into music patrons and music majors. If this concert is done well, these students might even come back to another concert, either with their friends or their families. Unlike the elementary school audiences, high schoolers have spending money and can drive. It’s not farfetched to imagine a group of friends going to a concert instead of the mall for a change of weekend activity.

Basically, it’s important to remember that we are music educators, not typing instructors. Our job is not just to teach students how to produce sounds on their chosen instruments, but to teach them what kinds of sounds to produce, and why they might want to do so. We are musicians because we are passionate about the art form, and we should work to introduce our students to that art rather than being satisfied with superior ratings at adjudicated events.