Middle School Band and Family Members

Middle School Band students recently competed in the Illinois Grade School Music Association’s (IGSMA) Solo and Ensemble Contest on Saturday, February 11, hosted at Caruso Middle School in Deerfield. Each student prepared an instrumental solo independently beginning in early December, and on contest day, played in front of a judge specializing in their specific instrument.

The idea the competition is to garner feedback from a master player who is not their teacher. This annual exercise also serves as a way of charting each musician’s’ individual growth. Preparing a piece to be played alone or in a small ensemble requires a student possess independent musicianship as part of their skill-set. Initially, students have help selecting their music, but from there, they begin learning independently and, depending on the student, may, or may not, have help from a private teacher. In Band rehearsals, students were given time to practice, with occasional check-ins with the director for feedback and suggestions. Once a student is ready, they begin to practice with an accompanist. Finally, the solo is performed in front of a judge, who gives them comments and a 1st, second, or 3rd rating based on a standard rubric.

In Middle School Band at Baker, we almost always play as an ensemble. The preparation of solos helps to strengthen each musician, so while they have a chance to play on their own, they are also becoming better players for when they return to play with the ensemble. Within our group, we frame the experience as a wonderful opportunity to get feedback. Within this framework, we stress that scores might be interesting, but not important. Students know that they should be focusing on the judges’ comments and not the numerical score, in keeping with our progressive approach to learning.

The type of feedback they receive from the judges varies, but is always useful in the student’s growth as a musician. Much of the time the judges suggest something about playing with more intense dynamics for example, or richer tone. They might also give tips about breathing, special fingerings for the instrument, suggestions for techniques to slur difficult notes, or any number of technical issues that an expert player would be able to address and offer tips for improvement.

There are extra-musical learning experiences that are required as a part of this process as well. You may wonder, “Just how does one go about putting together an instrumental solo independently?” Of course, musical skills are necessary, but just as important are higher-order thinking, attention, control, reflection, organization, persistence, problem solving, flexibility, etc. When we step back we can see that this task encompasses nearly everything we mean when we talk about “executive functioning.” While it would be fine to explain exactly how these manifest throughout a project like this, it might be more telling to hear it in the players’ own words. Below are some reflections from the middle school band members about our solo and ensemble contest.

“This year was an amazing experience because everyone was there all day together and we all supported each other. It was incredible to see the judges reactions when a whole group of sometimes thirty people would come to watch a solo be performed. It felt amazing to support each other and to be supported by the community. Instead of feeling intimidated by all the people watching my solos, I felt supported. I have seen much of my growth as a musician through Solo Fest. The feedback I have gotten there has shaped my work for the next year and given me a goal for the next time I played for a judge. I am always nervous and excited before I play my solos, and this year especially I felt proud that I conquered solos that looked almost impossible to me when I first looked at them! I have loved solo fest, and I am really going to miss it next year.” – Emily. F.

“I learned that I had to make sure I was perfectly tuned and not flat or sharp for a good sound, I had to try and breathe only at the end of phrases for a more smooth sound. I had to focus on being loud when it said forte and quiet when it said piano. Overall I don’t think I would have learned these if I hadn’t gone to Solo and Ensemble and I am very gracious that I got the opportunity to.” – Zuzu B.

“It helped me face challenges better”. -Oscar B.

“I liked the challenge of trying to master and balance three solos/group pieces.”- Andrew F.

“I was really nervous when I got to the building, but when I watch other people’s solos I got comfortable with it. After my solo I thought I did really badly but the judge was really nice and still gave me a high score, and the comments were really helpful.” – Derek L.

“To be able to play a piece and to really focus on your personal skills was a big thing for me. Solo Fest has helped me so much with tone, timing, dynamics, basically anything. When you are preforming your solo its like its just you and the music and I try to convey the emotion that I think the composer would have wanted to be heard through his or her music. Solo and Ensemble is not just about the medals, it’s really about the feedback that you get. That way the next year you can use that feedback to improve upon your instrumental skills. I will be sad to be leaving the Baker Band community this year seeing as I am graduating, but I hope to continue my saxophone playing. I think this experience is definitely a must have.” -Tara W.

“I felt like this experience let me get better at dynamics. I had to look carefully at slurs and volume. I also got to learn new notes that I hadn’t really used before. I also got better at doing my work and practicing. I had to work really hard and I’m proud of my score. The Bb to C was really hard for me and the grace notes took a lot of work. I also had to have lots of self confidence and know that even if I didn’t get the greatest score in the world, that the experience changed me in a good way and that matters way more that the score.”- Skye E.

“I also think that it is important to not get too down if you don’t get the score that you want because every judge is different. For instance, some judges take dynamics really seriously, and some don’t. You should not compare your score with other people’s. It’s like comparing inches to centimeters- they are not the same unit.” – Max

The quotes above represent specific musicians thoughts about this specific project. The aim for all musicians at Baker is the same and includes, but is not limited to:

instill independent musicianship; develop the ability to play and/or sing as an ensemble; and developing extra-musical skills linked to general executive functioning.

In an effort to show what we know and what we do more regularly, check us out on our newly launched Instagram account! Our account is private, so you have to opt in by requesting to follow. Photos and videos of general music classes from Junior Kindergarten through Middle School Arts Core classes will be posted as regularly as possible. Check out music program on Instagram at @bakermusic17.

Written by Baker’s Music Teacher, Jamee Guerra