MUSICAL MUSINGS: Merging band and orchestra—is it really a good idea?

The high school’s band and orchestra electives have been changed greatly this year. Now, instead of having the separate entities of band and orchestra, there is the band, the orchestra and the combined band and orchestra.

It seems that everyone is excited about this change and thinks it can only be for the better. I, however, am more mixed on the issue.

First of all, the merging will reduce rehearsal time for the separate groups.

When the band/orchestra elective falls on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, the rehearsal will be with the combined band and orchestra. This leaves only two days every other week for the orchestra to practice alone.

I know from experience that when there isn’t a rehearsal very soon, I tend not to practice rigorously. With the separate orchestra rehearsals so far apart, I can’t help but think that the quality of playing will go down drastically.

Also, by being in two groups (orchestra or band plus orchestral band) the amount of music that students have to learn is doubled. Once again, the practicing that students put in will probably not be enough to make both ensembles sound good.

Nonetheless, these fears can easily be assuaged if everyone commits to putting in the practice time. In fact, this may be a good way for students to learn how difficult and time-consuming playing an instrument can become.

Sadly, though, my experience with high schoolers leads me to believe that the majority won’t be as dedicated as they need to be.

And if the majority isn’t enthusiastic about the increased workload, the quality of all three groups will go down. Consequently, the chances of any group winning prestigious awards this year will drop as well.

Even if no one does practice, life isn’t all about prizes. The change can still be beneficial, right?

I think so. Learning how to play with other types of instruments (i.e. woodwinds, brass and strings) can really advance a person’s playing ability.

As someone who participates in a symphonic orchestra outside of school, I can attest that one’s listening skills, musicality and general technique can’t help but improve when playing in a symphonic musical environment.

But one gets the most out of such a situation when at a more advanced level. When I first started playing in the Sacramento Youth Symphony, I was at a solid intermediate level.

I spent three years in that orchestra and then moved up to the next level for two years. Only after those five years of exposure to symphonic music did I make it into the highest level.

At Country Day, most players’ exposure to music begins as and remains a part of their school education. They’ve never had the chance to play with a symphonic group before.

This probably sounds as though I’m all for the merge, but actually it means the exact opposite.

Symphonic music is much more difficult than regular band or orchestra music. Musicians must play in key signatures that are not as comfortable on their instruments, listen for their parts in other sections of the group and perform more as a team member than a soloist. All of these things are hard and require a great deal of practice and exposure over a long period of time (like my five years in the Youth Symphony).

The pressure of learning all of this in a semester and producing a satisfactory concert—not to mention the expected awards)—can be overwhelming.

It would be better if the process of learning were spread out over at least a year and for a minimal number of pieces.

In that case, students would be able to put in the required time for their separate groups and the combined group.

My suggestion is create a combined rehearsal every Thursday and Friday that the elective meets. Students would have rehearsals with both groups every week, which would encourage them to practice. Also, the pieces with the combined group should be limited to one or two.

The main issue, though, is that someone needs to decide whether the separate groups or the combined group will be the dominant ensemble. Trying to do both equally is too much for most busy Country Day students.


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