The Honor Band Experience

A highlight for student musicians is to be selected to be part of an honor band. Here’s what they can expect.

One of the highlights of a middle school or high school musician’s year is being selected for and performing with an honor band or orchestra.

It’s also a highlight for directors. Over the last 10 years or so, I have had the pleasure of conducting honor bands from local school districts and our regional music educators association. I even conducted one virtually over Zoom! These rehearsals and performances are always special for me, and while each ensemble is unique, they all carry the responsibility of providing the best experience for the students.  As a director who has contributed students to honor groups, I always appreciate it when rehearsals are organized and rewarding for my students (and a well-polished final performance is always great, too!)

What is the honor band experience like for a young musician? It elevates the student’s performance level and musical knowledge, and it increases their interest in making music.

When looking at the honor band experience, consider the contributions of these three entities: 1) the sponsoring district or association and its directors, 2) the participating students and 3) the conductor. Having a specific expectation for each of these will help to establish a meaningful and well-run honor band experience.

For this article, “honor band” is defined as a select ensemble from a district or region where the students have been chosen by audition or selected by their band directors. It should be noted that there are often two distinct types of honor bands — one where the best students are selected, no matter where they’re from, and the other where each participating school is evenly represented. Both are valid, but the composition of each may affect the literature choices and tone of rehearsals.

honor band Wv88h0iXc8 unsplashThe Sponsoring Organization

The guest conductor for an honor group is usually chosen from candidates submitted by district directors or the governing board of a host association. The sponsoring entity (school district, state or local music educators association, etc.) should be responsible for setting the rehearsal schedule — dates, times and location — once it has confirmed the conductor’s availability. The sponsor is responsible for securing the venue and all necessary equipment (and venue staff, if required) for the performance.

The sponsor auditions or selects participants and should communicate with the director on the ability level of the students. The more detailed this information, the better the conductor can tailor the experience to meet the students’ needs. The sponsor also determines the instrumentation of the ensemble, which may affect the literature selection. Oftentimes (but not always), the sponsor selects some or all of the performance literature, or at least makes some suggestions. In some situations, this is left entirely up to the guest conductor. Once music is selected, the sponsor usually provides the conductor with scores.

One of the added bonuses of sponsoring an honor band is that the directors have the opportunity to watch the conductor at work! There is usually some representation of directors at honor band rehearsals, and it’s even more helpful if they serve as section coaches, helping to rehearse a specific section for part or all of a rehearsal. A percussion manager is vital to assure that parts are properly assigned and the necessary equipment is readily available. It has always been very rewarding for me to have the opportunity to work with students at this level as a section coach.

Another highlight for directors is having an opportunity to socialize (often over a meal or beverages) with the guest conductor after the performance.

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The Performers

The performers are expected to be prepared for audition (or recommendation), and they must show up with their instrument, pencil and music (if provided beforehand). It is very helpful if the audition includes an excerpt from the concert program, as this helps students to be more prepared ahead of time. Students should receive their acceptance within a reasonable amount of time, usually one to two weeks following auditions. It’s essential to be clear on your expectations for the students during rehearsal — that they be attentive, engaged, courteous and on time. Prior to accepting their spot in an honor group, the students (and their parents) must be able to commit to all rehearsal and performance dates, as well as the required practice time outside of rehearsals.

The students’ honor band experience should be different from their daily rehearsals at school. They will be surrounded by equally talented, hard-working musicians, and they should experience accelerated ensemble musical growth. For some, it may be the largest or most complete ensemble they have yet performed with. A successful honor band experience should send the students back to their own schools with new musical ideas, techniques or expectations for excellence.

The Conductor

The conductor determines the tone and success of the ensemble.

honor band conductor pexels 2102568

It is helpful for the conductor to be involved in the literature selection. Often, conductors have some tried-and-true selections or new works that they are quite familiar with that will work well for the ensemble. It is often helpful to have more pieces selected than what is actually intended for the performance. I usually recommend having one slightly easier and one more challenging piece in the folder. Once literature has been selected, the conductor is responsible for score study and being adequately prepared to rehearse each piece.

The efficient use of rehearsal time is a key to a successful program! Honor group rehearsal schedules can vary greatly, from a one-day rehearsal and performance to four rehearsal days plus a performance date. The conductor must be aware of the timeline and plan appropriately. A sample rehearsal plan for a three-day honor group might go as follows:

    • Day 1 — Get to know the ensemble and let them adjust to the conductor. This usually is a part of the warm-up process. Utilize a tutti section of one of the mid-level pieces to establish the ensemble blend and balance. Play through each piece and solidify rhythmic concepts, tempo changes, percussion assignments, and have the students mark significant musical elements.
    • Day 2 — This is where the real work usually happens. It is the last chance to find the most challenging moments of each piece and carefully work through them. It is a time for adjusting balance and intonation issues, and solidifying pulse in all pieces.
    • Day 3 — This is the final preparation for the concert. It is a time for solidifying any tempo changes or critical moments that have not yet come together. Discuss concert etiquette. Always include a full run-through of all selections.

During every rehearsal, it is expected that the conductor will be personable and utilize humor and storytelling as they share his or her knowledge of musical literature and the composers, engaging students in conversations about why the music was written the way it has been.  Throughout every meeting, the conductor is expected, of course, to exhibit exemplary musical and pedagogical knowledge.

The concert should be a culminating event that is both a destination and celebration of the musical journey preceding it. Some conductors may wish to address the audience at some point in the performance, but it is always helpful to have an emcee present to welcome the audience, make initial introductions and perhaps read program information between selections.

It is customary for the conductor to thank the audience, the directors, administrators and students for their part in making the event come together, and it is always appreciated if they also make a point of telling the parents how vital and important participation in musical ensembles can be to the students’ education!

With careful planning and support, appropriate repertoire, a prepared and engaging conductor and eager students, the honor band experience can be a great experience for the local ensembles and the directors, as well as the students!

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