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Are Chair Placement Tryouts Important?


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trickg
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 10:03 am    Post subject: Are Chair Placement Tryouts Important? Reply with quote

Just what the title asks: are chair placement tryouts important or helpful in the development of young players and a school band program?

The reason I ask is because I just finished doing a FaceTime thing with the 8th grade band class in my hometown - I do these on occasion for the band teacher there who is a friend of mine whom I've known for decades.

As part of this little impromptu clinic, she asked me to talk about my experiences growing up in my hometown, what inspired me to become a musician, and what led to my involvement in the Army band program. I mentioned that until middle of 7th grade, I was a middle of the pack player, but things started to click that year, and I quickly started to move up in chair placement in the trumpet section.

I asked the class if they do chair placements and my friend the band teacher commented to me that she doesn't do chair placements. At all. I guess she's philosophically against it - something apparently I've been unware of.

Looking back, if it weren't for chair placement tryouts - some of which were completely impromptu, thereby potentially shaking up the section at a moment's notice - I'm not sure if I'd have succeeded. All through 8th grade I worked my behind off in a battle between me and a classmate for the right to sit 1st chair. He started the year in 1st chair, I won it at a later point, he reclaimed it at another point, (I distinctly remember losing the seat that day - I was NOT happy about it) and at this point I can't remember who was sitting 1st by the end of the year - it may have still been him.

9th grade was another year that was critical to my development. After the initial chair placement tryout, I wound up 4th chair overall. I later moved up to 3rd and immediately got challenged by the new 4th chair player I'd bumped. I successfully fended off 2-3 challenges, and by the end of the year I was 2nd only to my sister. I never challenged for 2nd chair seat - I won it on another chair placement tryout I worked hard on.

I know that there's a philosophy among many here on the board that it should be about the music and it shouldn't be a contest. From an idealistic perspective I understand that, but greatness tends to be heavily inspired by competition, even in music.

I'd thought about sharing my philosophy with her about how chair placement inspires competition which in turn leads to excellence, although I can also acknowledge that it could potentially lead to discouragement for those who struggle to play.

So what does the brain trust of the Trumpet Herald say?
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Brassnose
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 10:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting question. I started out fourth chair in the big band, moved up to third, then second, and discovered I was not the lead player, considering my personality. Too introvert etc., you get the picture. However, when on second I was given all trumpet solo parts in that band and that was quite a challenge as well.

So yes, wanting to move „up“ is a big motivation for students, although they may find on the way that being a 1st chair/lead player is ultimately not what they want or can do best. I’ve been a happy 2nd chair in several big bands and soul/pop bands along with first chair in orchestra ever since. On an amateur level, that is.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 10:52 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Competition is a great motivator for some young players. That was certainly true for me. In the fourth grade, I had no appreciation of music or concept of a good tone or tasteful execution. But I darn sure knew the difference between first chair and seventh chair. The difference in a blue ribbon and a certificate of participation.

And it motivated me to practice for the next "challenge." We had challenges for chairs in my band. A contest every month or so to see who could play their assignment better.

My wife teaches beginning students. They have long tone contests at the end of every rehearsal, and a poster on the wall to record the winners.

I remember even hearing a story about the great Clark Terry, who was mocked and teased by older players for his fuzzy tone. He said something to the effect that he wanted to practice and show those SOBs that they were wrong.

Hopefully, at some point the love of music will take over as a motivator. But even in adulthood, competition is always in play. The gig goes to the best player. That's what symphony auditions are all about.
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trickg
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 10:55 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Brassnose wrote:
Interesting question. I started out fourth chair in the big band, moved up to third, then second, and discovered I was not the lead player, considering my personality. Too introvert etc., you get the picture. However, when on second I was given all trumpet solo parts in that band and that was quite a challenge as well.

So yes, wanting to move „up“ is a big motivation for students, although they may find on the way that being a 1st chair/lead player is ultimately not what they want or can do best. I’ve been a happy 2nd chair in several big bands and soul/pop bands along with first chair in orchestra ever since. On an amateur level, that is.

I think big bands are a different animal than a school concert band. In big bands, each of the 4 trumpet chairs are pretty task specific and not really defined by who is the best player in the section like it is in say a symphony.

1st/Lead - High notes, set the style, phrasing, lock in with the rhythm section
2nd/Solo - the big responsibility is to take on the solos which are typically written for that part.
3rd - lock in harmonies with the lead and 2nd
4th - often written in octaves with the lead, lends support to the lead and locks in harmonies.

Those are just my general impressions and observations from having done it. I'm mostly a 3rd/4th guy - I don't solo well and I don't have the chops for lead, but I'm a good section/utility player.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 10:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

One of the downsides of 'chair tests' is that you deny aspiring musicians the chance to experience something new that may affect their development positively. For example, if the 'first chair' gets all the solos, even the ones that others could play as well, that means that the rest of the players do not. They won't get to experience what it's like to play a solo, and essentially, they won't know what the're missing either. Likewise, the perpetual 'first chair' player will never learn what his section (especially his second) can do to improve the sound as a whole. Also, by ranking the chairs, it can be really tough to justify that 'everyone's part is important to the whole' if at the same time it is communicated that whomever doesn't win a chair test is essentially worth less. Moving up a chair as a status symbol is essentially a false premise, as there's no such thing as 'better parts', which each part having their own challenges.

There can be reasons besides skill that determine a person's success at chair tests. Extrovert, competitive people will be highly motivated by a reward driven structure. Introvert, shy people will back out prematurely. The chair test system will favor the first group, the 'everyone's a winner' system favors the second. Ideally, you'd want to strike a balance: reward hard working and talented players while also allowing the others to experience what it is to be 'lead' from time to time, and maybe motivate them that way.

Keep in mind, the orchestras and bands I've been part of usually were keen on sharing, passing around parts frequently if someone wanted to. Competion and status isn't something I generally care to deal with in music. When music becomes a contest I usually pack up my gear and leave, so I have little experience with a more strict approach.
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Brassnose
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 11:14 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was not thinking „status“, rather „challenge“. Being able to deliver the solo part or the lead part or whatever has been a challenge for me and I wanted to deliver. So playing these parts and being asked again to play them does reinforce self-confidence in students, I think.
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Steve A
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 11:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I don't think there's only one answer to this, because it probably depends on the actual mix of students (personalities, abilities, etc.), and how it's managed by the teacher, but, personally, I'm not in favour of this idea. I should say - it's not really part of schools here, so I'm speculating (perhaps without adequate knowledge), rather than speaking from personal experience.

I think that having scheduled placement auditions at the start of the year, or at the start of a term accomplishes most of what chair challenges are intended to do, and also avoids some of the downsides. For one thing, personally, I've never encountered an unscheduled "challenge" for a position in either university or work settings, so it seems a bit strange to only have a hyper competitive and arguably very short term practice when players are in early stages of development.

The idea of being able to challenge at any time makes me worry that it would tend to encourage "gotcha" type shortcuts where ambitious players would be tempted to do something ill-advised (trick embouchures, mouthpiece pressure, specialized mouthpieces, etc.) to try to one-up section mates, rather than prioritizing the kind of things that take time to yield (meaningful and permanent) real improvement.

Also, in slightly broader terms, I think the overtly competitive aspect of music gets exaggerated in school settings. Even in orchestral auditions, which are perhaps one of the most narrowly and specifically competitive areas of the music world, players don't generally get ahead by trying to out do a specific competitor so much as they succeed by giving a beautiful and compelling performance that makes the orchestra want to play with that person. I think it's more accurate to say that people who succeed are driven to be the best they can be than that they are driven to out perform others, and outside of formal auditions, being a good colleague and team player are both more important to being a successful player than most students are groomed to believe. For freelance gigs, at least in my experience, it's important that everyone can get the job done, but being someone the other people want to work with is also pretty critical, and I don't think encouraging students to be ready to pounce on a momentary weakness is a great way to develop that.
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trickg
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 11:26 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

That's an interesting post, but compare it to athletics. How do you drive the desire to improve, be better and be competitive? A football team doesn't pass around the position of quarterback to whomever wants to give it a try - you give it to the person who is going to be the best at it, and that person is generally the one who worked hard to make the most of their natural talents.

So if you don't have a chair placement system in a school band, how do you incentivize improvement? If everyone "wins" regardless of effort, what's the incentive to be better? The music? Not in my hometown.

A system that promotes a shifting pecking order based on merit does a few things.

1. It inspires competition between peers, who then drive each other to be the best they can be.

2. It inspires those who have talent to work harder to make the most of the talent they have, and thus climb up through the pecking order based on their own merits. (This is what I did)

3. It discourages complacency - if they know someone could be gunning for their chair, most people won't just sit by idly and let it happen.

4. It weeds out the non-hackers. As the saying goes, you're only as good as your weakest player. I don't see that as a bad thing - not everyone is meant to be a musician.

NONE of that happens in the "everyone gets a trophy" model.
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kehaulani
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 11:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think seating positions should be the responsibility of the musical director. It will be obvious if someone's misplaced and that can be adjusted.

A person's effectiveness is a long-term contribution not an isolated one-upmanship here or there. Because of that, I think it's absurd to have weekly challenges.

On a more philosophical note, music is not a competition. Yes, it can be competitive but as external as that competition is, the biggest competition is inside, you compete with yourself. Incentive comes from the goals and standards you have.

My school experience was not based on a competitive system of rewards and punishments. We knew who was better than the next person and didn't need a any externals to tell us that.

My personal wariness of the "challenge" system was that it places importance on the wrong thing. Music is not about trophies, medals and 'winning" challenges. It's about how we, as a team, can do the best we can to serve the music.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 12:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think that part of the equation is how a school band TEACHER views the purpose of the band, and what determines whether it is successful.

If the teacher is 'performance evaluated' on how well the band performs at various events or competitions, then it is most effective for the teacher to 'manage' the band for best performance in those situations.

if the teacher is evaluated on the success of the 'music education' and 'musical improvement' of the individuals, then the path to success might be different.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 12:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

So...how does that philosophy reconcile with the fact that there are competitions everywhere for everything music related? Piano concerto competitions, the National Trumpet Competition, Violin competitions, conductor competitions....

We further compound it with competitions to get into any major musical organization - every single open slot ends with a competition of auditions for who will ultimately "win" that slot. Yes, MUSIC is the end goal, but earning the right to be a member of the best ensembles is always a competition.

I don't think weekly challenges would be beneficial, but certainly shake it up once a month or so, especially at the high school level.

Incentives come from all kinds of different places. I took pride in the fact that I was among the top wherever I went - state honor bands, band camp, my own high school band, solo and ensemble competitions...

Competitiveness drives us to be good from a technical standpoint, and that in turn serves the music.
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trickg
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 12:21 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

JayKosta wrote:
I think that part of the equation is how a school band TEACHER views the purpose of the band, and what determines whether it is successful.

If the teacher is 'performance evaluated' on how well the band performs at various events or competitions, then it is most effective for the teacher to 'manage' the band for best performance in those situations.

if the teacher is evaluated on the success of the 'music education' and 'musical improvement' of the individuals, then the path to success might be different.

How would that be different? If the teacher inspires competition between peers, then they strive to be better than each other at various technical aspects - whether it's best sound, best articulation, fastest fingers, who plays the passage correctly every time, etc. Doesn't that all serve the same purpose?

The reality of this world is that the world doesn't care if you tried your best but suck anyway - you don't get a trophy for that. You get fired, or you don't get the job in the first place.

We chatted for a bit after the class dismissed, and she was flabbergasted by the tunes I chose to play - one of which I played as a Junior in HS, and the other was one my sister played as a Junior in HS for solo and ensemble competition. (Goedicke Concert Etude, and the Balay Petite Piece Concertante, respectively) She doesn't know how kids of our era played that well and could play things of that nature at that age.

Well....we were competitive with what we were doing, working hard to be better than our peers, to keep our peers from surpassing us, and to WIN when we went to those solo and ensemble competitions. It was more than just getting a "1" rating - we also wanted the "Best of Class" medal/trophy for the things we participated in.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 12:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I’m with trickg here. No competition does lead to complacency. However, permanent competition w/o some quiet phases to actually get the work done is what will drive things apart. And yes, there is competition everywhere, so for those who are serious about music, why not do it the competitive way?

On the other hand there are places, such as the trombone choirs in the churches over here (basically brass groups that play in and for churches) where I would not necessarily go for an all-competition approach. Especially in these cases it is also nice to have good players on third and fourth chairs to help those players that are not so advanced. Here distribution is key and putting all strong players on, say, first chair will probably not help it. But then again, the major purpose of these ensembles is to support all sorts of church services and not to win medals or Grammys or to train people for a pro career.

So there probably is a time and place for competition and there is another time and place where it may not be the case so much.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 12:47 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Something else that I have seen implemented is to have inner part section leads.

essentially, rather than stacking all the best players at the top of the section, putting them all on 1st part, as it was when I went through, the three top players would be split:

1st part lead
2nd part lead
3rd part lead

Certainly a balance needs to be struck, and the music does need to be important, but if your players don't have the wheels to go because there is not incentive for them to work hard to be better, it puts the director in a bit of a pickle for what they can play.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 12:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

It has a lot to do with how they are approached. I have done chair tests and challenges and not and typically fall on the side of not although we do other playing tests etc. regularly.

One of the big questions any teacher has to ask and answer is "Who is this for?" In other words, is the band for "everyone," or is it for "the best?" Is it for those who can commit 20 hours a week to afterschool rehearsal, or for anyone who can fit it into their school day? The list goes on and on, and while some compromise can be possible some areas are mutually exclusive. Obviously, the answers are going to vary greatly based on the context of the program including the needs and wants of the school, students, community, and director.

I do think any opportunity to add "gamification" to the learning process is good for students, but it can be much more varied and less high stakes than chair tests, or at least as chair tests as I typically see them.

This is one where I'm not sure it's a question of what the "right" answer is, but rather a question of what is the right answer for a given program in the entirety of its context.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 1:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Some amount of competition can be healthy and encourage development, but not to the point where it becomes a contest with "winners" and "losers." Striving for the principal seat can motivate a player to practice more and perform better. But at the same time, it needs to be reinforced that nobody is worth less for being placed on 2nd, 3rd, or 4th.

We have a lot of threads on TH talking about the different section roles of orchestras and big bands, but not much on concert bands/wind orchestras, which many school band programs are structured as. In my experience it breaks down like this:

Principal: like an orchestral principal or lead player, this person leads the section in all respects, plays solos, and is attentive to the needs of fellow section mates.

1st: the rest of the players on 1st should follow the principal's style and blend to make a unified sound on the 1st part. Solos may be divided among these players to give the principal a rest or to allow others to get the experience.

2nd: like in orchestra, supports the players on 1st with harmony. May be called upon to do fun things with the principal, such as call-and-response passages.

3rd: often (but not always) like the 1st part but written an octave lower. This part combines skills that both 1st and 2nd players have, since it involves backing up 1st while supporting the rest of the section. May be called upon to play unique things in the lower register. I view 3rd as the part that you can hide in if you're a bad player, but if you play it well, it can sound really good.

In pieces with cornet and trumpet parts, somebody who usually plays 3rd will now become 1st trumpet. Although usually not as complex as solo/1st cornet, this part is very important. Whoever gets this part needs to have confidence, even if they sit towards the bottom of the section. Similarly, the last chair in the section will need to understand the importance of the 2nd trumpet part as well.

In most situations, each part within the trumpet section combines to form a unified voice that often takes the lead within the ensemble. All trumpet players, no matter their position in the section, should have the mindset that they are playing a leading role.

I've played in ensembles that both had formal audition procedures and more informal and democratic methods of dividing the parts. As long as it's fair and allows room for upward mobility, there's nothing wrong with the formal process. Even in groups where parts are chosen freely or passed around, most people know their abilities and limitations so it works out.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 1:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

PMonteiro, I hear what you are saying, but this is a HS band, and not a great one at that - they'll be lucky to hit all the right notes, never mind trying to match styles. They aren't nearly that advanced.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 1:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

So many TL;DR posts, so I'm just going to summarize my thoughts:

Chair placements can be beneficial if there is a challenge/re-test system in place. If you test once and that's the way it is all year, then no. I prefer to rotate parts when at all possible to give all students a chance (assuming they can handle the parts). It also helps to have stronger players on 2nd/3rd parts if possible.
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 1:49 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I see some great ideas and I had a couple thoughts to add. I think the idea of section leads as you pointed out could be a great idea. Depending on the number of bands in the program you are helping out with, I would only add that the biggest issue in a one band system is building up the abilities of the younger players while also giving the more capable players a chance to flex their muscle. Perhaps auditioning or assigning section/part leaders and assigning other players around that set up could help balance out the section…. But another consideration might be to rotate those part leaders around so some of your aspiring younger players can play some top parts. If you manage to add the other players around, it might be possible to support said kid, with maybe a decent older player.
I only say this because when I was a teacher, there was only one band class and it was in Los Angeles. When seniors graduated in any section, some of the capable younger players were still used to kind of a second fiddle mindset. It would take a couple months getting them out of their shell etc.. I started picking different levels of pieces to allow different groups to play the higher parts. The younger shyer kids who were trying could get used to the idea on easier pieces and the more developed players could really sink their teeth into harder material.

The second thought I have is that I was never opposed to challenges. The only added thing to consider is the actual leadership qualities of the person who ultimately ends up “leading” whichever section they are on. I agree with you that nearly every opportunity musicians have to perform require winning an audition or being objectively better and I think it is important to allow the kids the opportunity to advance past your or another teachers preconception about where they are at. But I do think that some students tend to lead in a way that improves those around them and some lead in a way that tears down. If all things are equal in a challenge, I would almost always defer to the student assisting in other ways. Or maybe are they llating in outside ensembles, youth orchestra, district honor bands… etc.

If you can’t win any battle to allow the kids to challenge then the only other suggestion I would offer is at least having the kids audition for the prominent solos. In addition, I would include other excerpts from the part as well, to help get a sense of their preparation/ability to handle harder parts. I would pick a set audition time and stick with whichever student won.. That way, kids could choose to stick their neck out in a safe way, it rewarded preparation in the moment, and also helped the kids figure out on their own which players were serious students and why they were getting the opportunities

Anyway, I hope the coaching is fun for you
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 23, 2021 2:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

When I was in high school from 64 to 68, it was an honor to be in the band. My high school was rather legendary in Illinois for its music program and bands. The director was a what you would call a tyrant on the podium and took no prisoners. (How many band directors form an elite professional orchestra in Chicago that was praised in the Chicago newspapers? It ran out of money after 3 seasons and had to disband). Regardless his being a tyrant or not, many of us played for him for years until his death 7 years ago.
We students were driven to be as good as we could be and we worked to earn it.
Chairs were earned by trials and seats could be won by challenges. There was no "poor so and so doesn't get to play the higher parts". If you wanted it, you worked for it.
If you couldn't play it, you didn't.
At the very end of the school year, maybe the last two weeks or so, we did flip flop the sections, but that was all.
R. Tomasek
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