MUSINGS IN Cb: “It’s Solo and Ensemble Time Again”

Every year, since I began teaching woodwinds privately, January seems to be the time of year when most school instrumental music students begin thinking about preparing music to perform at solo and ensemble festivals.  

That’s cool and beginning work in January usually affords the minimum 12-week period I like most students to have to properly prepare a solo at this level of experience.  


Too many of the students I have taught over the years, generally do not dedicate enough time each week to learning their instruments beyond what is required of them during school band class.

However, school band class is a “survey course” and we all know that you do not become a master of any subject by taking a “survey course” because that is not the purpose of a “survey course”: a course treating briefly the chief topics of a broad field of knowledge (Merriam-Webster definition).  

A “survey course” is inherently designed to expose you to material or a subject, in hopes of perhaps motivating interest in further study toward mastery.  At least, that is what I have reasoned to be the case to date.

To perform a musical instrument at an artistic level requires that the school band student (whatever the level of musical ability and experience) understands this paradigm.  The most successful students come to know that true mastery will always require engaging in additional hours of individual study beyond the school band classroom course curriculum.

And, then a conscious decision must be made in advance to devote the personal practice time toward mastery of the practical factors involved with achieving the applied performance skill set. 


If a student can’t play fluently in all of the common keys, is not rotating out reeds for their classical and jazz mouthpiece set-ups respectively, or is still having pitch problems within the normally written range of the instrument; then, the student is not likely practicing the 2-3 hours a day that it takes to build the physical endurance and applied technical skills needed to perform any woodwind instrument at an artistic level.

There is plenty of high quality and artistic literature that takes into account the various inherent levels of artistry as it develops in each of us as individual musicians.  Such graded lists are thoughtfully compiled as a service of convenience and based upon proven experiences.

For any high school-aged alto saxophone student to artistically perform Claude T. Smith’s work, “FANTASIA FOR ALTO SAXOPHONE”, the above type course of study is the only way to pull it off successfully.

The piece was written for Dale Underwood (listen), who was saxophone soloist for the US Navy Band in Washington DC for 30+ years.  The artistry with which Mr. Underwood performs the piece should be noted in the context of his control, tone quality, endurance, and technical facility.  His reed works perfectly for the piece and his horn works properly.  He has spent years mastering the intonation of the altissimo register of the alto saxophone and plays those notes in tune.


I think it is so cool to work with young musical artists.  It is like giving back and sharing my experiences on this journey as a lifelong teaching artist and composer.

I also think it is so cool when young musical artists want to challenge themselves with such masterworks as the Smith piece.  However, to choose music over one’s head, just to primarily say you programmed something difficult, is not good either.

Adjudicators do not give higher ratings because you choose a difficult piece of music.  They don’t give consolation points just because the piece you choose is difficult.  The purpose is to demonstrate what you have mastered and prepared.  That is done in lessons and personal practice time, not during a performance.

Standards are the way to develop and improve. I align my syllabi to various ability levels and actually teach parallel to those standards adopted by the Kansas Music Educators Association in 2005.


It is most always better to choose music that matches one’s ability, particularly when we are speaking of public performance and in the context of high school solo and ensemble festivals.  

Classical and through-composed musical styles require such preparation as well because all of the notes are written exactly the way the composer wants the performing artist to bring them to life. The creativity on that level is done for the instrumentalists by the composer.

It is our responsibility as performing artists to be prepared to bring qualified artistry to meet any of the composer’s visionary requirements related to performing the work.

Peace, Cb