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Last Minute UIL Concert & Sight Reading Preparations: 10 Things I Am Doing To Try To Get Sweepstakes

ms-sweepstakes-awardThis Thursday, I will be taking my Middle School band to our UIL Concert & Sight Reading contest. For those who don’t understand how the band world works (and even for those who don’t understand Texas UIL), here’s sort of how it works.

How UIL works
I will be taking them to perform a concert program of three pieces that we’ve been working on since February. Following the concert, we go to the sight reading contest. In that, each band is allotted a certain amount of time to look at a brand new piece of music. As a director, I can spend the first part (four minutes for my band) talking them through it and pointing out key changes, accidentals, tempo changes, repeats, etc. In the final three minutes, I can actually sing or count rhythms or do whatever I feel like I need to do to get them to where they can play the music well. For both portions of the contest, we play for panesl of three judges who will assign the band a rating of I (Superior), II (Excellent), III (Average), IV (Below Average), or V (Poor). Essentially, the band’s rating is the middle of the three ratings. If two judges agree on a rating, that is what they get. The actual chart looks like this:

1 1 1 1 2 2 1 3 3 1 4 4 1 5 5
1 1 2 1 2 3 1 3 4 1 4 5 2 5 5
1 1 3 1 2 4 1 3 5 2 4 4 3 5 5
1 1 4 1 2 5 2 3 3 2 4 5 4 5 5
1 1 5 2 2 2 2 3 4 3 4 4 5 5 5
2 2 3 2 3 5 3 4 5
2 2 4 3 3 3 4 4 4
2 2 5 3 3 4 4 4 5
3 3 5

If the judges on both of the panels (Concert & Sight Reading) award the band a First Division Superior rating, the band earns the Sweepstakes Trophy.

Here are links to the UIL Band Concert Judging Rubric and the UIL Band Sight Reading Judging Rubric.

UIL requirements
Since my school is classified as a CCC Middle School. The varsity band is required to play a minimum of two grade 2 pieces and a march of the director’s choosing as well as Level 3 sight reading. My band is required to play two grade 1 pieces and a march and performs the Level 1 sightreading piece. Both of the bands are going beyond the minimum requirement for their concert programs.

Our UIL band program
Our Symphonic Band is playing:

  • The Greatest Generation (march) by John Edmondson
  • Heaven’s Light (Grade 2) by Steven Reineke
  • Abracadabra (Grade 3) by Frank Ticheli

Our Concert Band is playing:

  • El Conquistador (paso doble) by William Owens
  • La Rejouissance (Grade 2) arranged by Mark Williams
  • Üsküdar (Grade 1) arranged by Robert W. Smith & Michael Story

How I plan to get sweepstakes
With all of that background, here are 10 things that I have done or will plan on doing the rest of this week as I prepare my band to go to UIL this Thursday.

  1. I have addressed band sound since August
    Last year, I finally realized that band sound is the ultimate difference between the great bands and the amazing ones. Lots of band can play right notes and rhythms. Lots of bands can add musical things (rubato, dynamics, nuance). But if the band doesn’t sound like a great band, it will be difficult to get to the next level.   


    To address this, I do long tones (16-count notes desending) every single day. I started this back in August when we first met for summer band. Basically, it’s just a concert F, Eb, D, C and Bb.

  2. Pass-off charts started in February
    As soon as I figured out what three pieces I was going to be working on, I made up pass-off charts and came up with a schedule. I divided each of our three pieces into 5 segments (measure 1-16, measure 17-35 or whatever). I also added scales (F, Bb, and Eb), the Patterson Chorale, and a simple sight reading exercise. This was a total of 20 grades that had to be passed off in order to go.
  3. Planned rehearsals back in February
    When I passed out the pass-off schedule, I also had a schedule for every sectional and full band rehearsal that we would have for the next six weeks. I do not require sectionals, but we worked on the pass-off music and got to hear individuals pass off as well, so the incentive to attend sectionals was there.   


    I also required each student to attend at least 5 of 8 full band rehearsals I scheduled if they were going to go to UIL.

  4. Had a clinic
    I brought in a band director friend of mine to work with my band last Thursday. He gave them (and me) some fresh insight that I can really use to address in this final push. After the clinic, I bought him dinner, and he told me the harsh truth that he held back from the kids. I took that advice, boiled it down into 10 points that I passed out to my band on Friday.
  5. Wrong note hunt this weekend
    As I’ve written before, I record my band quite a bit using iTalk Recorder on my iPhone. It’s a great free app, and it allows me to hear things I don’t normally hear. As soon as I finish writing this article, I’m going to listen to every recording I have made of my band (a little over 2 hours of music) and find every wrong note I can find. I will highlight them in my scores. More on what I’ll do with that info later.
  6. Back everyone off/cut some people out
    Until last week, I had everybody playing everything. Even the kids who weren’t going to be going to UIL with us. I began taking people off parts last week and it cleaned a lot up. I am going to continue doing so. Some based on the wrong notes I find, some based on what instrument they play, and some based on what the overall band dynamic level needs to be. More on how I’ll do that is coming later.
  7. 7am rehearsals
    Back in December, I realized that a lot of the students are at school early. We start classes at 8am, but even at 6:50, the cafeteria is buzzing with plenty of activity. I experimented with  having after school rehearsals and also with before school rehearsals. I concluded that we get a whole lot more accomplished before school.   


    Once again, last week I moved Tuesday’s rehearsal to after school to try it out again. There were lots of unfocused kids and a lot of moving around and talking. You can work and work on keeping kids qiet, but in a group of 65 kids who are ready to get home, it doesn’t work so well! So I decided to have 7am rehearsals this coming Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. This will also give me three more chances to record my band (and find any further wrong notes to eliminate).

  8. Sight reading rehearsal Tuesday
    In addition, we are meeting on Tuesday at 6pm to try to sight read through three pieces. I’m having them play Level 2 sight reading since the sight reading criteria are not much different. It also helps to have them struggle through some more challenging music so that when we get to the real deal, it will be easier than they feared.
  9. Pre-UIL Concert Tuesday
    We are going to have both bands play for the parents Tuesday night. The Concert Band will go first and play their program followed by sight reading (a Level 1). Then the Symphonic Band will do the same thing. This will give some added pressure (parents and other district band directors listening) for the students as well as the band directors.
  10. Warm-up room procedure
    During our 30 minutes of warm up time, we will tune each instrument, play some specific sections from the concert program, and I’ll have them count through a rhythm sheet that I’ll pass out to them the day of UIL. I will also talk to them about how much I love them (yes, I’ll actually tell them that) and how proud I am of them. I will remind them that I don’t base my opinion of them on what six old judges have to say about them. Additionally, we will have them go through the Sight Reading Pledge:

I promise that I will play to the best of my ability. I will have the most amazing musical experience of my life today. Every note I play, in both concert and sight reading, will ooze with musicality. I will respect the melody at all times. I will overexaggerate dynmic contrasts. I will never play louder than the person on my right. I will never play louder than the person on my left. I will do everything within my power to make the judges fall in love with musical performance that we have today. I have full assurance that regardless of today’s results, my band directors will love me exactly the same when we’re all finished!

Different focus in full band rehearsals vs. classes
This week, I am really going to do two totally different things in the band classes and before school rehearsals. My classes are divided up into brass, woodwind, and percussion. I will address each of these classes differently this week. When I have the full band together, the focus is going to be more on band sound than anything else.

Brass class focus
I want to split the class up into low brass and high brass, with me taking one section and my head director taking the other section. I want to focus on getting more sound from low brass, and I want to have a whole lot less wrong notes from the trumpets and horns. Using my wrong note hunt that I’m about to do, I will know exactly where I am going to attack things beginning tomorrow.

Woodwind class focus
I think I’ll keep the whole woodwind section together. I need my saxophones andf flutes to play softer (ALWAYS), and I need my bass clarinets and second clarinets to get better tone. Additionally, I must eliminate wrong notes.

Eliminating wrong notes
How will I eliminate wrong notes? On Monday, I will isolate every highlighted section from my score and be sure everyone knows the right notes. On Tuesday, any more wrong notes will be removed by having kids not play those sections. Hopefully they will all be gone by Wednesday, but if there are any more, I’ll do more cutting.

Anyway, enough writing, time to get to work!

Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

8 thoughts on “Last Minute UIL Concert & Sight Reading Preparations: 10 Things I Am Doing To Try To Get Sweepstakes

    1. By pass-offs, I mean, I require the students to know their music. It is a way of allowing me to hear them play and suggest some changes they need to make, or even editing their individual parts to make them easier for them.

      I have 10 flutes in the group going to contest. That’s almost 15% of the band sound. Altos make up about 10%. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing!

  1. You’re doing a lot to get your band sounding great. One thing that jumped out at me was cutting students. Is that a common thing in Texas? Where I’ve taught and played, everyone (who turned in a permission slip) went. Could you explain your philosophy behind cutting students, please? And how many usually are cut?

    1. I don’t cut them out from going entirely. For instance today, I was working on a section and the altos have a C# that was horribly out of tune. I just had them not play that measure and it sounds much better.

      I think I’ll write more on both pass offs and cutting students to give a clearer picture of what I’m doing later tonight…

  2. My little sister is having a blast in band this year, a seventh grader who is shy and is dealing with puberty. So being in the school band has given us all great pleasure, attending the concerts through out the school year have been a treat. Music teachers help so many kids that are experiencing a difficult time in a critical time in their lives. Thanks for what you do.
    A New Reader
    Amber Kimball

  3. Wow! How impressive! If your group doesn’t earn a sweepstakes, it certainly won’t be because you didn’t have a strategy! Good luck!

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