The Hermann High School (HHS) auditorium was filled with music last week from the polished performances given by the bands from the 6th, 7th and 8th-grade Middle Schoolers and the Wind Ensemble and Jazz Band from HHS. It was the May Band Concert and Director Ben Sachs and his students pulled out all the stops.
The 6th graders played three numbers—Enchanted Island, Gentle River and Firestorm, a fast and hard-driving composition that the students love to play, according to Band Director Ben Sachs.
The 7th and 8th-grade bands also played three numbers—the John Phillips Sousa-styled March Atlantis, to the Scottish folk song, The Water is Wide, followed by Arabian Dances.
The HHS Wind Ensemble played God of Our Fathers, the 19th century hymn written in 1876 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The band also played Salvation is Created and Fate of the Gods that was inspired by tales of Nordic mythology.
The HHS Jazz Band played After You’ve Gone, Not All, But Most and a Stevie Wonder Medley from “Songs in the Key of Life” (Isn’t She Lovely, Knocks Me Off My Feet and Sir Duke).
After the performance, the Advertiser-Courier asked Director Sachs what it is like to take young raw talent and mold it into a group that can play—together—very challenging music.
AC - We heard from the 6th-grade, combined 7th and 8th-grade and HHS wind ensemble and jazz band. Big jump between just getting started and 8th grade. Do the 7th graders advance quicker when put with the 8th graders? Why is that?
What are the biggest obstacles you have to overcome as a teacher when working with newbies just learning an instrument?
Mr. Sachs: In my personal experience, when I sat next to someone who was better than me, I played better. Combining the 7th and 8th-grade is a very tricky endeavor from a programming standpoint. When picking out music, I have to find a balance between something that's not boring for the 8th-graders but isn't too challenging for the 7th-graders. I think I hit a pretty good sweet spot with the music on this concert for them. The biggest obstacles for beginners are the actual mechanics of playing an instrument. For the most part they all can read notes and rhythms before they get to me, so that's not the issue. Fingerings, instrument position, posture, and a characteristic tone on their instrument are the things I focus on constantly with beginners.
AC - This probably goes for any orchestra. . . acoustic instruments are all lined up in front of you. You’re off to the side of the conductor’s stand. You look for attention. You stand on the box. You raise the baton. Are these moves to instill discipline or is it just tradition? I would think you would need a certain amount of discipline, because if nothing else, the music requires everyone or certain instruments to begin at the same time, and everyone has to follow along. How important is discipline in an orchestra?
Mr. Sachs: For me, it's an exercise in focus and attention to the upcoming task—the next piece we are playing. It ensures that every student is watching me and that we start together and remain together as the piece progresses. Bands popularity in the states stemmed from the military bands, so there is definitely a sense of discipline that has never died in the school band.
AC - What goes through the conductor’s mind when an audience sees you conducting an orchestra? As a musician, I can only guess, but have we really got a clue?
Mr. Sachs: While I'm conducting, I try not to worry about what's going on in the audience. If I did, I would have to stop every time someone opened the door or when I heard their phone when they forget to turn it off - which seems to happen often!
AC - Arabian Dances was one of my favorites of the evening. I considered the piece a stretch for a 7th-8th-grade band, but maybe not. Regardless, what can you tell me about this piece as it relates to level of difficulty? Is it considered a benchmark tune, to where if your band plays this, you know they’ve progressed well and ready to move onto the next level?
Mr. Sachs: Arabian Dances was the most difficult piece that group played at the concert. Band music is graded by difficulty on a 1-6 scale - 1 being beginning band music all the way to grade 6, which would be music for an advanced college or professional band. That piece comes in at a 2 - 2.5 on that scale. It was a good challenge for them and they absolutely loved it. I purchased the piece after reading a reference book I own called "Teaching Music Through Performance in Band." It lists many tried and true pieces for each difficulty that are quality and well-written and Arabian Dances was one of those pieces.
AC - What do you try to teach your students as they progress from 6th-grade to seniors? i.e., you probably want them to have an appreciation of Sousa to Wagner. Do you explore different genres to give them a balanced musical education? If you had to rank the musical skills 1-5 for students to master, what would those be?
Mr. Sachs: We play vast varieties of music from all over the world in numerous different styles. From 6th-12th grade, students should have played a large variety of music and genres, styles and composers. The key concepts I try to instill in students are:
1. Tone - it doesn't matter how hard the piece is or how fast or high or loud you play, nobody wants to hear it if you don't play with good tone on your instrument.
2. Musicality - what message is the music telling? What is the composer trying to say with this piece? How am I bringing that message across to the audience?
3. Rhythmic Accuracy/Pulse
4. Intonation/Tuning - tuning is not something that you do before the concert and forget about, it's a constant process that you are adjusting for every note of every song.
5. Technical facility of the instrument - scales, arpeggios, technical etudes, etc.
AC - The snare drumming was a little rough the other night, but the percussion was great (older musicians helping the younger ones?) I mentioned to you that maybe the drummers were concentrating too much on the music (counting) and not enough listening to the band to get the timing down. Both are skills that must be learned and maybe that’s all I was witnessing—learning. Any comments? It is possible you threw in some polyrhythms on the audience, making my assessment totally false?
The beautiful thing about live music, especially live music with young musicians, is that you never know what is going to happen! Every song we hear on the radio has been engineered in the studio, edited, mixed, and mastered to perfection and our ears are used to that. In a live band setting, we have to do that in real time - and try to present a quality product to the audience. In March Atlantis, there was a 7th and an 8th grader both playing snare drum at the same time. This is common practice to have two snares on a Sousa style march. The tricky part was that they both meet in separate classes during the school day and the first time we played the 7th and 8th grade songs together were about 40 minutes before the concert started. Learning happened that night for sure!
7. What do you most enjoy about teaching an orchestral group of students?
Mr. Sachs: It’s simple—band was my favorite class in high school. I had a wonderful experience in my high school band experience and I want students to experience the same opportunities, even at a much smaller school. I greatly enjoy seeing everything slowly come together day after day to the final result—the concert. I also then love collecting that music and passing out new, slightly more challenging music. The process never ends. There's always room for improvement. There's always a harder piece out there.
AC - How has your teaching changed from when you got started (when was your first teaching assignment?), to what you do now. It may vary between marching band and orchestral stuff.
My teaching has changed vastly from my first assignment. My first teaching job was in 2015, I was at a high risk school, and mostly was a life coach who taught a little bit of band on the side. Lots of fighting, lots of stress. Obviously, that is much different than my job here in Hermann. My teaching style has evolved very rapidly since being in Hermann. Now that the students understand how I operate and I understand how they operate, things are much more efficient both in class and on the football field during marching season than it was my first year here. The mindset during marching season is different, but the core concepts are the same in regards to tone, rhythm, musicality, etc. but with the added element of playing and moving.