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Useful advice for teachers starting a new group
(Revised December 2008)

Starting Out

An orchestra or band can be a great asset to a school. Such a group has often been quoted in an OFSTED report as being a `strength of the school`. Of course, it can look good in your school brochure or on your website, but we must not forget it`s primary function; that of a valuable learning experience for the children.

With this in mind, it is important not to choose music which is too difficult for the players. In fact, an orchestra which is in it`s early stages of development will thrive on the simplest pieces. Another thing to consider is the length of the pieces to be played. It will give a much greater sense of achievement to have finished something during the first rehearsal, rather than just got through the first few bars.

Some easy music to help get you started can be found on these pages.

Use all of your players. Forget the traditional rules about how many of each instrument an orchestra should have. Even players of the most basic standard can take part, and their playing will quickly improve once they are members of the group. Also, the more different instruments there are, the more interesting the experience both for the players and the listeners.

The choice of music may depend on what the strengths are in the different instrumental sections of the group. String players favour sharp keys such as D and G major. Clarinet and Brass players prefer flat keys (or no sharps/flats - C major for them, which is B flat major at concert pitch). A good compromise for school orchestra pieces is G major. Although this puts B flat instruments in 3 sharps, a grade one clarinettist should be able to play scales of A major and minor for 1 octave, and beginner clarinettists should easily be able to manage F sharp, they just need a part without any C or G sharps. Saxophone beginners like to play the same easy notes as on the recorder, can include C sharp, which is no fingers.

Be aware that although the beginner range of notes (written C, D, E, F, G) is the same for clarinet and trumpet, the slightly more advanced players on those instruments will use a different range of notes.
Clarinets: E below middle C to A sharp above middle C.
Trumpets: B below middle C to C above middle C.
Clarinet players to not go above A sharp at grade one level.

Organising your rehearsals

There`s always the decision to be made in a school orchestra or band of whether the players should sit or stand. This is largely a question of convenience, rehearsal time, and whether chairs are available. Obviously `cellists and players of larger brass instruments will need to sit down to play. String players should always have plenty of room, whether sitting or standing. They will not play well if they cannot use all of their bows without someone`s head getting in the way! I would not advise having more than two string players on each music stand for this reason. Flautists, too, may develop bad habits if they are not able to hold the instrument up properly due to lack of space.

In many cases, there will be a pianist involved with the school orchestra. This will often be the teacher in charge of the group. If there is not a pianist, then it is useful for the director to have their own instrument (whether it be recorder, violin, or whatever) to play along with the group, and to demonstrate the parts. Where there is no introduction included with the pieces that you are using, it is suggested that the pianist plays the last two or four bars of each piece as an introduction, perhaps counting the beats out loud in the last bar. With new groups and inexperienced players, do not be tempted to go too fast. Select a nice steady tempo; there is plenty of time for fast playing later.

After the first play through of a new piece, it is a good idea to go through each part individually. This could be done with the pianist playing each individual part along with the children. In a long piece, it is best to select a shorter section, e.g. 8 or 16 bars, when going through the parts, so that the other players do not lose interest.

After a few weeks, once the children are use to the first few pieces that have been learnt, it is a great idea for the pianist to begin playing the first piece as soon as about ten children have arrived for rehearsal. As the other children arrive they are often quite able to join in. This avoids any chattering and build up of extraneous noise from instruments.

You may find it useful to have some fingering charts or similar for any instruments which you are unfamiliar with. The players will often forget the fingering for certain notes, and will expect you to know them.

Make it fun, and keep everyone interested

The question of keeping everyone occupied is an important one. In a large group, it is easy for children to talk, fidget or take their instruments apart in the breaks between playing. A good way to get round this is to repeat a short piece several times, as if there were lots of verses. Start with everyone, then follow a prearranged order, for example, flutes, strings, clarinets, recorders, etc. Obviously the exact groups will depend on what you have available, and how far you want to divide them up. If you have 20 clarinets divided into firsts, seconds and thirds, you may want to hear each part separately during the rehearsals. (It will be worth hearing all 20 together though, too!). Finish off with everyone together again. Using this method, the children have to concentrate hard, so they don`t miss their entry. The pieces in the Starter Kits from Music By Arrangement are ideally suited for this activity.

The plan outlined above saves a lot of time in rehearsals if you have a large group. Also, seeing and hearing the different instruments and sections is interesting and instructive for both the players, and for the audience when pieces are performed this way in concerts or assembly.

If you keep a register for your group, read the names out, and get the players to play a note on their instrument instead of answering "yes". Everyone learns each other`s name, and finds out what instrument they play and what it sounds like. With a more advanced group, children could demonstrate a trill, arpeggio, or some other skill that has been recently learned; instead of just one note. Children really enjoy doing this, and are very quick to point out if I haven`t marked the register in a particular session.


Tuning up can often be a problem, particularly with the strings. If you are not confident about tuning stringed instruments yourself, it may be a good idea to have your orchestra rehearsal on the same day that the string teacher visits! In most cases, the stringed instruments will be tuned by a teacher, but it may well be possible for the woodwind and brass to tune their own, with help from the director. If you have time, all the players could queue up at the piano at the start of the rehearsal, to have their instruments checked one at a time, however, this is not always practical. My personal preference is to get everyone in their place and playing first of all, then have a tuning check once everyone is ready.

Further Material

A selection of very easy pieces are freely available on this site for you to try.

If you enjoy using the free samples, then we can provide lots more pieces, which can be tailor made to suit the players that you have in your ensemble. To find out more, a good place to start is our Help Page.

The Starter Kits described above are ideal for the beginning orchestra or band. After that, it is suggested that you go on to longer pieces such as Morris Dance, Chloe`s Calypso, Tango Time, etc. Details of these pieces can be found here. For something more challenging and a little longer, try the titles in the `Easy` category, e.g. Two Jazzy Miniatures, Rumba, Bailey`s Blues and Junior Jazz.

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