Flute Ensembles in the Schools

by Amy Rice-Young (1988)

There are certainly a lot of flutists in the schools! Usually enthusiastic about playing a new instrument, they are eager to learn and be involved. As educators, it is our responsibility to provide these students with a productive and rewarding experience. It is also our privilege to be able to work with this group and to watch them become good musicians who are enjoying what we have been able to help provide.

If your school is like so many others, you have an abundance of flutists, either beginning or with a few years of experience. If you are lucky, a good number of these students have been taking private lessons and have had a good foundation. Chances are that you would like to do more for these students than you find your time to allow. CONSIDER A FLUTE CHOIR!

First, determine the need. How many flutists are in your band? Enough for a full choir (10-15) or just enough for a small ensemble (5-9)? Are they being challenged? Is their interest level as high as it was when they first started? What is their ability level, both individually and as a group? Are they having fun with their music? Honest answers to these questions will help you not only decide about an ensemble, but with the initial organization.

Setting up a flute ensemble can be easy! With the ever increasing popularity of the flute and flute ensembles, an abundance of music is now available. If you need ideas, call your local music store and have them check their catalogs and other resources. If you want more information, feel free to call (or e-mail) the publishers. They love to talk about their publications.

Be sure to talk to the parents of the students. Chances are that they will be very supportive and will assist with many of the particulars, such as librarian help, transportation, and even finding an occasional place to perform. Knowing that their child is involved in a new program, parents can provide support at home. They've already financed the instrument and possibly private lessons, so should be glad their child has an opportunity for more playing and practice. If you already have a "Band Parents" organization, you know that an enthusiastic group of parents can be your best source of fundraising support and general organization.

Next, set a rehearsal time and stick to it. Students need to know that they are expected to attend every rehearsal and that the success of the group depends on each member's knowing his/her music and learning to play as an ensemble. In many schools, rehearsal time can be a problem, especially if students are bussed or involved in an active athletic program. The ideal situation is to have rehearsals immediately before or after school, and once a week should be plenty. When this is not possible, consider appointing the strongest player (or anyone who shows leadership potential) to be the leader of the group. You may choose several, and let them take turns. They can then hold their own rehearsals during a band rehearsal perhaps, or maybe during a lunch period. While it is still important for you to be at rehearsals occasionally, they will be able to practice by themselves when you're not able to be there.

In order for this final situation to be satisfactory, it is imperative that you give them a strong sense of direction from the beginning. A simple outline of what should be covered during a rehearsal and plenty of advance organization will be of great assistance. Also consider asking a local flute teacher to come and help. Most private teachers would be delighted to assist with a positive endeavor such as this. There is also a good possibility that he/she will be able to lend some constructive help to students who are not taking private lessons.

Once you've progressed this far, I'm sure you've started to think about myriad details. Much of the music available calls for Alto flutes, Bass flutes and even an occasional Eb flute. Sometimes pieces even require string bass, drums, piano, etc., etc. Don't let this scare you. There is plenty of music that has optional parts for choirs of all C flutes. Sometimes it can be fun to use some of the other instruments in the band. If your school has an orchestra, borrow the string bass player, or a cellist. Pianists are relatively easy to find, maybe even a parent. The possibilities are endless and can add great variety and interest to the group.

Start easy (but not too easy), so that the ensemble can build confidence. There are some fantastic "easy", yet beautiful pieces available. The students love them, because they sound great almost immediately, yet don't seem trivial. Meanwhile, they have a chance to listen for intonation and get accustomed to each other. As you build a more difficult repertoire, they will already have the knowledge that they can sound good, and won't be so easily discouraged when the notes are tough. Many pieces also have parts that are more difficult for the advanced players, while some can accommodate the less skilled players. Talking with your music dealer, publisher, and local teachers will help you find the pieces best suited to your group.

It is very important for students to set goals. This can be a  performance for a school function, a church, or any other kind of community involvement. Or perhaps a particular piece, one that will challenge them for a while, yet is within their grasp. Whatever the goal is, try to set it early, and let them know. They will probably have some ideas of their own!

Try to incorporate some of the other musical essentials. Take the first ten minutes to learn and review some music theory. Warm-up on scales and arpeggios. These can be more fun in a group, doing them in 3rds, rounds, etc., and using a variety of articulations and dynamics. They also provide excellent training for intonation. It's easy to  create games, using teams to correct pitch and identify "sharp" and "flat". Help the students develop pride in their ability, and learn how to perform and overcome fear. They can stand straight and "present" themselves as a group. A group such as a flute choir provides an excellent opportunity, as they are not lost in the crowd, yet not alone, either. While there is "safety in numbers", everyone likes to feel special.

Finally, keep it fun. Have some special events for the group. They can plan these themselves. Have a pizza party after an especially  challenging performance, or a party during the holidays. Once again, the possibilities are enormous.

Many of these students will not become professional musicians, yet they will develop a musical appreciation and understanding that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. As adults, the positive musical experience they obtain as students is what will keep them interested in the arts. They will become our audiences, if not our performers, of the future. They deserve the best opportunities we can provide!