Friday, October 12, 2018

Becoming a Composer with Dr. Beth Wiemann

Today, we have a guest blog from another music expert, this time in the field of composing music (writing our own music). Here, she tells her story of how she started her journey to become an award-winning composer.

Dr. Beth Wiemann, Composer

Starting to compose…Beth Wiemann

Growing up in Burlington, VT, a lot of my early musical experiences were similar to those of many generations of northern New England kids. As many elementary school students do, I started music lessons in beginner band, playing a plastic clarinet in simple arrangements of marches and a few excerpts of well-known symphonies or operas. The ensemble sound was impressive to me, something I still remember from 4th grade. A little later, I joined my mother singing in the church choir, which also had an impressive sound to me – though the sheet music was very different. Seeing what everyone was singing on the pages in front of me instead of just my clarinet part was intriguing; you could see how you’d write for a group of people. The pages were confusing at first, but they made the music’s sound less mysterious.

At the time, the singer/songwriter model was pretty strong in pop music, whether it was the Carole King model or the Elton John model, so I got interested in playing the guitar. Obviously, the guitar was a much cooler instrument than the clarinet, but it also made the harmonies I heard playing in groups sort-of possible to play by myself.

With these new perspectives, I started to listen to a wider variety of music, forcing my guitar teacher to help me figure out the progressions in different pieces. I went from learning guitar with tab/lead sheets and memorizing fingering patterns to reading staff notation with classical etudes. I also began reading about some of the composers of those songs and etudes, including how many of them started with chord progressions when composing, adding melodies above them depending on the musical style. Eventually I discovered (or rediscovered, according to my Mom) the classical record collection we already had in the house.

With these models in my ears, I began writing short pieces, eventually trying to set parts of the Mass in English for our church choir, with the encouragement of the director there (who also was my guitar and piano teacher at various times). That director assigned me various things to practice both composing and thinking about composing - asking me to arrange pieces (writing out a song for a specific ensemble starting from a simple piano version of the song), add obbligato melodies to existing songs  (adding some simultaneous tunes that would go along with the original song), and to write essays responding to other composers’ opinions about music. He also suffered through my beginning piano playing, when it became obvious that I would learn harmony better on that instrument than only on the guitar.

Some of my pieces were imitations of pieces that I had played, like Vaughn Williams’ folk songs for band. Sometimes I made arrangements for school shows, being asked to adapt songs for small vocal groups plus guitar. (Rice High School Stunt was an avenue for some of these arrangements, and apparently Stunt Night is still a thing.) Most of the time, I was involved in the performances of these short pieces after I wrote them – either as a singer or instrumentalist – which I encourage other beginning composers to do as well, just for the experience.

When people ask me how to start composing, I usually ask them if they’ve tried to write down or record any musical ideas already. I believe that most people that really want to compose try to share music of their own even before they have “real training.” This doesn’t mean that your first efforts will be masterworks when you try. But it does make you think about how to present a musical idea, whether it’s a rhythm, a melody, a chord, or just a particular kind of instrument noise. This gives you a place to start. You can get training as you go, but the training will always come back to presenting the musical ideas you want to hear.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Instrument Maintenance with Chris Plaisted

Today, I am thrilled to present special guest blogger Chris Plaisted. Chris and I have been friends since college and his specialty is instrument maintenance and repair. This is an important read for all band students and families!

Hi! My name is Chris Plaisted and I do instrument repair for Veazie Community
School and other schools throughout Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock, and
Washington Counties. Kids, you might know me as Mr. Fix-It! As a former music
teacher, I love being able to help kids keep their band instruments in great shape so
they can get the most from their band experience. Approximately 80% of the repairs
I see in schools on a daily basis are caused by lack of maintenance (Kids, here’s a
great vocabulary word! Maintenance means taking good care of your instrument.).
Below are a few tips to help you with the maintenance of your instrument:

FLUTE -- Use your cleaning rod and a cleaning cloth after each time you play.

CLARINET &SAXOPHONE -- Use your cleaning swab after each time you play.
Grease corks using cork grease (not chapstick, that’s gross!) any time your clarinet is
hard to put together or the corks look dry; usually that means at least once per
week. NEVER LEAVE YOUR REED ON THE MOUTHPIECE! That can ruin the reed and
make it moldy. YUCK! Take the reed off mouthpiece after each time you play.

TRUMPET -- Oil your valves with valve oil any time they feel sticky, or at least
once per week. Use slide grease on the tuning slides when they become hard to
move. If valves, slides, or mouthpiece become stuck, STOP! Do not try to un-stick
them yourself. I have seen trumpets completely torn apart and permanently ruined
by people trying to un-stick mouthpieces, slides, and valves. Please tell Mr. Arell
immediately, he has special tools to help this in a safe way. If that doesn’t work, I’ll
come to school and take care of it with my professional repair tools.

TROMBONE -- Oil your slide with slide oil every day you play. Use slide grease on
the tuning slide if it becomes sticky. If either slide becomes stuck, STOP! Do not try
to un-stick them yourself, this can cause damage without the proper tools. Please
see Mr. Arell immediately.

DRUM -- Never put anything on top of your drum that is not a drum stick!
Remember it is an instrument, not a table. If you put something on top of a drum
that doesn’t belong there, it can rip the drum head and then you won’t be able to
use the drum until I can replace the drum head.

ALL INSTRUMENTS -- Should be cleaned once per month with the help of an
Instrument Care Kit. If you don’t have one, look at buying one from a local music
store. This comes with all the tools and instructions needed to keep your instrument
clean and in good working order. They are usually very affordable at less than $15.
If you have any questions on how to take care of your instrument, please see
Mr. Arell. He does a great job at helping kids learn how to take care of their
instruments. With proper maintenance, an instrument can literally last a lifetime and
beyond. Take care of your instrument, and it will take care of you! Thanks for
reading, and I look forward to hearing the Veazie band this year!

Chris Plaisted

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Music Makers of All Ages...

This week, many different classes explored making their own creative musical decisions.


Students continued to respond to what they heard by playing freeze dance to various selections. We also learned the Hokey Pokey. We have been working on keeping a steady beat by passing a clap around the circle. We also played an echo game with both frame drums and tall drums. Next week will involve singing some new songs.


Students learned a circle dance this week. We began to read and count rhythms. We also started to connect note letter names to bars on glockenspiel and xylophones. By the end of the week, we were able to play "Rain, Rain Go Away" as a class and add a drum beat to it. Next week will involve starting to read some notes with the helper letters taken away.


Students at this level did two group dances this week. We read and counted more complicated rhythms and began to discuss the names and lengths of different note types. We explored the notes C, D, and E on instruments and we were able to play "Mary Had A Little Lamb" by the end of the week. Next week will involve looking at some music with more than 3 notes!


Students in these grades also did two group dances. We were able to read and count rhythms as a class and as individuals. Then, we explored rhythms in the context of a song. We looked at two different songs involving C, D, and E and then volunteers created their own drum rhythms to go with the songs. At the end of class, we teamed up drums and glockenspiel to create our own melodies and rhythms. Next week will involve more student creativity as they work on making their own "remix" of familiar songs.

4-8 Band

The week began with playing Hot Cross Buns as a class. This song has become like a rite of passage for all beginning instrument students. With assistance from more experienced players, first year players became more confident with their first three notes. On Thursday, we discussed tuning both as setting up the instrument to get a good sound and how to adjust our sound while playing. Students worked in groups, creating their own 4 beat groove and thinking about what notes sound good together. Next week, we will work on another 3 note song (with beginners playing the melody and more advanced players having their own parts) and play some Band Karaoke by playing the notes we know along to recordings of popular songs.

Middle School Band

This class may one day be known as the "Wall of Sound". We have a class of strong players that are not afraid to be heard (and sometimes are asked to turn the amps down). We have become fairly comfortable with We Will Rock You. We worked hard on trying to fit different parts together for Eye of the Tiger and compared our rhythms to the original recording. Today, we listened to the opening of The Final Countdown and began to work on the opening rhythms. For this piece, percussion students have a driving beat, guitar and bass students outline each downbeat, while the wind players have the familiar melody (complete with fast sixteenth notes!). Next week, we will continue to work on Eye of the Tiger and Final Countdown and will probably look at another song on Thursday (Mr. Arell has had some requests, including the 6 minute long Bohemian Rhapsody...).

Middle School Chorus

Students in this class have been making so much progress! Our topic this week was dynamics (volume) in singing, particularly how to create a bigger sound and how to have good contrast between quiet and loud sections of a song. We began by learning about the way the body creates sound (air, creating space, and resonance). We then viewed some performances of contrast in singing for inspiration. We have worked on different vocal exercises to get better at controlling air, creating a tall tone by dropping our jaw and raising our soft palate, and feeling the buzzing (vibration) at the front of our face. We then learned about how to write and interpret dynamic markings on music. We worked together to write our own dynamics for Sweet Caroline before we sang it. Next week, we will work on some more full songs to practice dynamics.

Overall, it has been a great week with many exciting learning breakthroughs. In 4-8 Band, we discussed product vs. progress, which helps to keep me motivated in the learning process. Product is the final result or the current sound, whereas progress is always changing and (hopefully) improving. We may not play or sing a piece perfectly in the moment, but our second attempt gives us a chance to get better--and that's what learning is all about!

Saturday, September 8, 2018

A Great Beginning...

Our year in music is off to a strong start. Students began actively learning and making music the first class!

A few students still need to return their Music Class Expectations forms to me. Please let me know if you need another copy. I can even e-mail you a PDF version. My e-mail is

Here are some highlights from the first couple of weeks:


Students have been exploring the beat through various activities. They played a freeze dance game to different songs. They were introduced to a drum and each had a turn to play. We started learning a simple song and next time, students will learn how to conduct classmates as we sing.


Students in these grades have also been exploring the beat. We played several games to work on keeping a steady beat. We played freeze dance with a variety of music. We played "Switcharoo" so that each student got to explore each hand drum in the room. Each student got a turn to conduct the class in singing. Class ended on Thursday with students working on reading rhythms and playing these rhythms on drums. Next time, we will work on making our own music using what we have already learned to help us.

4-5 (General Music)

Our intermediate students have also had a variety of activities at a more challenging level. Activities included beat games, freeze dance (which is still fun after age 10 I have been told), drum circles (with students taking turns leading the drum pattern), singing ("We Built This City" and "Song Sung Blue"), conducting, and we got to the point of reading rhythms and playing them on drums. Next time, we will work on making our own music. We always end our classes by walking to the door to the beat of a song (the song changes each class).

4-8 Band

Full band is off to a thrilling start this year. By now, I believe that each student has selected an instrument, but it is never to late to join! As a full group, we have worked on keeping a beat, dividing the beat evenly, and making a sound that matches the sound of classmates around us. On Thursday, we had a great experience working in groups of the same or similar instruments. 2nd year and beyond players acted as the teachers as they demonstrated their instruments to 1st year players and showed them how to assemble, hold, and produce sound on their new instruments. It was a beautiful thing watching these young students become leaders and teach and encourage their less experienced classmates. I heard great phrases like "You are doing so well. That took me a long time to learn last year", "See how I put my fingers there, now you try it", and "You are next on the drum set. Try to do what I just did". We are fortunate to have beginners at all grade levels as well as experienced players that enhance the learning process for all involved.

Middle School Band

Our Middle School learners are building confidence through playing exercises and *gasp* REAL songs! We have been working on feeling the beat as a group and tuning notes (matching) when we play. We have become masters of our first scale. On Tuesday, we started learning We Will Rock You. As part of that experience, we were introduced to Group Improvisation. Improvisation means students take the notes that they know and create their own melodies, riffs, licks, whatever you would like to call these original ideas. The "Group" part of the name means that they create these original ideas all at the same time. To the outsider, it sounds messy. But to the learner, especially with vulnerable Middle School egos, it means no one can hear you enough to "judge" you. After trying it a few times, a couple of students even asked if the could solo improvise as the rest of the class cheered them on. On Thursday, we started learning Eye of the Tiger and we will continue to look at this next week.

Middle School Chorus

Last, only because "Band" comes before "Chorus" in alphabetical order. This incredible group of eager learners has been making incredible progress. We began with exploring vocal warmups (different exercises that introduce us to our own voice and how to control it). Our big vocal tip so far is "if something hurts while you are singing, stop and readjust before you try again". We have worked on low breathing--filling to the bottom of our lungs. We practiced creating space inside our head by dropping our jaw and raising our soft palate. We then explored how music is written in the sense of how the beat is separated visually. To practice this, we rapped a couple of selections. Some students became so confident with this, that they volunteered to rap solo! We then looked at many different examples of melodic contour (shape) and started to discuss degrees of notes within a scale. We ended our classes by singing full songs that the students (hopefully) are already familiar with "Mamma Mia", as featured in the recent sequel, and "Firework" by Katy Perry.

I am very pleased with the progress that students are already making and I look forward to more great experiences with these learners!

Mr. Arell