Musical Chairs

A few families this year have asked why I don’t do chair placement auditions with my 7th and 8th grade students. The question always seems to come from a similar place, “That’s the way my old band director did it.” Well, mine too. And while I love my old band director dearly, chair placements are one thing that I’m not a fan of. I’m convinced that rotational seating is the best thing for young musicians.

  • It’s not about competition. Especially not with middle school kids. Our culture has become incredibly obsessed with competition, and it can be found everywhere. The band room, however, is a place where we should all be working toward the same goals. At a young age, these students should be focused on building their musical skills, not beating out their classmates for first chair. It’s also very important to me that our classroom culture is based on supporting each other and celebrating the achievements of others. That’s difficult to do amidst competition for chairs.
  • It’s not an intrinsic motivator. I don’t want a student in my classroom to be motivated by their chair placement. Especially since that motivation can take a serious hit if you’re a student perpetually competing for last chair. I want to foster a sense of intrinsic motivation in my students, so that their own successes are what drive them to improve.
  • It’s all about skill building. Different parts require a different skill set, even when you’re talking about a 1st clarinet part vs. a 3rd clarinet. As young musicians, my students should be developing a well-rounded musical skill set, not just focusing on a single part. I want my clarinet players to be equally comfortable above the break and in the chalumeau register. I want my trumpet players to have a warm, strong low range as well as a solid high register.
  • Rotating creates balance. All parts are equally important, and by rotating seating on each piece we play, I can ensure that there are strong players on each part. Composers write those 2nd and 3rd parts for a reason, and having strong players on each part ensure a full, balanced performance.
  • Rotating fosters mentorships. I get a handful of students brand new to band each year. I make sure they get a lot of individual attention on their instrument, and for times when we can’t do a one-on-one lesson, rotational seating is great. I have a young clarinet player who just started eight weeks ago. At the beginning of the year, they were very uncomfortable with going over the break, so they ended up playing mostly 2nd and 3rd parts at our first concert while we worked on that skill. We have a few strong, experienced clarinet players in their hour, so I paired them up and kept them on the same parts for that first concert cycle. It allowed my new student to learn from a 3rd-year player, and it gave the 3rd-year player a valuable leadership experience.
  • Chaired seating means stress. Middle school is difficult enough already. I don’t want students already freaking out over more difficult classes and a bigger homework load coming to my room freaked out about an upcoming chair challenge. I definitely don’t want somebody brand new to band to have to worry about a chair placement audition before they even know how to put their instrument together. It’s about creating a safe, welcoming, inclusive environment.