Vandoren Interviews Band Directors from Around the Country: Farmington, MN

with Band Director Erin Holmes

Date Posted: August 06, 2018

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Where and what grade levels do you teach?

I am the Director of Bands at Farmington High School, which is a 9 -12 public high school with four concert ensembles - I teach Varsity Band (9th graders), Wind Ensemble (top auditioned group), three jazz bands, (I teach jazz 1 and co-direct jazz 3) and I'm the Director of the Farmington Tiger Marching Band (extracurricular competitive marching band).


How do you have your clarinet and saxophone students produce a beautiful sound from day one?

I think the biggest thing is learning how to breathe correctly - to create a sound. When we breathe, especially altogether or in their own instrument, they have to learn how to breathe to produce really good long tones, and then practicing those long tones. It's so funny when you think about when you first started teaching and the first thing you do is learn how to do a long tone, but then that's the last thing we ever practice when we get older. I think that's important to do - we're always doing long tones in rehearsal.

Obviously good posture and good setup. Especially when they get into high school, we start upgrading things. Whether it's mouthpiece and reeds and getting stronger strengths. The main thing after learning phrasing and scales is listening to other artists.


Have you ever heard of JUNO reeds by Vandoren? If so, what do you think?

I have a lot of kids that play in different groups that play in the Twin Cities area, but I've never tried them myself until Adrian Barnett (Vandoren Regional Artist) brought us some. I had a gig next week and I played on them and really liked them. I've been having a couple of kids play on them. We mostly use Vandoren reeds because they're tried and true to the test. Whether it's the jazz reeds or legit reeds.


What kind of reeds do you use?

It depends on the kid and where they're at. We've been using a lot of the different Vandoren reeds and see which works best for the kids. That's what I like about Vandoren - they're so many different sounds. It's not a "cookie-cutter" thing, it's everybody's own personal setup.


What is the greatest challenge you've faced as a high school band director, and how have you addressed that?

I think the greatest challenge that I've personally had is balance. As a woman band director and mom (I have three kids and my husband is a teacher and two-sport head coach at the high school), is balance. There's a lot of attention on whether you're a woman composer, director, or an artist, and it seems that we have to do so much to get that recognition. I have these conversations quite a bit with my male colleagues. I'm doing all the things that are out there because I need to make sure that I'm known for what I'm doing. I've been teaching for 18 years, but this is my 2nd year as the head director. I want people to know I'm the director and I've achieved these goals with this part of my life.

Finding that balance is a challenge between home life, school, and not taking on too many duties is going to be my goal for next year.

"We work really hard in our high school to not only connect with our own students, but make those personal connections. Band is not for everyone and we get that, but maybe we can help if it's something that they still want to do." - Erin Holmes 

What is one tip you could recommend about retention?

The biggest thing is connection. We work really hard in our high school to not only connect with our own students (our schedule is a bit strange with advanced classes), but make those personal connections. Band is not for everyone and we get that, but maybe we can help if it's something that they still want to do.

We also work really hard in our middle schools to make connections. Both my colleague, Bradley Mariska, and I go over to our middle schools and not only talk about our band program at the high school, but run rehearsals every now and then - whether it's jazz or concert band. And then we do a lot of bridging concerts with them where the 8th-grade bands are paired up with the Wind Ensemble and they get to play a concert with them a couple of times a year. I think that helps. Again, it's the connection. If you don't have the connection, that makes it difficult.

When you're going from 8th grade into a 9th-grade setting, kids are scared and need to feel that comfort level. One of the things that we talk about with our kids, especially when you're doing marching band, you get to know this building and older kids right away in the high school program versus coming in cold and not knowing what's going on. My leadership in the marching band does a scavenger hunt with them in school in August so those kids get to know the building pretty well!


Being the State Jazz Chair of the Minnesota Music Educators Associations, what are some tips you could recommend to band directors looking to improve their jazz programs?

For starting, I think it's just not being scared to start, no matter what instrumentation you have. Maybe you don't have a strong piano player or drum player, but there's so much that you can do when teaching kids different styles of music.

I remember my first year of teaching - I started off as a middle school teacher in this district - and I had one trombone player. That wasn't what I was used to doing but hey, it's going to build. Now we have so many jazz band kids, we don't know what to do with - it's fantastic!

I've seen other band programs...just let them transcribe parts, whether it's flute, French horn, or clarinet. Let them be in the jazz band to get that experience in music. Suddenly, we see kids trying to learn different instruments. I've got a lot of doublers and that helps with jazz in general. Find the niche of the kids that want to do something more, get them excited about it.

The big thing about advancing those groups is the listening. You have to take the time to listen to jazz. It's important to practice all of the stuff you need to practice, but if you're not listening, you're not going to get it. You've got to listen to it, too.


For a high school that already has their jazz band - what is the mark of a great jazz band?

When they can hear what they're doing. They hear the solos and they're interacting with each other. When you're playing Dizzy charts and big band style, what's different? Can you hear those differences in those two sounds? I think that's the big thing. If you got Count Basie style, is that different from Gordon Goodwin style?

The other thing about improving your jazz programs is bringing in people. Whether it's a Skype session or something else. I'm lucky because we leave near the Twin Cities, so I get lots of people who want to come and make a stop. So they're listening and working with other people. Jazz is such an audial language. We've got to be listening and getting into that live music aspect, too.


What equipment recommendations do you use for students looking to be in a high school jazz program? Do students have separate setups?

Absolutely. We have a couple sets of jazz mouthpiece for saxophones that we have our top groups use. (We have three groups now and looking at four next year). I have different styles of the Vandoren mouthpieces and let them tinker around with what setup works for them. I have other music companies that bring in items for me, too. Jazz mouthpieces are a completely different animal and if they don't ever try it, they're never going to know. Once they work with it, they realize how different their sound is.

I had this one kid just light up this year and he's been playing in Jazz I this year. He was maturely ready for that type of switch, really worked at it, and his sound completely changed.

In the concert literature, we step up with our 9th graders right away. This is the year to start stepping it up, changing the reed strength, and introducing them to different strengths. We're all about making them find their own personal setup and encouraging them to get a new mouthpiece, other than the stock one you've got with your instrument.


What are some jazz methods you would use with your high school saxophone students?

If I teach them private lessons, I'm going to be using the anthropology books - Charlie Parker, Aebersold with the ii-V7-I progressions and improv that way. Again, it's all about listening to other artists and they're playing. That's where start with everything and then start with all the fun things in improv. When they come into their 9th-grade year, they're learning their scales and progressions every single day.


What is one thing you're particularly proud of about your band program?

I'm really proud about the kids' work ethic. It's really changed over the past couple of years about how they want to go to that next level. I talk about the legacy they leave and the leadership they're doing. One of my philosophies and phrases I say every day is: every day is a good day to get better. Whether it's one measure, a whole piece, or being a better human, every day is a good day to get better. Sometimes it’s hard to define my proudest moment because each day brings a new experience that challenges my mindset, intellect, and emotions on such a wide-ranging scale.

One of those things that has lead us to that is having a few invitations from the University of Minnesota. We have a performance with them at their concert hall and there's another professional group called the Medalist Band that we're doing a joint concert with next year. We're just taking things to that next level.

We have so many groups coming in, whether it's jazz, concert ensembles, or guest artists that want to come in and work with our kids. It warms my heart because I want people to feel welcome here. I'm going to learn from anyone that walks through this door and that's what I want my kids to know, too. I'm always learning and want to become a better educator and musician.


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