Spring is the time of year where I get to agonize over lots of decisions regarding the following year: Drum Major auditions, section leader interviews, and especially who gets placed in which band for concert season.
It is the last one that gives me the most trouble sleeping, and for a variety of reasons. It's my hope that by writing this post I'll be able to share with you some of the things that go into planning for who goes where, because in a few short weeks our 4th hour giant ensemble will split into Concert Band and Symphonic Band.
Students in grades 9-11 are required to perform an audition in the spring, which is submitted as their final playing exam. All students must complete two of the three sections of the exam; the third is optional for students wishing to place into the Wind Ensemble, our top performing group. Eighth graders are given the material as an option to audition, but are not required. Mr. Good, Mrs. Bier, and I sit and discuss placement for those students who choose not to audition, but they are generally placed into Concert Band. (It is very rare that a freshman will be placed into Wind Ensemble - last year we had four, and this year only one. Usually the literature is too advanced for freshman musicians, so unless instrumentation needs require it, they are generally not placed here, and they must complete the audition successfully.)
First and foremost, we want everyone to be successful and comfortable on their instruments, and the advantage of having three concert ensembles is that we can accomplish that to a much larger degree. In theory the groups would progress by age: Concert Band would be largely populated by freshmen and sophomores, Symphonic Band would be sophomores and juniors, and Wind Ensemble would be made up mostly of juniors and seniors.
In actuality there are some crossovers for various reasons: some students "self place" and ask to be put where they are most comfortable. Sometimes this is due to the demands of practicing that a higher group may put on them; sometimes it is for reasons known more to the student. Other crossovers happen for instrumentation concerns (we absolutely cannot live without two oboes in Wind Ensemble, for instance), and still others simply due to the fact that this or that young student is advanced in playing beyond his or her year in school (like the trumpet player six years ago who made All-State Orchestra as a freshman).
Occasionally I do make placements based on seniority and work ethic. This happens most frequently in Percussion Ensemble for assigning marching band instruments, but has also been a factor in bands as well. Part of this system also includes a "best fit" kind of practice: sometimes it is better for a person, perhaps a year younger, to be a higher chair in Concert Band than one of the lower ones in Symphonic Band even if he or she is "better" than someone placed above. This gives the student some leadership experience as well as placing him/her on a part that will bring out some strengths. Speaking as a trumpet player, for instance, I more often need players who can blend and balance well on the inner parts - if I had all the power players in one group it wouldn't work well for any of the bands. This is known in the business as "paying dues," and it is something that is rewarded in future years.
Which leads me to my final point, which is that part of the process is also to make sure that placement benefits all players and bands as well as considering individual strengths. Will there be a person who can qualify for a higher band seat? Yes. And sometimes, for the benefit of the band over the student, that student is not placed as high as he/she could be. As mentioned in the above paragraph, there are frequently many reasons for this, but first and foremost is ensuring that students can be successful, and that all three bands have balanced instrumentation and a good core sound on stage.