Achieving Good Vibrations with Josh Ellis

Achieving Good Vibrations with Josh Ellis

Josh Ellis has been an educator for 15 years. He has taught all grades, K-12, in various Music, Humanities and Language Arts environments. A requested judge and clinician throughout the Midwest, Mr. Ellis is currently band director at Avon Intermediate School East, a feeder to the storied Avon High School band program in Avon, IN. Josh Ellis’s students regularly receive “Gold, with Distinction” ratings at Indiana State School Music Association (ISSMA) contests, and he was 2013 Teacher of the Year at Avon East.

Achieving Good Vibrations with a Challenging Set-up.

Picture this – you arrive at a new job as a feeder to one of the most highly recognized and successful programs in the country. It’s Avon School Corporation in Avon, IN, and you are met with a less than ideal set up: “Heterogeneous Band Classes that meet for 30 minutes every day.”

Then, the economic downturn hits education and it becomes: “Heterogeneous Band Classes that meet 45 minutes every-other-day.”

This was a reality for Josh Ellis eight years ago and it happened with a beginning 6th-grade band of over 200 kids. Additionally, the job required that he teach all the 5th graders, another 375 kids, in a “general music” class. These challenges are becoming more common every year, with each new music teacher’s mantra becoming, “DO MORE…BUT WITH MUCH LESS!”

Table of Contents
Table of Contents

It sounds more inspiring in Latin: “Magis autem et minus fac” (scream it from the mountaintops with 30-year-old instruments waving above your head, and you’ve got it!)

More often than not, most music teachers are facing this daily reality. Which begs the question, “How do we do more with less?”

The easy answer is to give more of yourself and after school/personal time to your students to fill in the blanks. The problem with this is easy to spot: Burnout and personal lives that suffer. The hard answer is to look for a new way. For Mr. Ellis, this new way has come in the form of a new way of approaching beginning band.

Nearly every beginning band tends to base their curriculum out of a method book. These methods allow for little flexibility for the teacher or students, and in general, they do not fit the pacing that each teacher’s instruction demands. Having worked out of five major method books, Josh found himself fed up. With 200 beginners for one teacher and an every-other-day heterogeneous environment, ‘How can I make that work to suit every students’ needs?’, he thought.

To answer that question, he separated ideas of what students need and what teachers need. Students need development in the basic areas of music:

  • Rhythm
  • Range
  • Technique
  • Scales
  • Songs
  • Etudes

Teachers need to be able to adjust their lesson plans without spending hours in the planning room, writing exercises on music notation software or copying exercises to suit their classroom. On top of all that, instruction needs to be more accessible for the low-level learners.

At this point, Josh transitioned out of using a standard method book into using his own methods. In his words, “I was able to dive into the deeper concepts of music sooner, making rehearsal timeless about buttons and counting, and more about attacks, releases, and balance.” Since making the transition to “Good Vibrations” his band’s ratings at contest have soared to higher levels than previously seen in Avon feeders.

We sat down with Josh and he gave us some answers that will hopefully give music directors more insight into this great tool:

So what is this new method all about?

Josh: Good Vibrations is an open-concept curriculum, meaning the teacher controls the pacing. At face value, this requires more planning from the teacher to align the exercises each day, however, this method saves me time. Instead of searching out the copies of counting charts or the Finale file for the exercise my students need, I select the pages we are going to play off.

Mark Harting: How is the book organized?

Josh Ellis: There are six skill tracks in Good Vibrations:

  1. Rhythm: Leveled Rhythm Charts
  2. Range Extenders: Compoundable exercises that expand range one note at a time up and down.
  3. Interval Trainers: 4-12 note, Mono-rhythmic exercises that cover the breadth of the woodwinds while keeping the brass in a standard range
  4. RATING Pages: Compoundable exercises that provide an accessible platform to teach and develop the basics of reading notes and rhythms simultaneously
  5. Songs: Traditional songs and folk songs suited to the beginner
  6. Scales: 5-note scales as well as Major and Minor scale pages

So what does a typical lesson look like in your structure?

Josh Ellis: I plan out weeks in advance where I want my students to be for range, rhythm, and scales and I fill in the blanks. This week, we are on meetings 35, 36, and 37. As students enter, their board work is to figure out 2 assigned numbers on an interval trainer and we will go through that process once we’re warm. I will start playing with each class on Rhythm Chart Dabbler 2 and we work releases playing H, J, K, and L in varying sequential order. We’ll play this on varying concert pitches to work tone, releases, and attacks. Then we will move to a range extender and we compound these based on each class’s needs. For example, my advanced classes play 6-10 of these 2 measure exercises each day, while my ‘lower’ classes play 2-4 each day. Then we will move to the Interval trainer and work on audiation and technique. The next step is our RATING pages. Each class is on the same page, but we vary our order and the amount that each class plays to extend their playing appropriately. Finally, we move to one or two of the songs to finish our class.

Interval Trainer
Interval Trainer

5-Note Scales Clarinet
5-Note Scales Clarinet

That sounds like a lot compared to just opening a book and playing in number order.

Josh Ellis: On paper, yes it does. However, what we are doing is training the skills necessary to properly develop the beginner. At this moment, my woodwinds have read and played 19 notes, and my brass 11. In a standard method, we would be at 8 and 8 respectively. My percussionists have spent most of their time on mallets but still can play and read 16th note rhythms.

In 36 Days, how are your percussion up to 16th notes if the snare is not in the daily vocabulary?

Josh Ellis: The Snare track provides rudiment pages that are leveled for use in class. Right now, we are learning on the “Double Stroke Roll Page”. We start with just the sticking and the “Dabbler” rhythms, then as students pass them off, they move to the “Apprentice” and “Hero” levels. Once kids hear the 16th note option, that becomes motivation to focus fully and get to the 16th note exercises.

Double Stroke Roll
Double Stroke Roll

I notice on the RATING page that there are boxes above the notes, is that “The Breathing Box System”? How does that work?

Josh Ellis: Yes, that is a visual representation of what air is supposed to do as you play. Our parent company is working to trademark the idea, and it is a fantastic visual aid for students to see and analyze their phrasing early on. I found it odd that most people in the band world speak of air as a paramount issue, but it is not described in much detail in the beginning methods. So I added it to this method and it is a game changer for teaching details to articulation, ending a note, placing a breath, and connecting a phrase.

Rating Sample
Rating Sample

What is the cost and where can it be purchased?

Josh Ellis: The book is available in both physical and e-copy formats from If a school wants to use the system as an e-book, licenses can be purchased for $3 (non-printable) and $5 (printable). Separately, the student e-books are $10 and physical copies range from $19.95 – $22.95. The physical book is on 8.5 inches X 14 inches landscape paper, so it lays flat on a music stand or can flip over the top of the music stand, so the teacher can see if the student is on the correct page.

Where would you recommend a band director, who is hesitant to try the method, start?

Josh Ellis: Start with the “Crossing the Break” pack. This pack contains some of the exercises from the book that help your clarinet get across the break in a logical and easy way. Or check out any of our samples.

Hearing Josh talking about this book to other teachers, it’s clear that this is a very special new addition to teaching beginning band. We highly recommend checking it out.

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