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Top 3 by Three - Favorite Band Pieces by Practicing Directors

Welcome to the debut of Top 3 by Three, a new series promoting great band repertoire! Each segment features three excellent band directors and three of their favorite pieces to teach and perform. Choosing great music can be a challenging task, but it is such an integral part of educating, engaging, and motivating your students. Top 3 by Three aims to help you choose music that your students' will love and learn from. Veteran teachers Wendy Higdon - Creekside Middle School, Rachel Maxwell - Traughber Junior High, and Steve Nendza - Hille Middle School, share their favorites for middle school band.

Rachel Maxwell, Traughber Junior High School - Oswego, IL

Title: Simple Gifts - Four Shaker Songs

Composer: Frank Ticheli

Publisher: Manhattan Beach Music

Grade: 3

Description: This suite utilizes four authentic Shaker melodies which each bring to mind a distinct yet well matched set of folk dances. The piece is beautifully transparent with subtle dynamic and articulation nuances which are artful and effective. The writing is soloistic and contrapuntal in many sections but never overwhelming for the younger ensemble. The energy and flow of piece rises and falls very naturally and provides the ensemble with a musical peaks which stay true to its folk origins. This piece may be performed effectively by a mature middle school group and is equally satisfying for an adult ensemble.

Considerations: The piece is four movements which total 9 minutes of material making it a longer grade 3 composition. The composition is in cut time and 6/8, which students will need to be familiar with. A light touch in the percussion section and soloistic playing throughout the band with sensitivity to articulation is critical.

Title: Onward

Composer: Gary Gilroy

Publisher: Daehn Publications

Grade: 2

Description: Onward is the perfect concert opener with intense energy and forward momentum. The piece sounds significantly more difficult than it is written and can give a younger group a very sophisticated sound without typical “formula” writing. Every instrument has an important and rewarding part and students are highly engaged when working on this selection. This piece is fresh and has a distinct contemporary sound yet retains a timeless quality.

Considerations: The piece is in cut time and moves at a fairly fast tempo. A full percussion section is utilized with independent writing among the parts. All exposed wind parts are doubled in the woodwinds and brass voices.

Title: Companion of My Voice

Composer: Randall Standridge

Publisher: Grand Mesa Music

Grade: 3

Description: An absolutely beautiful heartbreaker that engages every student and pulls musicians and listeners into its narrative reflecting the life of a treasured classmate whose time on Earth was far too short. While Companion of My Voice is a lyrical piece, it has an energy and rhythmic pulse which reflects the energy of a young life. There are several emotional moments which alter between dramatic peaks and gentle moments of meditation. Standridge draws his inspiration from the Greek poet Arion in his poem that begins, “You harp, companion of my voice, come with me to the land of darkness.” The music reflects the darkness that comes with the struggle of loss but ultimately creates a tribute of remembrance and hope.

Considerations: A work written in memory of a student bass clarinet player, this piece uses synthesized harp, bass clarinet, trumpet, horn and oboe solos. There is also a vocal/singing segment which is critically important. The key of concert Db may be a challenge to consider.


Wendy Higdon, Creekside Middle School - Carmel, IN

Title: A Walk in the Morning Sun

Composer: Pierre LaPlante

Publisher: Daehn Publications

Grade: 3

Description: This piece portrays a light and happy mood. The harmonies and scoring evoke a bit of Grainger while the mood is reminiscent of Leroy Anderson. This is just an adorably fun piece to play and conduct.

Considerations: The key signature alternates between three flats and four flats (concert pitch), so this does present some intonation challenges. There are two oboe parts and two bassoon parts. The bassoon is cued or doubled, but it is nice to have at least one bassoonist because there are some exposed lines for this instrument. You’ll work on stylistic playing a lot on this piece.

Title: The Bonsai Tree

Composer: Julie Giroux

Publisher: Musica Propria

Grade: 2.5

Description: My middle school students tell me how much they love this piece whenever we rehearse it, which you don’t hear often about a slow, lyrical compositions. This is a beautiful piece that keeps everyone busy with meaningful music to perform, including percussion.

Considerations: You’ll need confident players on bells, vibes and marimba on this piece. These percussion parts are not difficult, but they are very exposed. There are many opportunities for students to learn about rubato, expression, balance, and independence of musical lines.

Title: Abracadabra

Composer: Frank Ticheli

Publisher: Manhattan Beach Music

Grade: 3.5

Description: This piece is playful and mysterious and contains lots of challenges for your students, regardless of what instrument they play!

Considerations: Motives that pass back and forth between woodwind and brass will take some work to get the timing correct without slowing down. There are many opportunities for your students to work on staccato, accent and marcato styles, and the tempo changes keep things interesting. There’s a lot to work on in this piece, but your students will grow as individual musicians and ensemble members through preparing it.


Steve Nendza, Hille Middle School - Oak Forest, IL

Title: Fantasy on Yankee Doodle

Composer: Mark Williams

Publisher: Alfred

Grade: 3.5

Description: Fantasy on Yankee Doodle is an outstanding work for students to learn about theme and variation form. The composer takes a relatively simple melody and transforms it through a series of variations. This piece challenges the students and the conductor with multiple transitions between styles and meter. It is well worth your time to explore this work your students and I hope

they love it as much as mine did.


  • Keys of concert F, Bb, Eb

  • Multiple time signatures of 4/4, 2/4, 3/4, 7/8

  • Tuba solo

  • Short percussion feature

  • Polyrhythms

  • Independent writing in the three clarinet parts

  • Strong trumpet players are needed for the final section where whole note high G’s are held for multiple measures.

Title: Gentle River

Composer: Rob Grice

Publisher: C.L. Barnhouse Co.

Grade: 1

Description: Gentle River is an excellent work for a young ensemble to focus on lyrical playing. The melody is written in comfortable ranges for all musicians, allowing the students to focus on tone and phrasing. The contrasting middle section offers variety and helps to introduce detached playing at a slower tempo. Using the title as an introduction to the piece, it offers students a chance to make a visual connection to the work.


  • Lyrical, expressive playing

  • Key of concert Eb major

  • 3/4 time signature

  • Detached staccato playing at a slow tempo

Title: On A Russian Rowing Chanty

Composer: Jack Wilds

Publisher: FJH

Grade: 2

Description: On A Russian Rowing Chanty gives students the opportunity to explore the haunting sound of minor melodies. Based on the Russian folk tune Song of the Volga Boatmen it is composed as a theme and variations. Wilds writes multiple unexpected musical moments that surprises the students and keeps them wondering what is next. The work offers exposure to the melody in all instrument sections. On a personal note, Jack Wilds worked with my students in rehearsal via FaceTime and the students loved it! He offered great pedagogical tips that helped the students improve and provided some insight into how he composed this piece.


  • Historical significance

  • Theme and variation form

  • Rhythms: eighth notes, triplets, eighth & two-sixteenth note figures

  • Multiple tempo and style changes

  • Active and independent percussion writing

  • Lyrical middle section

Thank you to our contributors; Rachel Maxwell, Wendy Higdon, and Steve Nendza for their outstanding selections and contribution to the Top 3 by Three series. For recordings and performances of the works above, view the Top 3 by Three playlist. If you'd like to be notified when the next Top 3 by Three is published or gain access the Resources page, become a Teaching Music & More subscriber.

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