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Small Combos in Music Programs

Small Combos in Music Programs

Ed Dumas

One of my fondest memories of playing trumpet in secondary school was joining other trumpet players at lunch in the band room to play duets from the back of the Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet. No, we were not that good that we could play all the duets in the back of that book. As students, we just played the simpler ones, and even then we still enjoyed the time doing it.

During those years I also had exposure to a trumpet choir experience that was highly enjoyable. As part of our lessons, my private trumpet teacher gathered all of his students together to read some trumpet choir music once per week. These sessions featured music that was written just for trumpets and was usually written for 3 to 5 players. Each part would have multiple players on it because there were far more trumpet students than parts. But even still, this turned out to be a very fun experience with a different kind of sound as compared to a full concert band.

Playing these duets and trumpet choir works, though, did instill in me a love of small combos as an alternative to the large concert band sounds. Ever since then, I have tried to devote some time to small group participation in the music programs that I have led or participated in. I encourage you in your music program to do the same and find some space for your students to enjoy playing in small groups. It is an experience that is worth the effort and pays off handsomely in improved skills for your students.

Formal or Informal?

Some music teachers include small-group work as a formal part of the concert band class. This means that the work that students do in rehearsing music in small groups is then evaluated, and the data generated is added to their concert band evaluation.

Some teachers choose to keep the small group work on an informal basis, and not include this work in the student's grades and reporting. There are advantages to both directions, and if you choose to encourage small group participation, this will be your first decision to make.

An advantage of including the small combo work in a student’s reporting period is that everyone in the class will have some exposure to small group work. Everyone in the concert band class will understand the objective and assignment of the small group work and will begin to work toward that end. This immediately gives you a wider reach than with an informal approach.

The disadvantages of creating an assignment on small group work are more numerous than the advantages. These include first a limit on how much any one teacher is capable of doing within the band program. By creating more assignments for students, you automatically create more work for yourself. Adding this function to the class may be more than you are currently able to complete.

At the same time, the addition of small groups may create more work than students can handle as well. By adding this requirement into a band program, you might find that you lose some students who then find that the extra work is now more than they can handle, and so soon start to leave the music program. Finally adding a formal expectation of small group combos for band students means that this will also put more demands on the music room space. This can be partially alleviated with practice rooms, but some music rooms just do not have the space to spare.

I have included small group work in my music programs in both formats, depending on the program and facilities at that moment. How you choose to include small groups in your program will need to be a personal decision. I encourage you to consider these options carefully before you begin.

In the end, I have found a semi-formal option that seems to have suited my students best most often. In a semi-formal small group option, students were offered bonus marks for being involved in a small group combo. The students would need to set and meet on a regular weekly basis. During that rehearsal time, they would be working up some combo music such as duets or trios and be ready to perform them for an addition to their grade. The extra work that these students did in a combo group would result in some agreed-upon bonus added to their regular concert band score.

The parameters for this student participation will need to be set up and agreed to in advance. I have found that using this semi-formal approach had the advantage of encouraging a fair number of students to get involved in combos, while not punishing any students for not participating as some are just unable to take on more commitments outside of school hours. Either way, if you decide to add combos to your program, it is important to consult with your students to see what they are interested in, and their ideas on how this could be done without causing more problems and harm.

Small Combo or Instrumental Choir

A small combo would be something like 2-5 players using the same, similar or varying instruments. A duet of the same instruments would be like two flutes or two alto saxes, whereas two similar instruments could be like a clarinet with an alto sax or a trumpet with a trombone. Two varying, or dissimilar instruments, would be something like a flute and a euphonium, or a clarinet and a tuba. Any of these combinations are fun, and it is even more fun to try them all and find out what it is like to play with different instrument groupings!

An instrumental choir is a completely different kind of fun, and should not be missed. Instrumental choirs are based upon one instrument, or one family of instruments, so that the participating instruments all share something in common. One of my favourites is a clarinet choir, especially if you have the full range of clarinet options available such as Eb Soprano Clarinet, Bb Clarinet, Alto Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Contra-Alto Clarinet and Contra-Bass Clarinet. This group creates a fantastic sound that is very enjoyable to listen to.

Other great choirs include a flute choir, a double reed choir, a sax choir with all of the sax voices present, a trumpet choir, a trombone choir (including all the trombone sizes!), a French Horn choir, a Brass Choir, a Tuba Choir including Euphoniums, and so on. Every one of these groups creates a wonderful experience for students to learn and enjoy.

I encourage you to present these options to your students, as I have usually found that students do not realize that these kinds of instrumental choirs are a possibility. You will find plenty of YouTube videos which are useful in helping students to understand what an instrumental choir is all about.

Another great fun group that is often forgotten is the Percussion Ensemble. This would be a group made up of just percussionists using any combination of percussion instruments available. The choice of the instruments used would be directed by the composer of the music.

A percussion ensemble is a great addition to a music program, for it provides another level of “something different” that can provide a wonderful change to your audience while giving a huge spotlight to the important work that the percussionists do. As a result, percussionists not only develop better skills but also come to feel more valued in the band program.

Wind students could be used as temporary percussionists when an ensemble cannot find enough players to fill all the parts demanded by the composer. In these circumstances, the wind musician will strengthen their counting skills and also comes to value the important percussion role as well.

Developing Listening Skills

As part of my master’s thesis, “The Use of Small Group Ensembles to Improve Sight-Reading Skills in Wind Band Musicians in a Secondary Music Program,” my students participated in combo groups starting with duets and then gradually increasing in size up to quintets. At the same time, the groups moved from the same instruments to similar instruments to dissimilar instruments. Dissimilar instruments were designated as ones that do not belong to the same family and/or are separated by more than one octave.

The theory behind the study was that as students progressed from the same to dissimilar instruments and from duets to quintets, their listening skills would also increase. The reasoning was that in a large concert band setting, students often learn to “shut off their ears” because there are too many competing (wrong) sounds for them to know which one(s) to follow. As a result, students’ listening skills sometimes need to be “reset” to begin listening again, and this is best achieved with a simple duet and grown to larger groups from there.

At the same time that students' listening skills were expanded with the use of small group combos, the master's work then found that students’ sight-reading skills were also improved. Once the students were then able to listen to only one other musician, they were more able to reinforce the correct reading & counting with each other and developed their sight-reading skills at a faster rate than just in concert band playing alone.

Take note that during this development phase of this master's work, the students playing in the combos increased from 2 up to 5 players, and the complexity of the various groups increased from like instruments to dissimilar instruments. This had the added effect of teaching the students how to listen to other instruments that were not their own or not in their octave. The result was an improvement in reading skills that surprised even me and outpaced the normal improvement in reading skills associated with the same period in band class with no small group combo work.

The master's work, then, showed that playing in small group combos is very good for your students’ musical skills, and is even better than time spent in concert band class alone! Students, then, that spend time during concert band class in a practice room playing duets and trios will not be left behind for not practicing the concert band music. Their reading and listening skills will increase at a faster rate for it, and they will be able to perform in the large group setting better than without the combo work.

Challenges for Combo and Instrumental Choir Work

Several challenges will be created if you choose to use small group combos and instrumental choirs in your music program. These challenges can be broken down into two main categories of space/time and money. Both of those challenges are the usual bane of all music programs. A combo program can add to these challenges, but with careful planning, some of these challenges can be overcome enough that adding the combos to your music program repertoire creates more positives than negatives.

First, most secondary music programs have a very limited amount of space devoted to the use of the music students. Adding to the allowable space in the music program is usually not an option unless there are currently some unused spaces in the school. With that thought in mind, then, solving space challenges usually means using available spaces outside of normal class times, at least for some students.

For example, if you have a large number of students that would like to play duets, using the practice rooms in the music facility cannot be done by everyone in any given band class. Rotating those students through the practice rooms once each week will help, but likely, still some of those students will need to find some available practice room time outside of the regular band class times. This could be lunch times, before and after school, or during open blocks when the room is available. A detailed room booking system will be important to keep time conflicts to a minimum.

The more space you have available, the fewer time conflicts you will have. Conversely, the more open times you have available in the main music room, the less you will find you have time conflicts with groups wanting to use the various spaces you have available. As a result, I have listed space & time as one challenge when adding combos to your band program. Careful planning of space bookings will be needed to make this work to your advantage.

In terms of resources, your largest expense in creating a combo program will be in purchasing music for students to read while playing combos. There is plenty of repertoires available for just about any kind of combo or instrumental choir that you can imagine. The challenge is in finding enough material for the many different configurations that your students create while also keeping in check the expense of purchasing all that repertoire. There are just so many possible combinations of instruments for duets using only standard concert band instrumentation that finding individual works for each combination could prove to be very costly.

The answer is in using flexible instrumentation books that are written with differing combinations of instruments in mind. At the end of this article, you will find the reference list of combo music books that were used with the master's study “The Use of Small Group Ensembles to Improve Sight-Reading Skills in Wind Band Musicians in a Secondary Music Program.”

This is a good list to begin looking for appropriate combo music for your students to begin playing in combos. Of course, you will find many other great items, and you should feel free to add any you find that will be helpful. I have not included any publications of individual works but limited the list to collections published as books. That way the value for money is much greater when the series can apply to anyone in the band class in any combination of instruments you or the students choose.

Positive Results

The positive results that happen when students are involved in combos are numerous. Not only do students learn to read better and listen better, but many other positive results happen that the teacher may not have expected. These include students developing new friends, students learning to make music with older or younger students, more time on an instrument means more skill development, strong players learning to leave room for other players, weak players learning to project better, student self-confidence in music grows, and students develop more excitement for making music.

While the challenges of creating a combo program can be daunting, once begun the benefits can be huge. Even just having student access to printed combo music to play on an infrequent and informal basis will pay great dividends down the road.

Combo Music References

The books listed below come from “The Use of Small Group Ensembles to Improve Sight-Reading Skills in Wind Band Musicians in a Secondary Music Program” by this author. Feel free to use this list as a place to start, but know there is plenty of other great series available. Of particular value as a place to begin, consider the Three’s A Crowd series as well as the Duets, Trios & Quartets For All series. Please feel free to contact a Tapestry Music Rep to help you order any of these materials or find others.


Blair, P. (2006). Concert ensembles for everyone: Works for instrumental ensembles with limited or non-traditional instrumentation. Dayton, OH: Heritage Music Press.

Kelley, D. (Arr.). (1999). Music for three: Volume 7. Studio City, CA: Last Resort Music Publishing.

Newell, D. (2002). Bach and before for band: Four-part chorales from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. San Diego, CA: Neil A. Kjos Music Company.

O’Reilly, J. & Williams, M. (Eds.). (2001). Accent on ensembles: Duets, trios, and quartets for flexible instrumentation, Book 1. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co.

O’Reilly, J. & Williams, M. (Eds.). (2002). Accent on ensembles: Duets, trios, and quartets for flexible instrumentation, Book 2. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co.

Pearson, B., Elledge, C., Sorenson, D. (2005). Standard of Excellence Festival Ensembles 1. San Diego, CA: Kjos Music.

Pearson, B., Elledge, C., Sorenson, D. (2008). Standard of Excellence Festival Ensembles 2. San Diego, CA: Kjos Music.

Power, J. (Arr.). (2003). Three’s a crowd: Junior book A. London, GB: Chester Music.

Power, J. (Arr.). (2003). Three’s a crowd: Junior book B. London, GB: Chester Music.

Power, J. (Arr.). (2003). Three’s a crowd: Book 1. London, GB: Chester Music.

Power, J. (Arr.). (2003). Three’s a crowd: Book 2. London, GB: Chester Music.

Ryden, W. (1996). Classical quartets for all. Miami, FL: Belwin Mills Publishing.

Story, M. (Arr.). (2000). Pop quartets for all. Miami, FL: Belwin Mills Publishing.

Stoutamire, A. & Henderson, K. (1973). Duets for all. Miami, FL: Belwin Mills Publishing.

Stoutamire, A. & Henderson, K. (1974). Trios for all. Miami, FL: Belwin Mills Publishing.

Stoutamire, A. & Henderson, K. (1975). Quartets for all. Miami, FL: Belwin Mills Publishing.

Tambling, C. (Arr.). (1996). Tunes for two: Easy to play duets for C & Bb instruments. Suffolk, GB: Kevin Mayhew Ltd.


Note: Due to the majority of school districts beginning their spring break on March 13th, the next article from the MusicED Blog will be published on Thursday, March 30th, 2023.


Ed Dumas is a retired band director who taught his entire career in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District. Ed is now living with his lifelong partner Laurie, and their little dog Sprocket in Parksville, BC.  Ed & Laurie also work as Mid-Island reps for Tapestry Music while enjoying making music in retirement.


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