In my previous article, I suggested that it’s time to move beyond the top-down, conductor-driven kind of rehearsals in education settings to be more inclusive and more student-focused. We also explored some “whys” of rehearsal, other than preparing the repertoire. Here come some practical ideas to experiment with.
Disclaimer: You probably shouldn’t (well, just don’t) try all of them at once. That would not be successful. I certainly don’t employ all of these ideas all of the time. But I do use all of these ideas some of the time.
Instead of Always Telling, Ask More Questions
I get it. We like to fix things. We’re pretty good at it. And, most of the time it’s more efficient. But I can guarantee it’s not as collaborative or engaging as it could be when you are the one telling your students what to do 100 percent of the time. You can start with things like, “That was a pretty good run, but I heard a few things we could improve on. Before I tell you, what are you hearing?” Or, if you hear a balance issue, instead of “Trombones, please play softer.” You can ask, “Hey trombones, are the trumpets playing louder or softer than you are?” Or, “John, is Matt playing softer or louder than you are?” Be prepared for “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening to ____.” Then be prepared to run that section again so they can listen. Nine times out of ten, it will fix itself. You don’t have to do this ALL of the time. But the more you do, the better the students get at listening and figuring it out.
Here’s another idea: when you are approaching the concert and ready to run the piece, ask the students to listen carefully for things that need improving. After the run, have them talk in their sections about what needs to happen. (This can get cacophonous. You have to be O.K. with the idea that as long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.)
Talk Less/Conduct Less
My dear friend Tim Reynish likes to say, “Talk less; show more,” and that’s great. It should be a given that you are constantly perfecting your gesture and conducting to be the most musical/expressive/artistic/helpful it can be, and that you are consistently training your weaknesses. But more and more, I’m conducting less in rehearsal. When there is an ensemble pulse issue, it’s particularly important to stop conducting. We all know it’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch, so take the eyes out of the equation. It works nearly every time.
Also, get off the box and walk around. It’s amazing how differently you will hear when you do this. It seems like a simple thing, and it is, but it’s tremendously effective.
Change the Seating
I regularly do a “scatter” rehearsal, often two or three rehearsals before the performance. The rules are that the students cannot sit in the same row as they usually sit, and they cannot sit beside a like instrument. There are a number of benefits to doing this, but the most important benefit is deeper listening. More specifically:
- Musicians hear things in entirely new ways. Or, they hear things for the first time.
- Musicians get used to hearing the “back” or the “front.” Now they have to open their ears and adjust to make the balance work and the blend.
- It’s fun. Tubas like to come to the front row, as do trombones. And flutes like to move to the back.
- You hear things in entirely new ways.
- You can’t cue sections without looking ridiculous, so don’t.
- More individual responsibility and musical independence.
- It builds community and collaboration. Have the students introduce themselves to their new neighbors.
Try sitting in a circle as well, and put percussion in the middle. And you can always try the “monk” rehearsal (students LOVE this one) where you don’t speak. Very interesting what can evolve in this setting.
Talk about being “authentic” is really hip right now. But, it’s amazing how many people I see change who they are when they are on the podium. Be vulnerable. Demonstrate that you are a life-long learner. Let your students in. If you make a mistake, admit it. Everyone knows you made a mistake anyway so if you don’t take responsibility, you not only look silly but you model a behavior that is really undesirable. Sincerity and humility build a culture of trust and responsibility. Early on in my career I observed a choral rehearsal where the singers quickly put up their hands when they made an error. It’s a simple thing but gosh, not only does it save time (you don’t need to stop) but it helps create this culture of accountability and trust.
Guide-at-the-Side versus Sage-on-the-Stage
Have a second score and have a student sit beside you while you run a large section or a piece. Have them talk to the ensemble about what they are hearing. Choose these musicians VERY carefully.
Invest in Student Leadership
This is for middle and high school folks mostly. All that incredible student leadership that you build in to marching band—section leaders, rank leaders, drum majors, etc.—bring inside. For some reason, all of that peer-to-peer coaching goes away with a lot of programs in the spring semester. Why?
Open up the Programming Decisions
In the previous article I said something like, “We tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it,” and then brag that our students are more engaged in our band class than in their math class. What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire? You can start with a theme then give them a choice of three pieces that “fit” the theme, have them listen to all three (hey, now they’re listening to more repertoire!), and afterwards choose (by vote…democracy! Cross-curricular learning!) the one they want. The “buy-in” on that piece goes through the roof.
Sure, you already do this. But do you send the recording to the students? I can assure you they think they sound better than they do, and it is ear-opening for them to hear it. Try telling them that their homework is to NOT practice and instead their homework is to listen critically to the rehearsal. Have each section deal with one aspect. For example, percussion comment on intonation (which they tend not to think about); trumpets make suggestions on balance; flutes make suggestions about blend, etc.
Project the Score
It’s absolutely silly to me that in 2018 we are still handing out individual parts. On paper. (Some students are using iPads) Why, for goodness sake, is there only one expert in the room with all of the information? And why do we keep it a secret? For several years, I’ve been projecting the score from my iPad. We have a large screen in the rehearsal room at the Hodgson School of Music which I stand in front of and the score is projected behind me for the musicians to see at all times. I have used the app forScore, which is great and pretty intuitive, but we are now also using Newzik. Projecting the score and referring to it in rehearsals is not only more efficient, it’s more engaging.
The greatest gifts we can give our students are life-long. Years from now, they may not remember a chromatic fingering, a composer’s name, or a musical term. But they will remember how it FELT to be in rehearsal, that their opinions mattered, how they learned to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning, that you cared, how to work with others in a community, that hard work paid off, how to lead, how to follow, and so much more. Quality repertoire matters (that’s a whole other article), it matters a lot. But how you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters, too. And frankly, it’s how we will stay relevant.
“Of a good leader, who talks little, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” (Lao Tzu)