Less conversation, more action

It may be late in the year, but there are still many things to learn and work on. Everything that happens in April and May not only finishes the growth and success for the year, but sets the ensemble up for the future. It is also a great time of the year to grow as conductors. One of the main problems many directors face (as I did and still do) is talking too much and not allowing the students to play. We spend a large amount of time trying to explain every last detail of what we hear and how to improve that we use more time than it takes to be successful. Here are some ways to say more while talking less.

Use of facial expression

The face is the most telling and expressive features of the human body; however, many music educators suffer from “Thinking Conductor Face.” This is the default express that we as conductors have while intently listening to our ensemble and assessing their performance. The problem is this expression shows nothing or looks displeased. The expression in your face will effect how the ensemble performs, for better or worse. If your ensemble plays timidly or with a great deal of tension, the problem may be their interpretation of your facial expression. A simple smile of approval when the trumpets articulate the correct way or a raised eyebrow for the saxophone that forgot that to play F-natural can go a long way. These expressions, or the thousands of others, are great ways to provide feedback and students will have a better chance of remembering how to play those areas.

Try this. Take 5 emotions (happy, sad, surprise, fearful, triumphant, etc.) and the 5 vowels in the alphabet (a, e, i, o, u). Each emotion and vowel have a different facial formation. Start by looking in the mirror a saying the vowels. Do this slowly in order to see and feel the difference in the mouth shape for each vowel. Then, apply each vowel to your chosen emotions (i.e. happy-a, happy-e, happy-i, happy-o, happy-u). Notice that each expression shows the emotion in a different way. By implementing these into your conducting while in rehearsal, you will notice some subtle changes in your students’ performance and attitude.

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Minimizing feedback

I am guilty of over-explaining things. It has always been a struggle for me to say what is needed in a brief way. And, sometimes, there are 3 or 4 things that need to be mentioned when stopping the ensemble and provide instruction. Come up with a routine to help manage time of instructional talk and provide more time to performing. Any time you stop the ensemble, try giving two statements of feedback: a praise and a correction. It may sound like this:

“Flutes and clarinets, I really appreciate the blended sound you played with in measures 159-166. Nicely done. Low Brass, to my ears up here, you are playing too peasante. Try to not be so forceful, especially in measure 163.”

Play, stop, say something positive and a correction, and we move on. If you didn’t address it that time, be sure to make eye contact with the performers during the next run-though and show them show you want that part played. Also, limit time working with one section or one group performing the same thing over and over to 5 times. By then, another section is losing focus and we start wasting rehearsal time.

Using musical vocabulary

This one is pretty straightforward. Too often, we use non-musical words in the place of true musical vocabulary (play lighter/shorter for staccato for example). Be sure to incorporate musical terms in your instruction as this will reinforce your students’ knowledge and execution of their parts. If you do not know the definition, look it up before rehearsal and write it down on a note pad next to your stand. Additionally, using the truest definition is ideal. For example, the term “forte” is translates from Italian to English as “strong” instead of loud. I prefer using this definition as it seems to help students (especially low brass) to manage their air support and not overplay the volume of the ensemble.

Video taping yourself

This is one of the most difficult things do to as no one really wants to watch themselves on video. However, this exercise is very enlightening. You will start to see patterns of speaking and movement that you did not realize before. For me, I looked down at the score right before my downbeat to start a section. This broke lines of communication and lead to my ensemble not starting together. I also said “okay” quite a bit. Through videotaping myself, I was able to watch improvement in myself and my students. I noticed less talking between times we played, entrances were together, and my conducting patterns were more clear.

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