Small change in setup can improve rehearsal

Rehearsal time is precious, especially when preparing for performance evaluations. One small change can turn a poor rehearsal into a successful one.

We have all been there. Large Group Performance Evaluations are drawing nigh and rehearsal time is waning. Much of the time spent working on the music is (at least somewhat) successful. However, there are always a few rehearsals which are just terrible. Those can be extremely frustrating.

There is nothing wrong with having a bad rehearsal. Not every meeting can be amazing. But, each rehearsal can have productive moments. The trick is to find those successes and celebrate them.

So, how do you turn poor rehearsals around? While words of encouragement can help, the mental atmosphere must change. The mind is the most powerful element of all rehearsals. Clearer minds lead to improved focus from musicians. Of course, each and every person sitting in a chair or standing on a riser has outside concerns and issues they face. While we can’t keep them from thinking about what is for lunch or a relationship issue, we can change the focus in the room. And the solution is rather simple.

Michael Colgrass is a Pulitzer Prize Winning composer, who also graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in performance. His first professional experiences were as a jazz drummer, performing in the original West Side Story production on Broadway. In terms of music for winds, his Winds of Nagual: A Musical Fable on the Writings of Carlos Castaneda (1985) is considered one of the top works in our repertoire.

In addition to his composition, Colgrass is an author and clinician on performance techniques and psychology. His book “My Lessons With Kumi,” provides exercises and prose to help musicians develop into better performers. It also has provided foundation for him to present clinics on the matter.

I met Mr. Colgrass in 2006 while studying at Georgia State University. He visited as Composer-in-Residence with the school and presented one of his workshops with the conducting studio and wind ensemble. It changed my thoughts on rehearsals since.

One of the exercises he led was called “Walk-Ons.” In this exercise, participant walked across the front of the class, head held high and eyes up, take a breath and confidently say their name. They also were asked to change one thing about the setup at the podium in order to take ownership of the space.

While this entire exercise is not 100% plausible in a concert band rehearsal, there are aspects that will help change the mental focus of an ensemble. Try these simple steps to improve your rehearsal:

  1. Have each musician adjust their physical space: move the stand, different angle of their chair, slide their case or pencil over. It does not need to be anything big.
  2. All musicians lower their heads and close their eyes. This includes the conductor.
  3. With heads lowered and eyes closed, each musician completely exhales.
  4. On the subsequent inhale, everyone raises their head high.
  5. Exhale, eyes open and lifted.

It is not a cure-all, but it has helped ensembles I have worked with change the trajectory of their rehearsal. This exercise does not take much time. The benefits can be enormous.

Monday Morning Music: J’ai ete au bal by Donald Grantham

I don’t know about you, but when I started playing music I did it because I thought it would be fun. Most of the time, it still is fun but the work can be enormous. We strive hour after hour in the practice room or studying a score, listen to recordings, and find out everything we can about a piece before we perform it. There are an infinite amount of days or weeks between the first rehearsal and the final curtain. It is work, but rewarding…

…well, most of the time.

Life doesn’t always provide time for us to enjoy just listening to music much. Well, at least my life doesn’t. Chauffeuring my daughters to school, dance, or gymnastics. Work, fixing dinner, daily tasks. Don’t get me wrong, I love all these things. But, it takes a toll on me mentally and emotionally. Which brings us to this post.

This is the first in a series – hopefully, weekly – where I will share with you some of my favorite music. The pieces that get my toe tapping, head nodding, or just soothes my soul. Music is powerful. There are many pieces across all genres that gives me “goosebumps.” I want to share that with you, to talk to you about my favorite music. Not because it is the best composition every written, nor because the composer is among the best. Monday Morning Music will be filled with pieces I enjoy for one reason or another.

Because that is how I started to love music. Not because I knew anything about it, but because I listened to it.

To start, here is J’ai ete au bal by Donald Grantham. We performed this with the Murray State University Wind Ensemble under the baton of Dennis Johnson. I can remember my friend and fellow Monty Python fan, Morgan Kinslow, performing the tuba solo. It was a fun piece for me.

Music Fundamentals for High School Marching Band Survey

After adjudicating music and music effect in several festivals this year, I am curious about practices in teaching music fundamentals in marching band.

The marching band season is winding down and directors are focusing on polishing shows for the final performances. Hours and hours of rehearsals are culminating into one last run through. Still, marching bands are part of the overall music education program for most schools.

With the amount of time and energy used during the marching season, opportunities abound in teaching music fundamentals. Work on air, tone, intonation, and articulation is important; however, many directions focus on cleaning the visual aspects of the show and not aligning notes and rhythms as much during this time of year.

I will be honest, this season has been better than other seasons in terms of musical performances. There is more uniformity in the execution of techniques. It got me thinking.

How much time are directions spending on music fundamentals? What types of exercises are they using? Is there an arrangement available for purchase or are directors creating their own?

So, I created this survey. It is a very basic survey, consisting of only 10 questions. Honestly, it should take no more than 3 minutes to complete. No personal information is needed, and there is no way for me to identify who submits which answers.

Create your own user feedback survey

I ask for your honest answers. Please, spend three minutes and help me see what groups are doing.


Three ways to increase music effect in marching band

Music effect greatly impacts your marching band’s overall performance. Three simple concepts will ensure your ensemble is getting the most out of every note.

The fall marching season has reached its mid-point. In some states, there are three weeks left for competitions. Other groups are performing well into November. Marching Bands should be performing their entire shows and making adjustments to cleaning their drill. While the visual aspect often requires most of our instructional attention, the music must get out attention.

Hopefully, you are no longer fighting the battle of notes and rhythms and can continue working on the nuances and details. After several weeks of adjudication in Kentucky, Tennesee, and Mississippi, Thankfully, there are some quick concepts that will help your group increase their music effect scores and overall performance.

Give me three step

  1. Hierarchy of impacts: As with any piece of music, your marching show has multiple impacts. There is likely one towards the beginning of show, a few through the middle, and one larger impact to close the program. The problem is each impact sounds the same. By labeling each moment by numbers (ideally 1-10), you assign priority. This also helps create ways to bring emphasis through dynamic contrast. Your students will understand the importance of these moments and execute them better.
  2. Move the dial each phrase. While every line has their dynamic markings, contrast inside each line brings more interest and excitement. Encourage your ensemble to perform each line with an idea of direction. Where is the phrase going? What is its important moment? Identifying these moments and leading to them with crescendos will draw audiences and judges in. It doesn’t have to be a major difference, but explore the different levels of mezzo-forte or forte. Or, dare I say, mezzo-piano.
  3. The back end of articulations is just as important as the start. Often times, our ensembles excel at matching timing and initiations of notes, but will not treat the releases in the same way. This could be due to slacking in the airstream or making notes too short. Take time to focus on the back end of notes, matching timing and style.

Five ways to improve individual practice

Finding individual practice time is crucial to any musician, thus making the most of your time is important. Here are five ways to improve practice time.

If you are a musician, you know the importance of individual practice time. If you are in school, your ensemble leader or private instructor likely nags you about finding more time in the practice room. It can be hard to find enough time, therefore making the most of the time you have crucial.

The way you practice matters as much as the amount of time. Maybe more. And there is not “one-size fits all” method. Many of us make similar mistakes which impedes progress in our performance. Playing a piece from beginning to end, for example, each and every time does little to correct the issue found in measure 52. Doing the same thing over and over again expecting difference results is said to be the definition of insanity. I don’t know about you, but not making progress in my practice is rather frustration.

As the school year enters its final months, here are five ways to improve your individual practice time.

Better Practice Time

1. Make a plan: Before you begin, create a plan. Layout the music you are working in front of you and figure out what passages need the most work. Write down what the biggest concern is, including why. For example, “the second beat in measure 52 includes four sixteenth notes and crosses the break.” Knowing the what and why will bring focus.

2. Go slow: Just because the tempo says  Allegro does not mean you have to work on it at that speed. Repetitive, slow practice builds technique and memory. Set the metronome between 60 and 72 and play everything slowly. You will soon find where your tempo fluctuates. Slow works cures  all.

3. Create a routine: Having a set routine improves focus. Start your time with some breathing exercises or even meditation. Then, spend time warming up and on technical etudes. Establishing  routine can lead to better practice times.

4. Record yourself: We listen to recordings of others and wish to sound like them. But, when was the last time your listened to yourself? For most of us, the only time you hear yourself play is when you are practicing by yourself. Recording to yourself and listening to that recording provides a medium for assessing your tone, rhythm, pitch, and musicality. Take the time to listen to yourself play.

5. Reflect: At the end of the day, reflect back on your time. Write down your thoughts on what went well and things which could have been better. Think over every part of your practice and compliment yourself on improving. Sometimes, the only compliment will be “good job for practicing today,” because our practicing was rough. No matter what, end your reflection with a positive thought.

Try these items over the next few weeks. The results will not be immediate, but you will find your practice time more enjoyable.