The Ensemble Director’s Snow Day Survival Guide

They are the most exciting and terrifying words for teachers across the nation: Snow Day. Here is how you can make the most of the missed time.

We are in the midst of a nationwide epidemic. Snow and ice forced thousands of school districts to close their doors in the name of safety for students and teachers. One snow day is okay, but some districts are already calling off school for the rest of the week. After missing Friday last week and two days this week, my kids are ready to go back to school.

I am ready for them to go back as well.

All classes suffer from the missed time, but music classes can argue being hurt the most. The lack of consistent rehearsals can lead to performance concerns in tone, pitch, and musical retention. While we cannot do anything about students leaving instruments at school, we can make sure we are prepared for what comes next.

Snow Day Survival Guide

  1. Pour a cup of coffee, hot tea, or your favorite beverage.
  2. Relax. Breathe. Read something. Stay away from your iPhone, iPad, and all things internet until lunch. And no NetFlix. That stuff is addictive.
  3. After an hour or so, take out your baton and metronome.
  4. Set your metronome to a tempo of 68 with a triplet subdivision. Begin conducting various patterns (four bars of 4, then 3, back to 4, then 5, etc.) with the right hand only.
  5. Repeat #4, adding a little staccato flick (check mark, flicking something off your baton).
  6. With same metronome settings, move left hand only. Start in resting position then move up 4 counts, down 4, right 4, back center 4, left 4, back to center 4. Then do this at 3 counts, 2 counts, and 5 counts. Be sure to breathe.
  7. Take out your scores, baton, metronome, and notebook.
  8. Read through your score from a large view, looking for musical content (dynamics, articulation, tempo changes, etc.) and make notes.
  9. With your metronome going, conduct the piece without stopping.
  10. Repeat steps #7 & 8 for each score.

There you have it. It is simple, but it prepares your mind and body for the next rehearsal. Avoid listening to the pieces. And do this list without focusing on rehearsal planning. Yes, take time to plan for the next rehearsal (whenever it may be), but preparing your mind and body for full runs of works is needed.

How often do you really run the full piece? I know when it comes to marching band, directors will end rehearsal with a full run of everything. Concert groups not so much. Doing full mental runs of a piece will help you build continuity as your ensemble rehearses. We get caught up in the minutia that we fail to build and teach larger musical concepts.

Take the time during your snow day to mentally and physically prepare for your performance. It will lead to more efficient rehearsals moving forward.

Chamber music may be the key to improving your ensemble

Ensemble directors often look for ways to improve their students’ performance. Chamber music may just be what they need. And there are plenty of options.

We all want our ensembles to perform better, right? Of course! Whether it is through the use of technology – such as Tonal Energy (highly recommend!) – or finding new ways to say the same things, directors will do most anything to improve student performance and understanding of music. However, one of the best and most overlooked ways is through chamber music.

I can hear you now. “When do I have time to do chamber music? Our schedule is already crammed with marching band, jazz band, preparing for LGPE or some other festival. Plus all the paperwork…” Of course, there is solo and ensemble time each Spring when students will throw something together and hope for a high rating.

I know. I was one of those students. My senior year of high school I earned six distinguished ratings at Solo and Ensemble Festival. Now, I don’t say that to toot my own horn, but as an example. First, there are students that WANT to do chamber music. Two, having also been on the director’s side of the desk, it takes time.

But, the reward is immense.

Chamber music improves your ensemble!

How? Well, let’s look at what chamber music requires. It is a smaller ensemble setting, usually between 2 to 16 players.

Photo Credit Sandy King
  • Musicians are encouraged to play with more courage as there are fewer people to hide behind.
  • It forces performers to open their ears, paying attention to pitch and articulation discrepancies as they are often more pronounced.
  • And, students can work together on the music before or after school (as your campus allows). They teach each others and themselves.

This means they are playing and communicating about music from a variety of repertoire. They can describe their playing in musical terms, building upon and using the knowledge provided to them in your main classes.

This sounds like NAFME Music Standards achievement if you ask me.

The great thing is you have tons of options. First of all, if you don’t have a library of chamber music, use what you do have. Maybe allow a few students to work together out of a technique book. Or, invest in some flexible instrumentation books or pieces.

If you are looking for pieces for various instruments, you can always check out the Texas UIL Prescribed music list.  This list allowed to browse by grade level and ensemble instrumentation.

This type of performing not only helps them as individuals. When they are incorporated back into the full ensemble, their improvements can spread throughout the group. Because they are performing with better pitch, it generates a better pitch center for the ensemble. Their courage to play with a fuller tone boosts may well influence others to do the same. Sure, these are slightly hypothetical, but I have seen it work.

If students want to participate in chamber music, allow them to play for an audience. Maybe in the lobby of your school before a large ensemble concert. Or as part of the main concert. I enjoyed leading students in John Zdechlik’s Centennial Fanfare to start a concert when teaching high school.

So, why not try some chamber music? It could be just what your students need.

Ensemble Director: More focus on fundamentals brings higher performance levels

While the focus for ensemble directors is often a long-term goal, regular focus on the fundamentals of playing bring higher levels of performance.

The struggle is real. As ensemble directors, we get focused on what pieces to perform for our next concert and want to put together a great program. We try to mix some challenging pieces in with something fun. We hope to entertain the audience. And, we pray our students are up to the task.

While going through this process, there are moments that give us pause. Can the clarinet section get this section of 16th notes that cross the break? Will the ensemble learn this 5/8 section? There are always questions crossing our minds as we select literature.

But, the answer to these questions is always the same. Spend time on fundamentals.

Monday Morning QB

Fact: I love sports. Something sports related is often on my television or tablet. Three pre-sets on my car radio are sports-talk stations. I even write articles for two sports pages.

One of my favorite shows in all of sports information is ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike. The comedic banter combined with the insights on the games I love make this show enjoyable to me. And, now that it is football season, guests from around the game are brought in to provide additional analysis. This includes former Indianapolis Colt (my favorite football team), Jeff Saturday.

This morning, while discussing offensive line play, Saturday said that we have moved to discussing scheme instead of coaching fundamentals and techniques.

The scheme and plays are important, but execution falters when fundamentals suffer.

I wanted to stand and applaud.

The same is true to music performance. Performing at the highest levels means having a solid fundamental and technical foundation. However, most ensemble directors breeze through the exercises that build these areas.

Best time spent

I recall a story told to me from a former jazz ensemble director about famous trumpeter Doc Severinson. The story goes like this: After a concert, one that featured Severinson for at least two hours, the artist returned to his room backstage. When there, he proceeded to play longtones. This lasted for about an hour. When someone finally entered Severinson’s room to ask about what he was doing, the reply was simple. “Somewhere out there, someone else wants my job.”

While I cannot prove the story to be true, the point is clear. The best work on fundamentals.

Long tones are paramount to success. The most important part of music production is the sound we create. Performing long-tone exercises builds consistency is generating the vibrations needed to produce a clear, full tone. It doesn’t matter if it band, orchestra, or choir. Sound matters. This must be done daily.

Technical work should be done daily as well. I don’t mean simply scales in a given pattern. I mean technical etudes. There are books out there for full ensemble technical work. My personal favorite is Foundations for Superior Performance, but you may find another resource that works.

Teach rhythm! Yes, I said it! Teach rhythm to you students. They can’t play in 5/8 if you never work with them on it. And, it must be done consistently as well.

Related Read: Let the Beginner you join the fun

Honestly, I know time is precious to ensemble directors; however, spending 20 minutes in fundamentals daily will lead to better performances abilities. That means more challenging music. Which, to most, leads to more fun playing.

And that is what this is supposed to be. Fun.