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.

Recruiting in 2016: Something old, something new

Recruiting in 2016 can be one of the most difficult tasks for college band directors. While there are several events directors attend in which they can meet prospective students, finding a variety of ways to keep your program in the mind of these students is important. Many directors are being creative in accomplishing this task, but some old practices work just as well. Here are a few ways that I have found successful over the years.

Phone Calls – While emailing students can be easier – mostly because you can email on your schedule and they can read on their schedule – it is less personal than a phone call. Additionally, I have found that high school students do not check their emails as often. Spending a evening making phone calls to students can be very effective. Many universities have call centers that are willing to allow you and some of your students to come in a perform a calling campaign. I encourage representatives from your program calling prospective students as they can answer more specific questions regarding the ensembles and requirements than admissions counselors (who are also vital to your efforts).

Work with Admissions Offices – Remember how I said that admissions counselors were vital to your efforts? Get to know them!  Make yourself known to them and give them information that prospective students require. Because of the relationships I built with counselors at previous positions, they would often call me when students were visiting campus. This allowed me to meet the students or set up a time for them to meet with a current band member. When it came to band events, counselors would often ask to assist or send materials. These relationships are crucial to meeting your program’s needs.

Get students to campus – The best way for prospective students to get an understanding of your program is to get them on campus. Invite them to concerts, honor band festivals, or other campus events. One of my favorite ways is to have student attend a football or basketball game and sit with current ensemble members. Many of the prospective students may not be music majors, and sitting with current members who represent the university as a whole will allow them to talk to each other and get a sense of group expectations.

Go to Prospective Students! – It is great to get out of the office every once in a while. It was my goal to visit at least one school a week. This not only allowed me to meet students but build relationships with band directors. The more often students see you, the more comfortable they will be when the attend classes. When you go, try to take some university memorabilia (check with your admissions office to see if they have anything) to hand out. This is the main reason I do not put dates/years on band t-shirts. You can hand out left over shirts!

Special Moments – Find ways to celebrate your current and future students. Have current members write a personalized postcard to prospective students or former band director. If the prospective student lives in the same or surrounding communities, put a sign in their yard. Do a “Letter of Intent” signing like you see with athletic teams and get the local media to come out. There are many ways to accomplish this, you just need to be creative.

Dr. Corey Francis with Mr. Dan Tripp and students from Paris HS (IL) for signing day.
Dr. Corey Francis with Mr. Dan Tripp and students from Paris HS (IL) for signing day.

Friend-raise before you fundraise

Cheese and sausage. Fruit, especially oranges. Cheesecakes. Car Washes. Concessions at athletic events. Magazines. Craft festivals. What do all of these things have in common? They are fund-raisers that every band director has either done or considered. We know these events are required in order to supplement the programs in which we work, but how successful are they in reality?

We have also stated our desire to see more people attend concerts or other music department events. We can advertise, send letters home, sell tickets, and drag people off the street but these numbers will not improve until we can do one thing effectively:

Friend-raise: Build relationships with people in our communities by showing support for them WITHOUT asking for anything in return.

Show genuine support of other programs

This can be a slippery slope, but one I feel we must traverse. If we want to have access to the football field for a rehearsal or if we do not want to see a kicker on the field during halftime, we must build a mutual respect for athletic teams and officials. As an avid sports fan, this has never been difficult for me. I love to chat with coaches about strategy, player attitudes, and recruiting. But, in order to get an audience with coaches, I showed support for them.

One day during band camp, I will take the band over to the football team’s practice and play a few songs for them. Before a big away game, students would volunteer to perform as a pep band as the team got on the bus. Many times, alumni donors and university officials would see the action and come talk to the students and show support. Those alumni would often donate money to the marching band and the University President to the overall music program.

The issue with this is that you may get asked to do more. What I have found, however, is that I had more room to decline because I was already doing more than expected.

J Corey Francis, Indiana State University
Butler University and Indiana State University performing together on Sept. 11, 2011.

Be visible to the community

When the community has something going on, be involved. Ask the leaders of a 5k or 10k race in your community if you can place groups of students towards the end of the course to play participants across the line. The students can cheer the runners on when no playing music. One group I worked with even sang “Happy Birthday” to “that guy” as he passed by (they did not know his name, but he said it was his birthday).

Being visible does not only mean playing. If there as a food bank in your community, challenge other band programs in your area in a contest to see which group can raise the most. Then, deliver the food as a group. Or, volunteer to help deliver Thanksgiving meals to those in need. Find a day that students can help serve at a shelter for those in need or animals.

Sure, all of this sounds planned and self-serving, but I honestly believe the students will learn life-long lessons through this type of service when genuine.

Publicize activities constantly

We all have iPhones or the Samsung Galaxy (or some sort of smart phone…). Taking pictures of your students at any event in which they participate and sending them to the local paper can show the community that you are more than a marching band.

Find ways to show all the extra things your students do well through pictures. Cheering on the football team? Take a picture! Playing at the nursing home? Take a picture! Auditioning for college, or performing in solo and ensemble, or working with an amazing instructor in a master class? Take a picture! Then, with permission of the parents and school, send them to the newspaper or post them on website or social media for the community to see.

Once you have spent time showing the your town that the ensemble is part of their community, they will support you and your students. This does not happen over night, but slow, thoughtful, and genuine work will bring results. Just like practicing. Get to know your community, and your community will get to know you.

6 Things You Learn in Music Class

For years the debate has raged on regarding the need for schools to focus on academics areas, such as math and science, over classes in the arts. While I do understand the need to improve in areas of deficiency (and am not diminishing their importance), the lessons learned in band and choir (I was never in orchestra in high school, but I am certain these lessons were taught) have been more valuable in my daily life.

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Strong Work Ethic: Music, when done well, requires hard work. Practicing on one short phrase or section could be required in order for the “correct answer” to be achieved.

These Is Not Always a “Correct Answer”: Speaking of “correct answer,” these are often a subjective matter in music class, and rarely are they answer replicated or achieved in the same manner.

No “I” in Team: Music demands a team effort. The performance of the whole ensemble depends on the efforts of all members. You have to work together, pay attention, adjust what you are doing to coordinate with others, and share the credit. In other classes, your grade does not effect my grade (for better or worse).

Diversity is Celebrated: In music classes, there are soprano, altos, tenors, and basses. There are flutes, saxophones, percussion, French horns, English horns, trumpets, cellos, viola……you get the idea. It is a community of instruments or voices, all performing different parts, at the same time and place. Oh, and people from all demographics can participate.

Being the Best is Challenging: In music, if you want to be good, you have to work hard. Once you are good, you can be on first part. You can audition for All-District or other Honor Bands. If you keep working, you can be first chair. You can participate in All-State, Solo and Ensemble, or audition for a competition. But then, there is probably someone else that is working just as hard and wants to be just as good. It is much like a career: work hard to be effective, do well and get promoted but earn more work.

Music is science, mathematics, and history: Let’s not forget this. Music requires understanding of creating waves and manipulating them in time and space. It is knowing fractions, division, multiplication, addition and being able to calculate this vast formulate over a specific time frame. And, music is about knowing cultures and historic events, and being able communicate them through use of science and math…….with a group of others that understand science and math.