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.

Rehearsal with your ensemble with a plan in mind

Each rehearsal provides an opportunity for your ensemble to improve. To make rehearsal more effect, each activity must have a purpose.

Rehearsal. They can be the highlight of our day or leave us dreading the next day. It is the time which we get to do what we love the most: teach music. However, with all the distractions – paperwork needing to be done, meetings with the administration about budgets, planning for a trip – we can often find ourselves “winging it” when it comes time to rehearse. We throw things together and pray it works.

Sometimes, we get lucky and the rehearsal goes well. Other times, not so much.

There is a problem with rehearsals. It often lacks a “why.” We all have the ultimate goal of improving whatever piece of music that happens to be in the folder. The music becomes the focus. A worthy goal, but is it enough?

Certainly, we all have a plan – a routine – in which we incorporate every rehearsal. It may include scales, long tones, chorales and the like. What is the purpose of these activities?

Understand the “why”

Everything we do in a rehearsal must have a purpose, and the students need to understand why it is worth doing. The “warm-up” needs to be part of the overall plan for the day and the year. Each piece performed should lead to meeting the plans you have for your students over the years you will teach them.

When planning a rehearsal, I often think about my work during individual practice. You know, all those hours we were told to work in a practice room in college.

  1. Breathing/Stretching: preparing the body and calming the mind to focus. Give the students a chance to clear their mind of the math test they just finished.
  2. Long tones: This is not just to warm-up the instrument, but a chance to build the best tone quality possible. Simply playing through a few notes without assess the sounds being produced does nothing to help you play the compositions in the folder.
  3. Technical exercises: This does not have to scale, but there should be something to help get the fingers moving. If you have to perform a piece with 16th note passages for any of your players, find a way to work on and teach how to achieve success. START SLOW and WORK WITH A METRONOME! But, teach your students how to practice.
  4. Sight-reading: How often do we practice sight reading? For some groups, it can feel like every day if your students don’t practice at home. But there is extreme value in sight reading: it provides fresh chances for your student to process unknown music, which leads to quicker reading and understanding on concert repertoire.
  5. Now, the music. Be focused, and assess based on the things introduced in previous activities. If students are not playing with the tone quality standard set, (kindly) remind and encourage them to meet that standard. Treat the technical passages in the music like practiced previously. Make the connection from “warm-up” to music.

It sounds simple and maybe you do this every day. I encourage you to keep asking “why” you are doing each activity. And make sure your students know it as well.

Concert Band Repertoire Programming

While many directors have a handle on the current trends for marching band, many still program their concert band selections in an “old school” way. A simple concept can improve programming for your ensemble.

Summertime and the living is easy. Well, maybe for some but not for most band directors. They are busy preparing for marching band camp, recruiting new members, hosting summer sectionals, washing cars to help raise funds for the program, meeting with staff to go over ideas for the season, arranging music, writing drill, and then drinking a few more cups of coffee to stay awake for the next Game of Thrones episode. And, after that episode is over, they will go back to work starting to consider music to program for their concert bands. Yes, folks, music education is a 24-7-365 job.

While many directors have a handle on the current trends for marching band, many still program their concert band selections in an “old school” way. They get the promotional CDs from Hal Leonard or other publishers, select a few pieces, add a Sousa march, and BAM! that’s the program. Or, they view a list of “approved” works by some organization in their state that says “these are the works that are acceptable for your ensembles to play at a festival.” Then, they select a few in the grade level they think is best for their program (or that they know and are comfortable with) and program those.

Now, I am not here to cast doubt on the quality of the music on those promotional CDs or within the state-approved lists. What I would like to say is this: changing the way you program music for concert ensembles will improve your program. Here are my thoughts on a simple way to program music for your next concert band:

Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Ah, yes. The old saying that people use when planning a wedding. In order to have good luck, the bride is to wear something from each of these categories. This idea works for concert band programming as well.

Something old

Select a piece of merit from the original works for concert band before 1990. A piece by Grainger, Holst, Persichetti, Hindemith, Dello Joio, or Ives (just to name a very small handful). Pieces by substantial composers from the early days of concert band literature are important to the foundation of our art, much like Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, and Stravinsky are to orchestral writing. Our students and audiences should be familiar with these composers.

Something New

There are so many great new works by fantastic LIVING composers. And, with technology, directors have a chance to speak to composers on a regular basis about their works. Composers such as Jonathan NewmanRoseanne EtezadySteven Danyew, Michael Markowski, John Mackey, Joni GreeneJess Turner, or Steven Bryant. All of these composers – and many more – have compositions for ensembles of all abilities and in various styles. Plus, they have internet sites with their music and ways to connect with them. While they may be busy at times, they are willing to answer questions or provide feedback to recordings. This interaction will help students grow in music and feel as part of the art.

Something Borrowed

It is okay to play arrangements of works from other genres. I repeat, it is okay to play arrangements. Part of the brief history of wind ensemble music is performing arrangements of works from opera, orchestral, choral,  or chamber music settings. As a matter of fact, that use to be all there was for concert bands to perform. So, do not be afraid to go back to our roots and perform an arrangement of Brahms Blessed Are They, or Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold. There are works by Mozart as well. Embrace our history.

Something Blue

In the world of white weddings, brides are encouraged to wear something blue. Something of a different color. For winds bands, this means finding something different for us. It could be playing a piece influenced by jazz. Or maybe incorporating chamber music, a percussion ensemble, or a student composition. You can even perform something that requires lighting effects, or singing, or features a soloist. Better yet, get in contact with a composer and see if they have any active commission projects you can join, or if they have space for a new one. It is up to you, but be different!

View from the Judges Box, Part 2: Visual

Part two of the series “View from the Judge’s Box,” brings us to a discussion about visual concerns during performances. While this topic could have several posts just on it’s own, let’s focus on a few concerns that, when addressed thoroughly, will benefit all.

Posture and Visual

Of course, we have to discuss posture, as it is the most crucial element visually and musically. Poor posture leads to collapsed rib cages and, thus, improper breath support. Visually speaking, posture effects everything from the performers’ step sizes, instrument carriage, and endurance. Proper posture is the foundation for everything we do and must be a daily focus for the performers.

When discussing posture, there are two main concepts to consider: alignment and relaxation. The latter of these is rather self-explanatory. The position of the body should feel relaxed, with no tension in the shoulders, back, chest, or legs. More tension means more air must be used in those muscles in order for them to work. The more the muscles work, the more tired the performers will become. With shows of high musical and visual demand, along with their increasing length, it is imperative that relaxation of the body be encouraged.

Alignment is also an easy topic to discuss, but harder to achieve on a regular basis. In my opinion (and in the opinion of my chiropractor) this is due the ever expanding reliance on technology. We sit at desks with computers, play video games, or have a smartphone attached to our hands at all times. These settings have forced our shoulders forward and put strain on the middle of our back. This is evident when performers put an instrument in their hands.

In order to produce proper alignment the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and “ears” should be in alignment. Technically speaking, instead of “ears,” we should strive to align the Atlanto-occipital (a/o) joint, which is where the spine and the skull meet. This joint is responsible for the nodding of the head, and is located just behind the ears. Thus, using the word “ears” when discussing the alignment of the body may be more readily understandable. When this alignment is achieved, the performers should feel a natural elongating of the body. Because of the difference between this posture and our technology-induced slumping, the new position will feel awkward and students will want to revert to their normal position. To practice this, perform some simple Pliés and Relevés while maintaining the ankle/hips/shoulder/ears alignment. The students will try to lean forward initially, but encourage moving the upper body straight up and down, and knees moving out over (not passed) the toes.


Photo Credit: Dynamic Marching
Photo Credit: Dynamic Marching

Instrument Carriage

The way performers carry their instruments is directly related to their posture. In order to maintain good posture, a uniform method for instrument carriage must be created. When instruments are not being played, performers should have 90 degree angles in the elbows. This mean that the elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle and create another 90 degree angle where the hands intersect. The combination of these two angles generate an open and relaxed carriage with the instrument away from the body. This carriage must be used for all movements and slide positions. (Note: On flute/clarinet, the hands are separated, but if they were together on the instrument a 90 degree angle would be produced. Saxophonist only follow the 90 degree angle in the elbow part.)

Body Movements

With the increasing focus on effect scores has come a reliance on extra body movements, especially when standing in place. While these movements may be visually appropriate, many are executing in a manner that negatively effects posture. For example, when asked to step to the right, raise the right arm, and lean to the right, students will often lean with the upper body instead of the legs. At no time should the posture of the upper body be compromised for additional body movements. All motions should extend away from the upper body and and lengthen in a way that does not allow the torso for lean and break posture.

Extension. That is another concern, in particular with Color Guard. Many times, groups will perform routines with a bent elbow and a lower arm angle. This, in turn, shows lack of energy in performance and will impeded choreography from moving fluidly. Also, small bends in elbows and arm angles on tosses will prevent the equipment from traveling straight and lead to poor catches or bad placement for the next move. Extending up and lengthening the arm will produce a straighter toss and move dramatic energy.

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.