One change leads to more expressive conducting

Old habits die hard, but one slight change in conducting position can make a huge difference.

I will be honest: there are several things I could adjust in my conducting technique. Before I spent time working on the ways I moved my arms while in front of an ensemble, I thought my performance was adequate. It worked for me, and that is what mattered.

However, I had some bad habits that were hurt my body, not just my ensemble.

We ask our students to watch us when leading them through a composition. Our words say for them to play staccato or tenuto, to stretch time or to decrease dynamics. What do our arms say? If you are anything like me, it is something completely different.

Heavy. Strict. Every note performed the same way. Our movements often do not match the instructions of the score.

Part of the problem is our default conducting position. More times than not we hold our elbows close to our body, as if we are sitting in an armchair.  This can create an overpronation of the forearm and wrist, and a hunkering of the shoulders. All movement is then generated from the elbow, generating tension in the shoulders and back.

Tension leads to harsh movements. Hard movements lead to heavy playing. And heavy playing leads to the dark side……or just directors stopping the ensemble and saying the same things we already said.

What can be done to change all of this? One simple move…

Bring the elbows up.

When you move the elbows away from the body, a few things change. First, it activates the shoulder. The ball-and-socket join in the shoulder, in addition to the movement of the clavicle and shoulder blade, allows for a freer, smoother motion of the total arm. Broader movements from left to right help depict legato playing and more dynamic contrast.

Second, raising the elbow eliminates the constant rotation of the forearm and wrist. In our default positioning, the pronation of the forearm and wrist restricts the movement of the hand and baton. Freeing the arm from this rotation allows the wrist to lead motion, again promoting smoother playing.

Additionally, the freedom of the wrist leads to more control over the tip of the baton. This is where we can show articulations with greater precision. Small flicks of the wrist show a staccato style. When used in combination with the full arm, you can show marcato style more clearly. And, as always state, broader movements and smoother motions help with legato playing.

It takes time, but rotating about 35 degrees from the shoulder – thus, raising the elbow – can show more expression movements. When motion matches your words, your ensemble will respond.

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.

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.