Missed Cues: Two ways we miscommunicate in rehearsals.

As conductors, we are tasked with communicating the written score to an audience through our ensembles. Here are two habits in rehearsals we can break.

It is not the easiest of tasks. Conductors take music in its written form and ask musicians to create and combine sounds in order to breath life into ink. To do this, we study the score and rehearse our ensembles as efficiently as possible. It takes effective communication to make it happen.

However, what we say and what we show in our gestures are not always the same. And, as we all know, some students learn by seeing and other by hearing. For rehearsals to be their best, matching our verbal communication with physical movements helps.

There are two common moments of miscommunication that happen almost simultaneously before the first sound is created. The first of which is our breath during a preparatory gesture. Many of us spend time working on appropriate breathing techniques with our groups. We ask for an open “O” formation in our mouth, like we are saying “woah.” This helps create a full, deep, relaxed breath. Yet, when we give a prep beat, our faces are tense or we breathe through our nose.

Tip 1: Show the breath you want your ensemble to execute.

If we want our musicians to take a full, relaxed breath, we should also take that type of breath. It will help them perform as requested and improve timing.

Along with our breath comes out eyes. At the conclusion of our preparatory gesture sound should be created. Often, this first sound is not exactly together. Our response is often “if you watch, you won’t be late.” Or, “get your eyes out of the stands.” Maybe your ensemble doesn’t watch because you drop your head to the score before the sound starts. You are not watching them. The line of communication is broken.

Tip 2: Keep your eyes up as the sound is initiated.

While these seem easy to fix, old habits are hard to break. There are times in which I still struggle with these. But, fixing this will help rehearsals improve significantly.

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.

A lesson from the gymnastic coach

Opportunities for learning are everywhere, you just need to watch.

I am a blessed man. My family keeps me on my toes and grounded on what matters. My two daughters are very active, which means I play chauffeur often. But it also provides me with a chance to observe the way other people teach or coach students.

My youngest daughter, the highly energetic kindergartner, auditioned and made the gymnastics pre-team at a local fitness club. Anyone that knows her sees the genuine joy she exudes when doing flips and bends. With the required class meeting twice a week for an hour an a half each time, opportunities to observe are plentiful.

On one occasion the head team coach for the gym, Mike Durante, taught the class. A class that includes four energetic little girls. Of course, with 24 years of coaching experience, this was no challenge for the coach. In a firm but caring voice, he focused the girls on the tasks. He gave simple but clear instructions, and, if the students did not meet expectation, he would have them repeat the task. Watching him as he encouraged the students to stand with quiet confidence in the appropriate posture made me think about how I teach.

When teaching, do I inspire the same type of courage to perform? Is my tone one that is firm and respectful, but also full of encouragement? Coach Durante was quick to provide simple, yet complete, feedback while still establishing control of class. My daughter can push boundaries at times, especially when we try to calm down her energy. She did this in class as well. When she completed her trampoline exercise, she decided to bounce some more. Coach Durante quickly and calmly got her to stop and she popped back into her spot ready for the next task.

Even when we are correcting performance tasks, we must be mindful of how we speak. Our tone can easily bring about unwanted negative effects, which will then lead to less productive rehearsals.

There was another trait that I noticed about Coach Durante’s teaching. When one student was the focus, he provided a clear extra task for students to do on their own. I know, we as music educators do this all the time as well. We will work on a passage with the clarinets and say “everyone else, be looking over your parts.” Is this really complete instructions? Can we add more descriptive words without muddying the directions? Maybe say “As we work this section, everyone else please verify articulations at measure 34.”

But, not only did he give clear instructions, Coach Durante also provided feedback to those students! This showed that he paid attention to everyone at all times and encouraged their best for the entire hour and a half! We can do the same and assess performance throughout our rehearsals. This will promote active self-assessment from students as well.

So, I encourage you to speak courage to your students and promote full participation every moment of rehearsal. The results will be amazing. Also, find times to observe other teachers. Especially non-music teachers. You can learn a great deal simply by watching.