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.

Saturday Sounds: ‘One Life Beautiful’ by Julie Giroux

A snowy Saturday is ripe for a cup of coffee and some good music. On the listening list today is Julie Giroux One Life Beautiful.

Saturdays in winter require only a few things: kids that sleep in a bit, a cup of coffee and good music. Of course, my kids don’t know the meaning of sleeping in, making the coffee and music necessary. It warms the soul and prepares my mind for the day ahead.

Some days, you hear a piece which takes your soul and wraps it in a warm blanket. The sounds simultaneously provide hope and calm, soothing the anxious mind.  One Life Beautiful is one composition that does such things for me.

I was formally introduced to Julie Giroux music in 2010 while preparing for All-South Honor Band at the University of Southern Mississippi. It was the following year’s event when I heard One Life Beautiful. It has stuck with me ever since.

About the composition

Ms. Giroux was commissioned by Emeritus Professor Ray Cramer (Indiana University) and his family to write a work dedicated to his late daughter, Heather Cramer Rue. As stated in the program noteOne Life Beautiful refers to the beautifully lived “one life” of Heather, but is also “a direct observation concluding that having only one life is what makes life so sacred, tragic, and so very precious.

To me, the work is filled with hope, love, sadness, and joy. It reflects on life and how precious it is while producing a sense of passionate resolution. The ebb and flow of tempo and range of expressive markings allow for freedom in artistic and emotional performance. It is certainly a piece that becomes personal to those who perform it.

The work is deceptively difficult but worth the effort. Focus on long, overlapping phases and balancing of voices is crucial to unlocking the emotional power of the composition. Individual control of tone and pitch are imperative. (Of course, when are they not?) Furthermore, solos are abundant, including for flute, clarinet, both oboe parts, alto and tenor saxophones, French horn, and trumpet.

This live recording by the Musashino Wind Ensemble with Ray Cramer conducting is available for download on Ms. Giroux’s website.

One Life Beautiful is available for purchase through J.W. Pepper and cost $95. While listed as a “Medium Easy” on their site, it is considered a Grade 6 on the Georgia Music Education Association’s Band LGPE List.

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.

Center of the wheel

Balance is a hard concept to achieve in many activities in which we participate, yet is one of the most important. A car that has unbalanced tires will shake while traveling down the interstate. If untreated, this will lead to greater tire wear and reduced fuel economy, costing more time and money. If there is a lack of balance in your band program, you will notice a lowering of morale and reduced performance.

What causes balance issues in a band program?

First off, let me make it clear that we are not talking about the “pyramid of sound” as prescribed by Francis McBeth. Instead, this is about the actual band program. An unbalanced program can take many shapes but the end result will be same. A few issues that cause the lack of balance in a program could be as follows:

  • Too focused on marching band: Sure this activity is fun for many involved, and adds a level of competitiveness for the students, but marching band is not a year round activity. Result: poor performance in concert band, lack of interest in other musical activities, “trophy or bust” mentality.
  • Band competitiveness: This can actually go year round. Signs of this issue are students that will show negative attitudes towards other programs because of what they do or do not perform or because of the ratings they do or do not receive at festivals. Also known as the “my band is better than your band” syndrome, band competitiveness will produce a rivalry between groups inside and outside of a program, and it not limited to just students.
  • One size fits all: This is a little more difficult to diagnose. This issue is when a program does the same thing day in and day out. The musical selections are always the same. The program has not grown or expanded to venture into other areas.
Photo Credit Sandy King
Photo Credit Sandy King

What is a balanced program?

A balanced program is one that does a variety of things at a high level, but the main goal is the end of May. What does that mean? Simply this: from day one to day 180 of the school year, and all the extra days and practices before, during, and after that time, the goal is to improve the students in musical performance and in character. When this is achieved, success will be measured in the energy felt during an artful performance and the smiles after no matter the rating given.

How do we achieve balance?

This is hard to answers because every program is different. However, I do believe a simple structure is important. One way to see this is through, what Wayne Markworth (author of The Dynamic Marching Band) calls, the “total band circle.” This concept depicts a circle with a center and several evenly spaced sections around the center.

  • The center represents the concert band/wind ensemble program. This takes up most of the year, but also is where the students experience the greatest amount of art and teamwork for the season. The concert band can perform a wide variety of genres, feature several individuals or sections, and provides a chance to show a great set of skills than other activities alone.
  • The outer sections represent the other activities: marching band, jazz band, winter guard and percussion, music theory/appreciation, solo and ensemble, etc. Many of these areas also take a great deal of time and energy. If too much focus is given to any of these areas, all others will suffer. For example, if a program spends too much time on marching band, jazz band could be pushed back and concert band will not start with a fundamental sound concept.

So, how do you achieve balance? Everything must be done with a goal of improving concert band. The warm-ups you utilize in marching band should encourage an open and resonant sound that would be performed in concert band. Jazz band should encourage knowledge of style and better articulation. Solo and ensemble helps the individuals learn to blend sound, match pitch, and communicate musically with others in the full ensemble. Time should be managed so that all areas receive the focus they need to be successful, but also not over extend the students or directors.

Achieving balance in a band program is like taking yoga: hard at first but beneficial when worked on over time. Through focusing on your core – abs in yoga, concert band in your program – increase in morale and performance will be obtained, and balance achieved.