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Tips and Tricks That Make Everything Better

compiled by editors | April 2014

    When it comes to leading better rehearsals, all directors steal ideas from each other. There is always a colleague who has a great technique for keeping students focused in class and striving for excellence. We asked a distinguished group of directors at all teaching levels to share the rehearsal ideas that have proven most effective over the years.

What is the most useful idea that you learned from someone else?

Justin Antos (Eisenhower High School, Blue Island, Illinois): The best rehearsal technique I learned from another teacher is always to make time in the day for score study. This task is not easy for the busy music educator to accomplish. However, it is imperative for an effective and efficient rehearsal. Score study gives the director the ability to predict what may go wrong in the performance of a piece of music before it happens, and will give the best insight on how a piece of music should sound, making it far more difficult for mistakes to slip by unnoticed.

Mary Land (Young Harris College, Georgia): Several tips taught to me by Marguerite Wilder:
•    Use a lead sheet when introducing new music. A lead sheet is a unison series of melodies or somewhat tricky phrases from the real music. The students learn the lead sheet together, then when learning the full band arrangement they are familiar with their parts and have the confidence and independence to play their parts with success. Another bonus from lead sheets is a built in reinforcement, if needed, to aid or support a weaker section when playing the full band arrangement.
•    You know how hard it is to learn the names of your beginning band students? You know a hundred new names at once? Have your students neatly print their names at the top of the first 10 pages of their band book. Then as you move around the room while teaching you can recall their names by looking at their book.
•    Beginning band hand position for all instruments: wrist straight, thumbs straight fingers curved.
•    Use a 3-ring binder rather than a folder for middle school students, and 3-ring hole punch everything including the band book.

Fred David Romines (Marywood University, Pennsylvania): The Sizzle Technique – younger students sizzle passages with an actual sizzle sound. The technique reinforces breath support and crisp articulation. My high school director used this technique all the time. The result is a more resonant tone and clearer articulation.

Charles Ebersole (Fleetwood Area High School, Pennsylvania): Peter Boonshaft once mentioned that the one thing we never have enough of as music teachers is rehearsal time. The understanding of this fact has helped me to be more prepared for rehearsals, both in terms of score study and planning for each practice. It has also helped me to develop a sense of urgency during rehearsals so that we are able to accomplish as much as possible even if we do not have a lot of time or the entire group present.

Brian Anderson (Fremont High School, Nebraska): The best technique that I learned from another teacher was from my cooperating teacher, Dale Duensing. He believed that for rehearsal success, nothing could substitute for preparation. He always said the teacher does the homework before the class starts, and it was not limited solely to score study. Preparation also included the arrangement and maintenance of the physical plant, clearly defined daily objectives, investigation of potential musical issues, equipment issues, and classroom management issues. I have followed this advice throughout my career.
    Thirty years later, I find that if a particular rehearsal did not go very well, 98% of the time my preparation was not thorough enough. It is a horrible feeling to walk away from a poor rehearsal knowing you were the one who did not do his job.

Duane Chun (Buena High School, Sierra Vista, Arizona): I had the good fortune to watch Richard Saucedo rehearse an All-State band. During one point in the rehearsal he was working a section of the band specifically on blend and balance – a few players were sticking out. He asked the band what were they listening to from those around them. He talked to the students about getting their sound within the sounds of the players around them. The concept of getting inside the sound of those next to you stuck with me. Not only does this help get a section sound blending and balancing in terms of tone, dynamics, and articulations, but tuning issues also improve.

Amanda Drinkwater (Marcus High School, Flower Mound, Texas): I cannot recall to whom this particular technique should be credited, but I learned early on in my teaching career to help students develop literacy by having the winds sightread passages on a single pitch.  When the students are in developmental stages, isolation of all performance elements aside from note accuracy (rhythm, style, volume) can ultimately help develop a more confident and mature performer.

Stephanie San Roman (Oswego High School, Illinois): The best rehearsal technique I learned from another director actually came from Ed Lisk’s publication, Alternative Rehearsal Techniques.  Basically, it is a tuning method that helps students eliminate the beats on a daily basis and creates pitch awareness skills that students will then utilize throughout the rehearsal. Not that eliminating the beats is anything new, but this process involves each section leader listening to the instrument below theirs, down to the tuba (who is the only one with a tuner). Once each section leader is in tune and balanced with the other instruments, it becomes the job of each section member to match pitch to their section leader. I like to have students do this individually – the section leader plays a concert F, then one section member joins in and adjusts as needed before moving onto the next section member. This may sound like it takes a long time for each student to check pitch with their section leader each day, but after establishing the routine, it only takes a few minutes. Incorporating this process on a daily basis has drastically improved the overall intonation in my ensembles.

Steve Katzenmoyer (Fleetwood Area School District, Pennsylvania): When you are behind the conductor’s stand, the students are the either listening or playing, not talking. Give the students breaks by stepping to the side of the conductor’s stand and letting them stand and stretch, talk to neighbors. Mutual respect is wonderful.

Matthew Temple (New Trier High School, Winnetka, Illinois): Music in a legato style quickly reveals a band’s ability to play with rhythmic integrity. Students often become sloppy with pulse due to the slow tempo and slurred/legato articulations that obscure the beginnings of notes. The typical solution is to instruct students to subdivide mentally. A rehearsal technique that dramatically improves this issue is what I call bopping. Some directors call this technique “playing the hits” or “attacks only.” This approach is frequently used on the marching band field, but works wonders in the concert setting as well. I learned it from my conducting mentor, Joseph Manfredo, who currently teaches at Illinois State University. Students play the rhythms as written in a given phrase, but don’t sustain notes any longer than an eighth note. This allows students to hear all composite rhythms clearly and align the beginnings of notes. You can use a metronome while doing this exercise or have students who are not playing subdivide out loud. When students return to the music as written with full rhythmic values, the difference in clarity is immediately obvious.

Brian Shelton (Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi): It is a simple but effective technique –  chanting rhythms in the proper style. I have used it with students from beginning bands to advanced college ensembles. It helps them to execute the rhythm properly, and it challenges their commitment to the style and intent of the music. It can also draw them out of their lethargy if I do not feel they are playing with energy.

Charles Staley (Neuqua Valley High School, Naperville, Illinois): I learned Happy Circle Time (my ensemble’s name for the exercise) from Dennis Glocke, Penn State. The winds/percussion set up in one very large circle, sitting anywhere they choose. The only rule is that they do not sit next to someone from their section.
Some examples of goals for this setting are:
•    Breathing together for more confident entrances
•    Establishing internal pulse for better ensemble vertical alignment
•    Shaping phrases
•    Becoming more aware of the relationship of their part to other musical lines

Gabe Musella (Spring High School, Texas): When you stop to correct or clarify the musical idea, be concise and efficient. Being wordy and vague only weakens your message and bogs down the flow of the rehearsal.

Steve Peterson (Ithaca College, New York): Persistence. Do not accept (or label) something as being good until it truly is. The good teacher is the person who will correct a mistake one more time than the student is willing to make it. Acknowledge accomplishment and im-provement as it happens, but don’t accept something that is less than is should be.

David Fodor (Evanston High School, emeritus, Illinois): I have had such great mentors over the years that it is hard to come up with just one specific technique. However, I would say that sharing your love for the music with both intensity and humor during rehearsals is important. One technique I saw Don Owens (Northwestern University, Emeritus) use that works well for me is having band members add a + or – to their dynamic markings, to emphasize listening for balance across an ensemble. Just because a player has a forte marking does not mean it is the most important thing to be heard, and conversely, a soloist might have a piano marking but need to be on top of the balance.

Elizabeth Peterson (Ithaca College): I learned (and I’m still learning) many rehearsal tricks or techniques from others. I have an old notebook that I refer to and continue to add to. I started writing in it in 1984. I stole ideas from college conductors, mentors, guest conductors, peers – any rehearsal I could observe. I still go the All-State rehearsals and steal ideas from the conductors. The trick is to make these ideas work for you – your style, personality, and energy. So, I can’t say that I have one technique I learned from others. I have many and when something seems stale, I go to that notebook and find another way to do it.

What is a helpful technique that you have developed?

Matthew Temple: I have spent a great deal of time working on the concept of listening relationships in my ensembles. It makes the difference between a good band and a truly great band.
The central tenet of this technique is listening versus watching. Sound is directional so every student has a unique vantage point in the ensemble. Players towards the back of the ensemble often have to watch the conductor more and play slightly ahead of what they hear.
    This applies most frequently to the percussion and low winds. Players closest to the conductor need to spend the majority of their time listening back for pulse and alignment. If they simply watch the conductor, they will often play ahead of the audible beat instead of waiting for the sound to arrive from behind them.
    Because textures vary throughout each composition, listening relationships are constantly in a state of flux. The conductor must help students identify which sections to listen to and at what moments in the music.

Fred David Romines: I like to have people with the melodic material play while those who will provide the accompaniment listen with a critical ear. As the soloist or section with the melody plays, I ask the others to listen for the expressive elements that are being applied (vibrato, increased pressure on certain notes – these could be places where the performers are shaping the melodic lines or pressing into the contours on the phrase. Then, I ask the other players who support these melodic ideas to provide the accompaniment that enhances, but does not obscure, the expressive elements of the melodic material. This usually results in a higher level of responsiveness from the accompaniment and also increased expression and musicality.

Charles Ebersole: I have developed a warm-up routine using a variety of materials: David Newell’s chorale books, the famous Fussell book, Richard Schwartz’s The Tuning C.D., a book of marches that I had compiled for us, and other materials. We use two or three things from this list at every rehearsal, but always begin by working on tone and intonation. Over the years, this focus on basics has helped the band to apply this knowledge to all the literature we play.

Brian Shelton: It is hardly original, but I engage the students through questioning, as with the Socratic method. No matter the group, I challenge them to answer questions about the music. No answer is wrong, and it is important that they feel safe when they answer. I then guide their answers so they come to my way of thinking and understand why I do what I do. The music becomes more meaningful and they take greater control of their own musicianship.

Stephanie San Roman: I know plenty of other people use this technique, but I like to have the entire band sing, play, and clap each other’s parts. If there is a tricky rhythm in the trombone part, I will write it on the board and have everyone figure it out and play it together on a concert F or other unison pitch. Then the rest of the band can stay on that unison pitch, and the trombones can switch to the pitches in the music. Again, this seems like common sense, but I remember how much of a difference it made when I started doing it consistently during my first year of teaching. This way everyone is engaged the entire rehearsal, and when the trumpets have the rhythm later on, they already know how to play it.

Mary Land:
•    Starting middle school band class in a dignified way sets the tone for the entire class rehearsal. I like for students to stand at the beginning of class, hold completely still, face the front, and wait for me to tell them to have a seat. This is our outward and visible sign that class has officially begun.
•    We all play together or we don’t play at all – a great phrase that basically means stop playing.
•    When the goal is a delicate release without clipping the note, let the note evaporate as if it were a puff of smoke.
•    Marcato notes are played in a pointed style
•    In order to play in a legato style, stretch and pull one note into the next.

David Fodor: After this many years of teaching, I have realized that I reuse many effective rehearsal tricks I have seen used before, perhaps with a twist. I enjoy using analogy and metaphor in rehearsals. These ideas generally surface at the moment a particular concept is perplexing the ensemble.
    For example, when I encounter the loss of intensity in a soft passage of music, I may relate it to the intensity of to trying to scream when you have laryngitis – it won’t be very loud, but it sure will be intense.
Another trick I use with younger players is called Wacky Friday. One Friday each semester, I allow the freshman band to sit wherever they like, as long as it is not their usual seat. This sounds like chaos, and there are some predictable outcomes, such as the tubas sitting in the front row, and friends who never get to sit next to each other plopping down together. However, my educational motives are to get students outside of the box for a different perspective on playing together, and to create a new listening experience for the day that we can discuss at the end of the rehearsal together.
    For the last five-to-ten minutes of the wacky rehearsal, I ask students to say what they heard differently, and how it affected their own playing. Details like blending, balancing, tuning, and articulating usually surface in this discussion, and students often have a stronger appreciation for their regular seating the next Monday. Speaking of the Monday after a Wacky Friday, the listening concepts carry across for you to continue improving those same details listed above and much more.

Justin Antos: I place a considerable emphasis on the warm-up procedure in my rehearsals. Every day as part of their warm-up, my students play through a particular major scale and arpeggio along with its three relative minor forms, play and sing through a chorale in the same key as the scale of the day from the Treasury of Scales book, do breathing exercises, and perform short rhythm exercises with the scale of the day using Garwood Whaley’s book Basics in Rhythm. This is where many of my students’ technique starts to take form. In my opinion, there is never an excuse to skip the warm-up.

Brian Anderson: I always begin and end each rehearsal with music-making. Current brain research says that in a 45 minute class period the first 20 minutes is the prime learning time, followed closely by the last 10 minutes of the period. During the middle 15 minutes the brain slows down and is not as active. With that in mind, it makes no sense to deliver announcements or perform administrative duties during the prime learning times. Use the down time for these duties and make them as brief as possible. Active music making should always be the main priority.

Duane Chun: I also like to use an analogy from Tim Mahar about keeping a steady tempo when making entrances, especially after long rests. He says, “it’s like jumping on a moving train – you need to be going the same speed before jumping on, else you’re going to get run over.” I find this opens the door for good discussions on how to keep time and pulse.

Charles Staley: About two weeks before a concert, I involve my wind ensemble students in setting priorities for rehearsal. I send the ensemble a recording of our most recent rehearsal and invite students to take note of musical problems requiring immediate attention at the next rehearsal. Students bring their answers to class. Each section selects what they agree to be the highest priority problem to solve. Many times, this ten-minute exercise sets our priorities for the next two or three rehearsals. The bonus is that all students (including the percussionists) do not mind spending time to address identified problems, even if they are not playing that particular segment. Students who are not playing actively listen to help assess our progress.
    A modified version of this exercise can be used with less experienced ensembles. I list three musical selections with different performance goals, and ask students which of the three selections needs the most work. Any one of the three selections will offer a wealth of problems to solve, so the students can’t make a wrong choice. By coming to a consensus on rehearsal priorities, there is a much better chance the students will buy in to the rehearsal process.

Elizabeth Peterson: I use the technique of isolation. I know that is not a trick and that isolating has to be balanced with good pacing. I think it is effective to isolate the melody, countermelody, harmony, harmonized melody, or however it breaks down. It is more effective to say, “let’s hear the people who have the melody” instead of “let’s hear the first clarinets, flutes and first trumpet.” It helps the students to learn their function. Also, isolate by instrument color: woodwinds, sax choir, all the clarinets, or whatever. When we isolate, others get to hear with whom they play. They learn each others parts in rehearsal. The trick is to not let them think that they can use this as time to practice their own part. Pacing is also an issue, but to keep everyone involved, you can have people subdivide out loud or ask them to listen and identify “the most out of tune note in that passage” or something about what they are hearing. Continue to ask specific questions about the music so all stay actively engaged.

Gabe Musella: A technique born out of limited rehearsal time when doing camp bands and region bands is to have first chairs in every section play a passage to establish the desired clarity and balance while other students finger through their music. Then I add everybody in with a simple instruction; “play no louder than what you just heard and fit into the established texture.” This is a quick way to obtain clear, noise-free, ensemble sound.

Steve Katzenmoyer: Never underestimate the value of recordings of the music you teach, particularly among beginning and intermediate students. You certainly don’t want students simply to copy what they hear on the recordings, but many students struggle with realizing the symbols on the printed page. Young students benefit from having a model to guide them as they become proficient on their instruments.

Steve Peterson: The craft of using questioning techniques to keep all students involved and motivated during a rehearsal.