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Teaching Through Questions

Jim Colonna and Travis Weller | August 2018

    Regardless of the experience of the director or the size of the ensemble, rehearsal skills should be continuously developed and refined. Often, directors see a large number of students in their rehearsals. Maintaining the engagement and interest of students at various skill levels is essential for making progress on repertoire. The answer might exist in the kinds of questions that directors pose to their ensembles.

Musical Decision-Making
    Many directors try to instill a culture of accountability with their ensembles. One part of that goal is establishing a shared responsibility for making musical decisions in rehearsals and performances. If it is truly a shared responsibility for the program, then students need to be given opportunities to make musical decisions and analyze the artistic results of those choices. With this in mind, directors need to provide opportunities for students to express their ideas for interpretation in a constructive and supportive fashion. Rehearsals offer a wonderful opportunity for a director to ask questions of the musicians that stimulate deep and purposeful thinking about the music. The pressure of the next performance can force a director to focus on fixing errors, and one-way directions replace meaningful dialogue between musicians and their teacher.

Choosing Our Conversations  
    Directors may worry that initiating conversations could disrupt the structure of rehearsals. It is possible that some students could be inattentive or uninterested in contributing to the musical success of the ensemble. If a director can find the right questions to pose to the ensemble within the rehearsal, the musical minds of these students can be guided towards a deeper understanding and appreciation for the repertoire and musical concepts being learned.
    As directors draw upon their skills and experience, they can make choices about the conversations that best serve the perspective of the students. Rather than a one-way diagnosis, students can respond to the most basic of questions, some of which could be answered in just a few words before rehearsal resumes. For example, if the ensemble is struggling with tempo within a piece, consider the following rehearsal discussion:

    Director: What is happening with tempo that is forcing us to stop?
    Clarinet Student: We are dragging.
    Director: Is it the whole band, or just a section of the band? 
    Low Brass Student: It sounds like the woodwinds are getting behind.
    Director: Woodwinds, do you agree with that assessment?
    Flute Student: I think the low brass are playing too heavy, and we are supposed to be playing lightly because of the articulation markings.
    Director: Full Band, measure 43 again. Let’s listen and focus on maintaining tempo in this section and then let’s discuss it what happens if we get to measure 59.
    (Full group resumes playing)  

It’s Not You, But It Might Be Me
    The above scenario certainly can bring about some peer assessments that might put certain sections at odds over responsibility. The best ensembles acknowledge that individual members and sections depend on each other. If the concepts of trust and collective responsibility have been established, a conversation like the example above allows for honest self-assessment. These conversations also heighten the respect that students hold for each other and the work that each section must do to master their parts.  
    Peer assessments can provide an effective way to maintain student engagement when working with a small section of the ensemble during a rehearsal. A simple question to another group within the band can let students know where you will resume rehearsing and what you are trying to accomplish. Consider the following example:

    Director: Brass, I am going to start with the flutes, oboe, and clarinets at measure 43. Looking at your part for measure numbers, and keep track of measures that sound ragged or where the rhythmic precision needs attention. Upper woodwinds that I called, let’s begin at measure 43.
(Woodwinds perform the section)
    Director: Those of you who just played, as the brass call out measure numbers they think need attention, raise your hand if you agree with them.  

    When students know their peers are evaluating them in the moment of a rehearsal, their pride as musicians motivates them to perform better. As it happens collaboratively and with guidance from their director, these kinds of constructive critiques are non-threatening and have the best interest of the ensemble in mind.

Directors Cannot Go It Alone
    Ensembles deserve to be engaged in learning and refining music selected for study. Directors can give their ensemble a reason to listen to every passage and make respectful suggestions to improve the band. Whether comparing articulations in unison rhythm passages between the brass and woodwinds or identifying where breaths should occur in a melodic passage, there are plenty of opportunities to guide their ensembles to make musical choices. Students will appreciate that their ideas and perspectives may be expressed and will contribute to the musical result. They will feel a greater sense of ownership for their ensemble and the music making. 
    Remember that students of all age levels have something to offer musically. Students are intelligent and emotional people who attend rehearsals to show what they do know instead of what they do not know. With this consideration in mind, directors should afford students to perform their interpretation of the repertoire that is the most representative of their musical maturity and skill level. 
    As directors, it is important to listen and assess our students non-verbally. During the rehearsal, a director should listen to the ensemble and ask themselves such question as “What stands out?”; “When is the aural representation of the music produced by the students most similar to our own?”; and “Which players are expressing different but acceptable interpretations of the music during rehearsal aside from our own?”
    Identify sections that are closest to what we perceive and then use those students to model the sound for the group. This allows students to share their musical thoughts openly and invites others to come to the same moment in their own music making. Engaging students in listening and modeling can produce greater understanding of music from the composer’s perspective and show students how they can create art beyond the written page.