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Rehearsal Strategies

Patricia George | December 2021 January 2022

    So many times in rehearsal, a conductor stops because something went wrong in a passage and says, “Let’s do it again.” The chances that “Let’s do it again” will fix the passage are slim to nothing. Better if the problem is identified and practice strategies are enabled to fix the issue. John Mack, the legendary oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra and pedagogue extraordinaire, refers to these problem spots as “confusions.” If you are confused about something, you won’t play it accurately. Figure out what the confusion is and fix it. Sounds simple.
    Identifying what the problem is – notes or rhythm – is often not recognized as an important question to be answered, but correctly answering this question indicates which practice techniques to employ. However, many directors do not have a go-to list of practice techniques to quickly fix notes or rhythms. The following are a few ideas for different types of problems.

Problems with Notes
(For sections playing similar material)

Slow Down the Notes
    Use this technique to make sure that there are no incorrect notes written in the part and that everyone is playing (fingering) the same note. It also helps students understand the passage.
    To further work on the passage, try the following at the slower tempo:

    •    Play each note tongued four times.
    •    Play each note tongued three times.
    •    Play each note tongued two times.
    •    Play the passage double or triple tongued
    •    For instruments that play with vibrato, play with two, three and four vibrato cycles to each note.
    •    Play with the common articulations (for four notes)
    •    Slur two, tongue two
    •    Tongue two, slur two
    •    Slur three, tongue one
    •    Tongue one, slur three
    •    Play with common articulations (for three notes)
    •    Slur two, tongue one
    •    Tongue one, Slur two
    •    Play in dotted rhythms: dotted eighth and sixteenth and sixteenth and dotted eighth.

    Of course, the best way to combat technical issues in music is to improve students’ command of theoretical technical material. Add these ideas to practice of scales, thirds, arpeggios, seventh chords etc.

    Chunking is a practice technique in which a student plays one inch of music and then inserts a rest. During the rest, a sip breath is taken. While a one-inch chunk is the amount that is seen by the human eye, practicing in chunks in various lengths is also beneficial. Here are some chunking ideas:
    Chunk by beat (play first beat, rest, play second beat, rest, play third beat, rest etc.). This is an excellent technique because it reveals that the student knows where all the beats are in a measure.
    Chunk by two beats (play two beats, then insert a rest). Continue this idea, chunking by three and four beats, and then by measure.
    During the rest have students say, “the name of the next note, blow or set.” For poor readers saying the name of the next note improves reading immensely. Saying blow encourages a good air stream and set helps students get all of the fingers in place at precisely the right time. For some students coordinating the right and left hands at the same time is a challenge.
    Remember not only to chunk going forward, but also chunk from the end of the passage to the beginning of the passage. In other words, play the last chunk, rest and then play the next to the last chunk followed by a rest.
    Have students play one chunk, rest and then sing the next chunk followed by a rest. This helps develop the ear.

Opposite Hands for Woodwinds
    To practice playing with opposite hands, have flutists use their cleaning rods and other instrumentalists use drum sticks. Rather than having the left hand on top, place the right hand on top and the left hand on the bottom and finger the passage as the instrument works. For example, for flute, B would be right hand thumb and right index finger. If students can work their way though this fingering challenge three times, they will be able to play the passage with regular fingering.

    For more advanced students encourage them to play the passage up and down a half step and then a whole step. Usually, one of these keys is easier to navigate and students can bring that feeling of ease back to the original key.

Write It Down
    Encourage students to memorize the passage and write it on staff paper. The visual image may improve performance.

Play It on the Piano
    For those who can play the piano, playing a section on the piano helps with the visual imaging of the passage.

Practice by Omission
    For a passage comprised of repetitive four sixteenths, practice in the following ways:

    •    Play the first note only of the four sixteenths. Rest on notes two, three and four.
    •    Play the second note only of the four sixteenths.
    •    Play the third note only of the four sixteenths.
    •    Play the fourth note only of the four sixteenths.
    •    Play notes one and two and then rest on three and four.
    •    Play notes two and three and then rest on four and one.
    •    Play notes three and four and rest on notes one and two.
    •    Play notes four and one and rest on notes two and three.
    This plucking of notes produces amazing results in a short time.

Record Yourself
    Play the passage and have students listen to the playback repeatedly in class and during practice at home.

Make a Video
    In small group settings or private lessons, make a video of a student playing the passage and analyze the movements. Are the fingers lifting too high off the keys? Is there a place where the student looks or feels awkward? More than likely solving the awkward problem will solve problems playing the passage as well.

Add-A-Note Both Forwards and Backwards
    Have students play the first two notes and then add a note so they are now playing the first three notes. Continue adding a note in this manner until they reach the end. Then start at the end and go backwards adding one note back each time they play. Often students have played the beginning of a composition more times than the ending, so it is always a good idea to work from the end towards the beginning.

    If there is a certain fingering in the passage that gives students trouble, wiggle back and forth between the two notes saying, “I am go–ing home” followed by a rest. Try from the lower to upper note and the upper to lower note.

Write an Etude
    If you can identify the technical problem with the passage, find or write an etude that works on that issue. Generally, what is difficult for one player will be difficult for others.

Memorize the Passage
    Once memorized, work so they can play it 10 times in a row perfectly from memory. Another trick is to have students play it facing north, then facing east, south and west. Spatial practicing is an excellent aid in consistency.

Traveling Fermata
    Place a fermata on the first note and then continue through the passage. Then move the fermata to the second note, the third, and so on. Continue until each note has been played with a fermata. Tell students to play with the best sound possible on the fermatas.

Problems with Rhythms
    As with learning the notes, the best prevention of finding rhythmic concerns is good preparation of rhythmic fundamentals. Most high school students understand simple meter far better than compound meter. Daily drill, rotating through all of the keys, on the following two scales produces amazing results.
    These examples include the most common rhythms found in music. The first is in simple meter (beat divisible by 2) followed by its companion in compound meter (beat divisible by 3).

Simple Meter

Compound Meter

    From The Flute Scale Book by Patricia George and Phyllis Avidan Louke, Chapter 1, Page 14 (Theodore Presser)

    Once students are familiar with  practicing these rhythms in scales, ask which one is causing the problem in the passage. When students can recognize that a rhythm is one they already know, rhythm issues becomes easier to fix.

Playing on the Same Pitch
    Play the rhythm of a passage on one pitch until it is satisfactory and then repeat adding the pitches.

Filling In or Subdivision
    No matter if the difficult passage is in simple or compound meter, tonguing the number of sixteenths in a beat improves accuracy and clarity. Start this practice technique in the first year of instruction and problems will disappear in the later years of study. For filling in, tongue the number of sixteenths in a dotted eighth and sixteenth passage. Students will tongue three sixteenths for the dotted eighth and one for the sixteenth.

Ping Pong
    First, you play a beat and students as a group play the next beat. Continue alternating several times. Then divide students into two groups and have them play the rhythms ping pong style without you. Repeat and switch parts.

The Metronome
    For years students were taught to practice starting on a low setting on a metronome and after ever three successful play-throughs, they were told to increase the setting on the metronome by one notch. There are some passages that this truly works for but I have had the greatest success not with the metronome click setting but with the voice setting. In my studio, students call this type of metronome “The Lady.”
    The benefit of the lady is that she calls out the number of the beat the student is on. Since most students equate counting to feeling the beat, hearing her say the beat number helps them to aurally learn to count beats with the proper number.
    Some of these techniques will work better for a particular passage than others. The main goal is to have a go-to list that you can immediately employ and not have to fall back on “One more time.”