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Countdown to Contest

Trey Reely | January 2012


   It is important that directors develop a firm rehearsal strategy for the final two weeks before a concert band contest or festival. Many such events requires each band to perform three selections (a march and two concert pieces) and sightread one selection. The strategy outlined here  is based on having ten 45-minute rehearsals remaining before the performance, but this plan is easily adaptable to any musical requirements and time constraints.

Before the Last 10 Days 
   Students should have all the measures in their music numbered and the musical terms and dynamics highlighted or circled with a pencil. After checking for conflicts with the school calendar, schedule an emergency full-band rehearsal outside of school that can be used if regular rehearsal time is interrupted for any reason. (Last year we had a rehearsal cancelled at the last minute to watch a basketball player sign a letter of intent for college.)
   Directors should schedule two graded lessons early in the preparation. Listen to students individually or in groups of two or three. Students should have their music almost fully prepared for the first lesson. I go easy on the first lesson, pointing out areas for improvement, but by the second lesson everything should be mastered. If students are extremely well-prepared for the first lesson, they do not have a second lesson. I keep a record of what every student and section needs to work on so I can address these problems in full-band rehearsals as well. I also bring in specialists for sections that need more help in mastering their music than others.
   Listening to students individually and in small groups is helpful. Early in my career I had difficulty catching all the mistakes in a full band rehearsal, so I worked with students individually to make sure I was not missing anything. Even with more experience I have found that with younger or weaker ensembles it takes personal attention to correct all the mistakes and encourage musical playing. With more experienced and talented players, larger sectionals of various combinations may be enough. Whatever the case, it is best to have graded lessons completed six or seven rehearsals before contest.
   If any music is only covered by one student, whether a solo or a complete part, have a back-up plan so that the part is covered in case of an emergency. If I only have one player on a first part, I will give a copy of that part to the second-chair player to learn along with the second part. It is also important to rewrite parts to minimize the effect poor instrumentation can have on balance.
   Make sure to have a firm knowledge of the score before the final ten rehearsals. Your understanding and interpretation of the score must be in place before it is possible to cover increasingly minute details in rehearsal instructions. Bringing in a guest conductor during this time period can help with improving basic concepts and even approaches to the interpretation.

Things to Remember 
   Once the ten-day countdown begins, there are some overarching considerations to keep in mind. For instance, it is important to keep the group apprised of their progress. To help students monitor this, I hang a poster-sized version of the criteria that our state uses for the adjudication process in the front of the classroom. I will often refer to this throughout our preparation process, giving the band a realistic assessment of where I think we fall in the categories on that chart at any given point in time. The chart also helps me stay focused as the band moves steadily from concepts that usually come easily (articulation, rhythm, note accuracy, dynamics) to those that require more rehearsal time (tone, tempo, intonation, interpretation, style, balance, phrasing, and expression beyond the printed page).
   I recommend many run-throughs for several reasons. Some directors focus so much on the details of a piece that the group rarely runs the work as a whole. This is particularly easy to do on lengthy, difficult pieces that take substantial rehearsal time just to play once. A run-through also livens up the rehearsal after the frequent stopping and starting required to fix problems. Also, without runthroughs the band may not develop the endurance to perform the whole program, and young players rarely understand how to pace themselves. Countless bands have ended programs poorly because of poor endurance.
   It is beneficial to use an amplified metronome at various points during contest preparation. How often it is used will vary with how the music is progressing. Sometimes I will pull out the metronome early to show the ensemble the tempos we are aiming for on faster selections. The best time to establish final tempos and check for rhythmic stability is after the group is fairly comfortable technically. Once the group has proven its ability to maintain a tempo, put the metronome away – you will be the most popular teacher at school for the day.
   It is almost as important to consider the psychological aspects of performance as it is the musical aspects. During the last ten rehearsals, group confidence should grow. Some of this will occur naturally as the music improves, but it is important for directors to balance comments so that the students know what work remains but feel good about their progress. This building of confidence will really pay off at the performance when students are free to play with all the emotions in the music. I tell my students that I would rather have aggressive, energetic playing with a few mistakes than a technically perfect performance that lacks passion and feels safe. To me, there is no better judge’s comment than to be told the band played with energy and excitement on the fast sections and deep emotion on the slower ones.
   Do not forget your sense of humor during this time period. It seems that just before most contests something musically bizarre will happen, such as a major mistake the band has never made before. As gut-wrenching as these mistakes are, they are usually aberrations, and it is best to be thankful it did not happen during the contest performance. Usually I will quickly regain my composure and say something like, “You’re doing that just to scare me, aren’t you? Well, it worked. Now let’s go back and get it right.” 

The Plan 
   For the purposes of this article I will assume that directors warm up and tune using chorales at the beginning of each rehearsal. I would suggest adding pitch-bending exercises to the warmup to develop students’ ability to adjust while playing.

10 Days to Go
   Students may be rusty from the weekend off, so spend more time than usual on warm-ups and tuning. Because there will be a concert for the parents on the next day, practice critical sections of the music, but be sure to play relatively long stretches, and at least one of the three pieces, without stopping. Use an amplified metronome to check rhythmic stability at some point during the rehearsal.
   If you have not already done so, make sure that all percussion parts are assigned and that all appropriate mallets and auxiliary instruments are being used. The percussion section leader should know that you want the same set-up for the concert and at the contest site. Inexperienced sections will sometimes arrive at a contest and just play the larger instruments where they were left by the previous band. 

9 Days to Go (Concert for Family)
   Because there is a performance for friends and family in the evening, rehearse the most problematic sections of each work during class but leave time to run through all three pieces.
   As for the evening concert, there are two viable ways to approach it. Some directors prefer having their group perform in circumstances as much like contest as possible, bringing in colleagues who listen to the group and provide recorded comments on the performance. Even if you do not bring in anyone to critique the performance, record the concert for further study and invite a colleague for one of the remaining rehearsals. At this point it may be best to allow the fellow director to listen to the group as you conduct and then offer suggestions for improvement either to the group (the best case) or to you privately after the rehearsal.
   During years when my band missed a lot of rehearsal time due to inclement weather, I found it helpful to have an open rehearsal where I encourage the parents to watch us rehearse and then listen as we run through the pieces at the end of the rehearsal. We will even sightread a selection in front of the parents.

8 Days to Go
   You will probably be ready to dive right back into the music, but this would be a good time to review the performance from the night before. If you had colleagues record comments, listen to what they have to say.
   You may choose to play all of the recordings for students that day or play them piecemeal during upcoming rehearsals. Letting students listen to recorded comments gives them a better chance to understand what you have been telling them in rehearsal, particularly when it comes to such musical aspects as intonation, balance, and blend. Perspective on balance can vary depending on where students sit. Hearing how it fits into the whole can make a world of difference. 

7 Days to Go
   Consider doing something unusual and allow selected players to stand in front of the group and listen. A good way to mix things up is to permit students to sit where they want and then play one of the pieces. This will help students gain more independence on their parts, and may add freshness to the rehearsal. Another option is to play a recording of some other ensemble performing your music and critique their performance and interpretation, comparing it to yours.
   Although intonation should be a primary concern, by Day 7 the readiness of the music should be such that you are able to strongly shift the band’s attention to remaining passages that are consistently out of tune. Have students sing the passages in question or begin the passage with one player on a part and gradually add other players, encouraging them to listen and adjust.

6 Days to Go
   Review the week and remind students of what they need to work on. If rhythmic stability is still a problem, pull out the amplified metronome during the rehearsal. Do whatever it takes to make sure that students who are still struggling with parts take their instruments home. I will even talk to specific students, telling them that I expect to see them picking up their instrument after school.

5 Days to Go
   Work each piece from the end of each selection to the beginning. Sometimes the conclusions of pieces are short-changed and don’t get as many runs as the first part of the piece. Obviously, it is important to end strong, but so many bands fail to do this. It also adds just enough variety to make rehearsal interesting.
   Refocus everyone’s attention on tone quality; even groups with consistently good tones will sometimes gradually begin to play with more tenseness than needed, particularly in loud brass passages. Examine the dynamics again; they have a tendency to creep up to louder levels over time, particularly on the trios of marches. Be determined to hear what is being played, not what you want to hear.

4 Days to Go
   At the end of class, run through the strongest piece; this is a good beginning to the final phase of the confidence-building you want to increase until the day of the contest. This would also be a good day to have an extended afterschool rehearsal planned for the whole ensemble, just in case rehearsal time is lost to other factors or the music still has a lot of work remaining. However, if the music is progressing nicely, cancel the rehearsal or have a rehearsal for sections that need the most work.

3 Days to Go
   Along with the regular rehearsal, sightread one selection that is likely to be more difficult than what the band will experience at contest.

2 Days to Go
   Talk through each piece, asking students questions that test their knowledge of what needs to be done for a good performance. If students point out extra musical concepts, such as giving the melodic lines shape, then you have done your job well. Run through all three selections.  
The Final Rehearsal
   I have never believed the adage that if they don’t know it now, they never will, but it is important not to go into a last-minute information overload, whether it is during the last class rehearsal or the warmup at the contest site. If you have taught them thoroughly, the music has been marked accordingly, and they watch you, then they will be ready. Positive, gentle reminders with no inkling of panic are best as you run-through the pieces for the final time. There are certainly other approaches to contest preparation that can work just as well as this one. The important thing is that you formulate a plan that is musically sound, systematic, and flexible.