Creating an Environment for Improved Rehearsal Discipline

Mark Hosler | June 2016


    My first year of teaching began forty years ago in January as a long-term substitute for a band director who had taken ill. As I prepared for my first rehearsal, I remembered advice I had received from a music education professor – keep a journal. At the end of each day, I wrote a short reflection on the day’s events, identifying areas that needed improvement, both for me as a teacher and for the band program. 
    At the end of the last day of school, I began reading what I had written. As I reflected on the rehearsal challenges I had faced as a new teacher over the previous months, I happened to glance through my office window into the rehearsal room. The room was a mess with chairs in disarray, several music stands knocked over, and equipment laying about. It was at this moment that I realized that as a long-term substitute I had been employing many of the previous director’s management strategies, because that is what students knew. However, the previous director would not be returning, and I had been offered the job. It was now my band program, and every aspect of it needed to reflect me as an educator. I wanted my students to work toward achieving excellence in every endeavor and I wanted every aspect of the band program to reflect that. Thus, it was time for a makeover. 
    The strategies that I developed following my first few months of teaching included non-musical concepts often found in the structure of any successful enterprise, specifically principles of collaboration, cooperation, and organization. The results of my efforts were positive, and ten years later I applied the same approach when I moved to another high school. Whether a first-year or veteran teacher, a fresh start can put a music program on the path to greater success. 

Evaluate, refresh and organize the physical environment.
    During my high school teaching career, I taught at two schools, one small and rural,  the other large and suburban. On both occasions, I inherited rehearsal rooms that were over twenty years old. Each had chipped wall paint, scarred and graffiti-covered wooden instrument storage shelves, bent music stands, and worn school-owned instrument cases. The rooms were definitely in need of a facelift. Although some music educators might scoff at the notion that they should concern themselves with fixing up the rehearsal room, it can be a great way to engage students, develop pride in the program, and ultimately improve rehearsal discipline. 
    Begin with a fresh paint job. Schedule a meeting with the school principal to explain your plan and seek approval and funding. I was never turned down with this request, as the prospect of free labor to paint a classroom space was always met with enthusiasm. Meet with student leaders and upperclassmen to discuss color schemes and enlist their assistance. It is important that they feel committed to the project. Develop a work schedule and assign students specific areas of responsibility. Use school colors as much as possible to help promote school spirit and pride in the facility. If you have students who have taken art classes, allow them to add a strategically placed school logo or motto. At my first school, the band was always publicly introduced as “The Pride of the Mustangs.” Students painted these words on the wall behind the conductor’s podium, and on another wall they painted the school logo, a giant rearing horse.

    Be sure to extend the color scheme of the main rehearsal room into offices, practice rooms, music library, and uniform and instrument storage areas. In the instrument storage areas, sand away scratches and graffiti on wood surfaces before re-painting. Clean, repair, and paint music stands and school-owned instrument cases as appropriate. Create a paint stencil and spray-paint the school or band logo on every music stand. Also paint your logo or affix an adhesive logo sticker onto school-owned instrument cases. 

Create a clean, organized environment that everyone can be proud of.
    Chaos often breeds chaos, so the next step is to organize. Remove clutter by discarding or repurposing unnecessary items. Once everything is in an assigned location, take time to admire your efforts, then ask for student input on what finishing touches might be added to the facility to reflect pride in the band and its history. Celebrate the band’s history and those who contributed to it by hanging pictures of past bands at various locations around the rehearsal room, and consider adding an alumni bulletin board with news and pictures of graduates who played in college bands, chose careers in music, or achieved noteworthy accomplishments. Also, consider adding shelving around the walls or a cabinet to display past awards. For example, rather than having old trophies or plaques collecting dust in trophy cabinets in school hallways, move older awards to the rehearsal room as a reminder of past achievements. Leave the recent ones in the hallway cabinets for display to the student body and public. 
    The main goal of these efforts is to create an environment that makes a good impression on band participants the minute they walk through the door. I will never forget the smiles on my students’ faces as they entered their reborn rehearsal room for the first time, and the pride they took in caring for it. Strive to make it obvious to students that as a member of the band, they are part of a great tradition, a participant and contributor to something that transcends that particular moment in time. Impress upon them that their work will contribute to the band program’s legacy at the school and in the community, setting a standard of pride and dedication for all who follow.

Lay a firm foundation for music-making.
    Prior to holding the first rehearsal of a new school year, schedule a meeting to unveil your band facility makeover and set forth guidelines for rehearsals. Be sure that details regarding rehearsal expectations and facility care are clearly stated in the band’s policies and procedures handbook. Stress that every aspect of the rehearsal process will be guided in part by four specific principles: efficiency, cooperation, respect, and collaboration. 
    For in-school rehearsals, give students an exact time that the rehearsal will begin following a class change. Allow them a reasonable amount of time to enter the room and assemble their instruments, but stress that every minute counts so there will not be time at the beginning of class to chat with friends, ask random questions, repair instruments, or purchase supplies. For rehearsals outside of the school day, explain to students how important it is that they arrive early and be ready at the announced start time.
    I have occasionally heard directors comment, out of frustration with unruly or disrespectful students, that they are going to start cracking down on discipline. In my mind, improvement of discipline actually involves elevating the level of cooperation and developing respect for the task at hand. Students must understand that for large groups of people to attain a common goal efficiently, a high level of cooperation is required from every member. Directors must understand that cooperation is only an option when students have accepted discipline policies. Clearly explain every rule and procedure concerning the rehearsal process. Whenever possible while discussing the rationale behind various policies, make references to time efficiency. I always framed discussions concerning cooperation around the notion that the ensemble would not be able to achieve its full potential as a musical organization unless we made the most of the limited time we had together. Thus, individuals or groups who caused discipline problems were holding the rest of the ensemble back. This was unfair to the ensemble and could not be tolerated.
    Engage ensemble leaders as you develop this culture of cooperation. Rules have little effect if there is not a degree of buy-in from students. A sense of cooperation and a willingness to proactively support and reinforce rehearsal policies should always be key parts of the criteria when selecting students for leadership positions. 
    Also challenge student leaders to embrace activities that help promote a cooperative spirit. Consider providing opportunities for your most talented musicians to mentor other students within their sections. One way to do this is by changing seating arrangements. Like most high school directors, I held auditions for seat placement in each section, but rather than have the section leader and other top musicians always sit at one end of the section, I occasionally interspersed the most talented students among the less talented. Although a roster posted on a bulletin board or in a concert program might list a four-person first clarinet section by name from first chair to fourth chair, the actual physical seating arrangement would be third, first, fourth, second. This gave the most accomplished musicians a chance to model various aspects of musicianship, such as correct tone, phrasing, and alternate fingerings. I also had section leaders of divided sections occasionally sit in the second or third sections during rehearsals, both to give these players additional opportunities to model and so they could learn every part in preparation for leading sectional rehearsals.
    Another important principle in improving rehearsal discipline is respect – and often a byproduct of cooperation – is respect. Respect for authority and the opinions, rights, feelings, and property of others has long been a basic tenet of education. Strive to make it a key aspect of rehearsal discipline as well, but emphasize that members earn respect through their behavior and cooperative spirit. Recognize that respect not only involves how students’ treat one another or how they respond to you as an authority figure and accomplished musician, but how you interact with them. Make it a personal priority to demonstrate respectful leadership at all times. As an ensemble director, the culture of respect that you shape for your organization is a reflection of your personal and professional values. Avoid using abusive language, making inappropriate comments, being inconsistent concerning discipline, or showing favoritism. Maintain a consistently positive and pleasant attitude when in the company of students, regardless of other circumstances or challenges in your life. Always have high expectations for yourself, and routinely model respectful attributes that your students can emulate.
    Be sure that your students understand the importance of self-respect as well. Having pride and confidence in their musical contributions, always being prepared to the best of their abilities for rehearsals and performances, demonstrating a true passion for the art of music, and behaving in a manner that conveys a sense of respect and dignity are all attributes that each member of the organization should strive to demonstrate on a regular basis.
    Also impress upon students that respect applies to the rehearsal facility. A central message should always be to leave the facility as you found it, not only in preparation for the next rehearsal, but also for the next generation of band members who will someday use it. Extend this respect to the school’s custodial staff as well. My students and I always took pride in the appearance of our band room. Because of our efforts in caring for the room, we felt that the custodians made an extra effort to keep it in great shape. Students were required to pick up trash and organize the band room every day after rehearsal, placing every chair, music stand, and instrument in its proper place. At least once a week all chairs were stacked and stands placed in racks so floors could be thoroughly cleaned. Small gestures such as these were greatly appreciated by custodians. It allowed them to concentrate on their job, rather than picking up after us or moving our equipment. Ultimately, they took as much pride as we did in always having the space be presentable.
    Much has been written about the long-term value of collaboration in education. In music, the instrumental ensemble continues to be one of the best examples of the significance of collaborative experiences. For the vast majority of young people, a key aspect of their ensemble participation is the enjoyment and exhilaration they gain from working with a group of like-minded individuals to achieve a common goal. For many, it is their first experience working in a large group setting in such an exciting and energetic way. The challenge for directors and students alike is to shape musical collaborations in a time-efficient manner while embracing concepts of cooperation and respect. Once this groundwork has been set in place, it is time for the rehearsal to begin. 

Harness the energy in an organized, engaging, and fast-paced way.
    Successful rehearsal discipline relies on the conductor having an organized approach to the rehearsal. Determine in advance the pieces you plan to rehearse and the amount of time you intend to spend on each piece. Also formulate strategies to deal with specific musical challenges your ensemble might encounter. Post the music rehearsal order on a marker board so students can put their music in the correct sequence. Prepare for a fast-paced rehearsal by memorizing the scores. Your ability to make comments and corrections about balance, blend, dynamics, intonation, and phrasing without looking down at the music will save time and help impress your students that they need to focus and learn their parts quickly. It is always obvious to students when a conductor is unprepared and learning the score along with them. Much like you did when taking conducting class in college, practice your conducting technique by standing in front of a mirror or recording yourself. It is important to be aware of what students see as you conduct. Show that you are ready to conduct a performance of a given piece right from the start. 
    Develop a communication strategy. Whenever possible, avoid beginning a rehearsal with announcements. Remember, students joined your ensemble to make music. I usually posted announcements on a marker board and referenced them briefly between pieces or at the end of rehearsal. I also occasionally typed out the announcements in advance and distributed them among student leaders. Between pieces I would call on one of them to stand and make the announcement. The benefit of this was threefold: leaders were engaged in the day-to-day operations of the band program, students often listened more intently to their student leaders, and those students making the announcements gained valuable public speaking experience. Also consider using social media to help keep your students informed of important dates. 
    Have a procedure in place for handling instruments needing repair and the sale of accessories such as reeds or valve oil. Never allow rehearsal time to be spent on these types of activities. Take care of these matters after rehearsal or before or after school. 
    Once it is time for class to begin, immediately set the tone for rehearsal by engaging the students as they enter the room. Consider standing at the door and greeting students by name as they arrive. I found that to be an excellent way to learn students’ names quickly, and more importantly, it was an excellent way to demonstrate to the students that you knew their names. As chairs begin to fill, move to the seating area. These few minutes can be an excellent time for small talk with your students, for example questions about jobs, college aspirations, other classes, or sports. At the previously announced start time, step on to the podium.
    Stepping onto the podium should be the cue to students that it is time to begin rehearsal. Avoid standing on the podium for anything other than conducting and speaking about the music. Train your ensemble to remain quiet whenever you are on the podium or off the podium and still addressing them. Do not compromise concerning this expectation, and always avoid attempting to talk over students. Insist that when you speak, they listen.
    The students are there to play, so after a simple greeting, begin conducting. Understand that a major cause of discipline problems is a conductor who talks too much. Strive to conduct more and talk less during rehearsals. Be sure that you are conducting the music, rather than simply beating time, and explain to students what musical aspects you are attempting to convey through your gestures. When it is necessary to stop, always have a reason, and impress upon students that when you stop conducting, they are to immediately stop playing and look directly at you while awaiting your comments. Be clear, concise, and motivational with your comments. Always employ a “say it and play it” approach by offering specific corrections and instructions in an enthusiastic, fast-paced manner followed by immediately playing of the passage or phrase again.
    As a conductor, maintain a pleasant demeanor. Convey warmth, show personal interest in each student, and be quick to offer praise. Smile when appropriate and allow your facial expressions to convey your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with what you are hearing. Facial expressions can also serve as a powerful time-saving discipline tool, as often a simple frown can convey displeasure regarding a student’s behavior in a more effective manner than calling them out by name. 
    Impress upon students that rehearsals are for playing and listening, not chatting. When rehearsing a problem area in one section, or a small number of sections, continue to engage the other students by asking questions regarding how to fix the problem you are working on. Teach them what to listen for when evaluating a performance. To maintain a quick pace and keep all students engaged, call students by name when asking questions rather than asking a question and waiting for someone to raise a hand. Leave the podium occasionally and walk through the ensemble while conducting or making corrections. Arrange the ensemble’s seating in a manner that creates access lanes, so you can quickly and easily move throughout the ensemble. 
    Understand that student interest in the music you are rehearsing can be increased when students feel intellectually and emotionally connected to it. Offer interesting comments or stories concerning the composer, historical period, compositional techniques, or the inspiration for the creation of the work at appropriate moments as you rehearse the piece. The more background information students have, the higher their level of engagement will be in both rehearsals and performance.
    Make excellence a common theme of every rehearsal. Set high expectations for students and challenge them musically on a regular basis by adding new selections to the repertoire frequently. Add technical challenges as well by occasionally rehearsing music at a higher grade level than you may intend to perform. Be mindful that music repetition and lack of challenges can breed boredom, and boredom routinely breeds poor discipline. Maintain a sense of urgency in rehearsals by always having a performance to prepare for. Students participate in ensembles due in large part to the enjoyment they get from performing. Craft your ensemble’s schedule so there is always a performance on the horizon, be it a football game, competition, concert, parade, or community event.
    Always manage rehearsal time efficiently so you can end rehearsals in an inspiring manner. Save a few minutes to offer praise where appropriate and reflect on the day’s accomplishments. Also use the end of rehearsal to plant seeds concerning the next rehearsal. In addition to practice expectations on specific pieces you are rehearsing, do not hesitate to give listening and research assignments as an effort to keep students engaged in listening and exploring music. Also be sure to leave adequate time for students to put away instruments and equipment in a careful, organized manner. Similar to the way that you greeted them at the beginning of rehearsal, send them off with a smile and a sincere sense of anticipation and enthusiasm for the next opportunity you will have to work with them.

    Now that both your rehearsal room and rehearsal strategy makeovers are complete, there is one final ingredient required for improved rehearsal discipline, and it is perhaps the most important consideration. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I received an email from a former student who I had last seen when she graduated from high school some 25 years earlier. She told me that she was now an elementary school principal and had recently received an award in recognition of her achievements as an educator and leader. She further stated that her reason for contacting me was to offer gratitude for inspiring her to pursue something she loved as a career, and to tell me that I was the first person she had encountered who had impressed her as being truly passionate about his work.
    This former student’s kind words illustrate just one of the many ways that music educators can have a positive effect on their students’ futures. Use your passion for teaching music as the glue for all endeavors and display your passion on a regular basis. This, combined with your musical skills,  enthusiasm, and determination in creating an environment for musical success, is what will improve rehearsal discipline the most. Be persistent, honest, and authentic with your students and soon they will follow your lead, as they too will want to experience music in the emotional way that you obviously do. When discipline problems occur, never allow those challenges to alter the passionate way in which you approach sharing music. It is always important to remember that the rehearsal room is one of the best environments for young musicians to pursue artistry, experience beauty, and make memories that will last a lifetime. Witnessing a group of young people working together to achieve a common goal of musical excellence is one of the greatest joys of work as a music educator and truly a sight and sound to behold.