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Making the Most of Final Contest Preparations

Gerry Miller | March 2014

    Editor’s note:
The Instrumentalist profiled Gerry Miller in April 2013. We asked him to provide articles detailing how his program works throughout the year. In January 2014 we ran the first installment of this series. This is the second installment.

    As we finalize the contest preparation process in March, it is important to look at the performance from a perspective that identifies the critical areas where work is needed. A critical analysis of the performance usually will focus on two main areas, both of which always appear near the top of adjudication sheets: tone and technique. As the date of our contest or festival approaches, it can be easy to become end-focused, thinking about results instead of the process and rehearsal efforts that yield good results. Careful work on tone and technique should be the key areas of a director’s focus in the final rehearsals leading up to a contest.

    Playing with the best sound in every phrase of  the concert repertoire is critical to the ensemble’s success. Tone often operates as a sort of musical handshake with adjudicators and audiences. The way the group sounds on the first few notes may ultimately determine the nature of the dialogue between the ensemble and the judges.
Individual tone quality should be addressed before any meaningful work on ensemble tone quality can occur. In the January article “Begin with the End in Mind,” we discussed the process of working on long-tone exercises like Bb Remington and F Descending, as well as flow studies, Clark Studies, and chorales.
    In addressing the tone quality of the full ensemble, each phrase of the work should be considered individually. Once all of the individual players can perform their assigned parts on a given phrase with a proper tone, correct notes, and clear rhythm, then we can begin the process of balancing the phrase. In the vast majority of band literature, multiple-line phrases can be divided into two main categories for purposes of analyzing balance: two-part and three-part writing. Examples of two-part writing include a basic melody line, either in unison or in octaves, performed with a simple accompaniment figure of whole notes and half notes. Another common example of two-part writing is a simple harmonized melody played with a rhythmic accompaniment, like the oom-pah-oom-pah of a march.
    When working on balance with two-part phrases, begin with the volume of the melody and compare it to the accompaniment. Remember that composers vary in how they choose to indicate volumes. Some composers will indicate that the melody instruments should play forte, while setting the accompaniment instruments to mezzo-piano. Other composers will decide on an overall volume of the phrase (mezzo-forte, for example) and set that dynamic for all performers, without regard to which parts have the melody or are the accompaniment.
    As conductors and educators, our goal is to find a clear way to reach the right balance. Often it is best to begin with the melody. With two-part phrases, the objective may be to have 70% of the ensemble sound comprised of melody, while 30% of the ensemble sound is accompaniment. While working on this balance, a decibel meter can be a useful device (a stand-alone decibel meter will do, or there are many available apps that can be used). When the melody is played, the performers may rate on the decibel meter at 88.6 dB, as measured from the podium. Because decibels are a logarithmic unit of measure, to find a volume that is about half the sound of the melody, you will need to subtract only around 4-5 dB and set the accompaniment at around 83-84 dB (±2 dB).
    With three-part writing, it is generally best to strive for a balance of 50% melody against 30% countermelody/obligato and 20% accompaniment/bass line. There are no hard-and-fast rules for balance, but I find that these distributions usually work well and may be useful as a guiding principle. Once the volumes are set correctly for each individual part, we then ask students, “what volume does that feel like to you?” Where a composer may have indicated forte for the full ensemble on a given phrase, the students may feel that they are actually playing mezzo-piano to attain a 30% balance under the melody, based on varied instrumentation and individual strengths. Even within sections, we sometimes find variations from part to part and player to player, depending on the tessitura of the line.
    Intonation is also an important part of the tone category, and the key starting point is to assess whether students are performing with their best tone. To play in tune, students must first play in tone. Once characteristic individual tones are achieved, the ensemble can begin to work on intonation in phrases using the Yamaha Harmony Director. To do this, choose the key center that most closely matches the given phrase the ensemble is working on, and then sustain the root-fifth-root-third-fifth while performing the phrase slowly. Separate the parts as much as needed and change octaves accordingly. Ultimately, the long chords will need to have adjusted thirds or sevenths, and students can indicate this with small up arrows and down arrows in their music. The adjustments that need to be made with intonation are slight, and the students can use a tuner to best set themselves up for success.
    Dynamic contrast seems to be a point that many judges focus on in their dialogues with ensembles. When working on dynamics, all performers should understand their role inside of crescendos and decrescendos. The pyramid scheme for dynamic contrast advocated by W. Francis McBeth is the best guide for achieving dynamic changes. In this scheme, the soprano and alto voices do the least to create contrast, while the tenor and bass voices try to play with the most contrast. What often occurs when a group tries to tackle dynamic contrast is that the strongest players in each section do the most while the weakest players do the least. As a result, the ends of decrescendos are marred with less mature sounds and an abundance of lower-part splits, while the most mature performers find their sounds being buried. Again, working with a decibel meter can be a useful strategy. If the first clarinets shift from 76 dB to 70 dB on a decrescendo from forte to mezzo-piano, then try to make sure that every clarinetist fits within this range. Often, with less advanced players, the decibel meter will show they are beginning at 74 dB (which will be too soft for good balance) and then tapering down to only 73 dB (which will unfortunately be louder the firsts). As a result, the dynamic contrast will be unfocused or fuzzy. For the clearest approach, it is helpful to work through each section on a few given crescendos and decrescendos to set a norm within the ensemble. From there, the same practice can be extrapolated to the remainder of the piece and the entire repertoire.

    The struggle to attain clean technique should begin with a simple quest for clarity. The ensemble should practice simply moving from note to note at the same exact speed without any noticeable flaws.
    Work on technique will depend on the style of technical passages. For fast-moving, slurred passages, especially those that span several measures, it is best to articulate each downbeat when working on cleaning and refining the excerpt. Articulation markers on the downbeats can be removed later in the season, once the technique is cleaner.
    Another key approach when working on technical passages is to have the performers match volumes across the ensemble. This requires setting balance points down to the lowest voice performing the technique. Again, in many ensembles, the most confident and loudest performances on technical excerpts tend to be played by the strongest students. To counter this tendency, encourage less experienced 2nd and 3rd trumpets, for example, to match the air of the 1st trumpets. The fingers and embouchures of these other players may not be flawless, but obtaining a consistent volume from all players will help tremendously as the ensemble works on the last steps of cleaning up technique.
    With technical passages that consist of short separated notes across a range of octaves, it is best to set the length of notes for the bass voice first. For example, if the passage contains unison, accented quarter-notes to be played in a separated style, the bass voice should play the notes at 7⁄8 value so that there is just a sliver of silence between each quarter note. The tenor voice then should perform the same accented quarter-notes at 3⁄4 value, and the alto voice should perform the notes at 5⁄8 value. The sopranos will offer the shortest interpretation, perhaps at 1⁄2 value. This approach, also advocated by W. Francis McBeth, will most closely emulate the light-lifted nature of orchestral accents. A similar paradigm should be used for staccato notes and marcato notes.
    To develop clear ensemble technique, it is also useful to address the weight of the front of the note, as well as the length, strength, and shape of the middle of the note, and the silence (or lack thereof) behind the note. Work on dissecting the anatomy of a note, while time-consuming, will result in clear technique that can be heard from any listening point between the podium and the back of the auditorium.
    Clarity of articulation is another important aspect of technique. Encourage students to try performing articulations using one taste bud. Seldom do students need any more than just a speck of tongue as the catalyst for starting a note. Explain to students that the strength of air may change, but the strength of the tongue against the reed on the top of the teeth should not vary, regardless of the accent used or the dynamic level requested.
    After beginning the note with one taste bud, talk about where the tongue should travel next. With the exception of the clarinet teeeh syllable (and a few extremely high parts for upper woodwinds, trumpets, and horn), the tongue should always return to a low, relaxed position following the start of the note. Students should also be taught to keep the tongue low in the mouth for as long as possible before moving it back up to re-articulate the next note. Challenge students to wait until they feel like they can’t stand it before moving the tongue up. While this point will vary from player to player in the beginning, good habits across the ensemble will develop so quickly that any variances will go unnoticed in the framework of great tone quality and clear technical displays.
    It is also vitally important to focus on breathing when working on technique. Before technical passages, students tend to use rapid breaths; tension and bad habits often will prevent good breathing. Conductors should make a conscious effort to watch students breathe before technical passages. Watch for the brass players to leave the top lip in or near the mouthpiece cup as the bottom jaw drops away slightly to inhale. For the woodwinds, the bottom lip should remain anchored to the reed or lip plate and the top of the head should lift up slightly to allow air to come into the mouth, forming what feels like a cold spot on the back of the throat. Often students will engage in tense side breathing just before technical passages, pulling back only the corners of the mouth to take in air. This bad habit results in a tense, frantic note-start as well as a lack of focused embouchure.
    Students’ hand position should also be continually assessed across the ensemble. When students started on their instruments years ago, most of them were probably much shorter and smaller than they are today. As a result, students may have developed bad hand positions, and consequently, wrist angles and elbow-to-body distances may need to be reset. One tendency for students as they grow taller is that they will bring their elbows in toward their sides and supinate their wrists, which will cause obstructed technical facility and a lack of comfort.
    Resetting hand positions every few weeks or so, perhaps during warm-ups as the director roams around the ensemble, may help tremendously in achieving flawless technique that sounds effortless.
    Lastly, I have found that encouraging performers to remain very still when they perform is essential to developing quality tone and technique. When performing up-beats, watch out for dancing trumpets and bouncing horns. When long sustained lines occur, notice whether there are any students who are shuffling their feet without any sense of rhythm or pulse (imagine one who’s had too much coffee). All of these non-essential motions create little bubbles in the sound and will cause the quality of individual tone and technique to suffer.

Final Ideas on Developing Tone and Technique
    To promote the continuing development of tone and technique, we use sectional lists (see www.wakeland for some examples). For each sectional (most of our sections meet once per week for 60 minutes before or after school), we design a grid with practice assignments for our performers. The vertical column of the grid lists all of the students’ first names and the horizontal row lists all of the pieces currently in the repertoire. When particular sections require attention, we write on the grid which excerpts must be learned by which date. We use Google Drive to make this large spreadsheet publically available so that students and parents can see what practice assignments need to be worked on during home practice sessions. (This tends to solve the common problem of parents not knowing what parts their children are supposed to practice.)
    A related benefit is that if it becomes necessary to cut students from a part just before a concert, the sectional list will help identify which performers can and cannot perform the excerpts at a high level, as the excerpts that have occupied the list for the last four or five weeks remain. This may eliminate the need for parent phone calls about cutting players from parts, and it also does away with the need to spend rehearsal time investigating which parts need work or cannot be played.
    While there are many more details to work on in March and April, such as a focus on musicality, a start toward the finish that emphasizes tone and technique will usually give students the best chance at reaching their peak performances with as little last-minute cramming as possible.