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Keeping Order in Rehearsals

Thomas Lizotte | May 2015

    The route to becoming a master teacher means any possibility of stronger classroom management should be explored. On the advice of our principal I recently read Douglas Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, the premise of which is that one individual, the classroom teacher, makes all the difference, that there are concrete, identifiable techniques that create strong classroom management, and that no one’s technique is beyond improving, regardless of experience. He believes classroom culture can be changed for the better if the person in front of the room is still willing to be a student after reaching adulthood. Although Teach Like a Champion is not geared to music teaching, there is much information that is readily applicable to our field. Lemov studied the work of top teachers in all settings and singled out 49 effective techniques. Here are some common rehearsal problems some area teachers and I solved through experimenting with them.

    In a music classroom, the centerpiece is the podium, often with a massive conductor stand. It is safe but also a huge barrier; you might as well build a moat. Within the first five minutes of class, break the plane by getting up close and personal. Danielle Ogden, director of bands at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School in Gray, Maine, made a habit of doing this in both band rehearsals and general music classes. Because she walks around the room so much, students know there is no hiding. She has also found that leaving the podium increases available instruction time because she no longer has to address problematic behavior.
    It may seem counterintuitive to think that less time on the podium would increase your influence over the room, but it an excellent strategy. Basketball coach and teacher John Wooden said, “There is usually nothing stronger than gentleness.” When you are off the podium, your influence actually increases, as does your gentleness. Caitlin Ramsey, director of bands at Cape Elizabeth Middle School, put it this way: “Circulating around the room keeps everyone engaged and on their toes. It cuts down on off-task behavior, especially in the back of the band room. It forces students to watch and listen more.”
    Flute players usually seem easy to control, while the further back in the band room, the more unfocused the behavior gets. It is not endemic to low brass players and percussionists that they are frequent distractions; the problem is usually one of proximity and accessibility. By being on the floor, you make every square inch of the band room your territory.
    There is an easy way for ensemble directors to get access to every student in the classroom. Jacob Ulm, a second-year teacher at the urban Everett (Massachusetts) High School, said, “At the beginning of the school year I was having difficulty with students using their phones behind their music stands when they were not playing.” He changed the setup of his ensemble so that there was an aisle going down the middle. Now he can walk down to check on students as they play, and the amount of student cell phone use decreased dramatically.
    My band is set up similarly. I start the band playing and walk through the ensemble. An amplified metronome can be used to keep time, but this is rarely necessary. There is much to be discovered and fixed by roaming the room, including posture, articulation, talking, technique, and removing any cell phones on music stands.

    Lemov’s study of master teachers shows that tight transitions of 30 seconds or fewer between activities are essential to keeping students on task. Great teachers manage these transitions seamlessly and almost obsessively. If you write all the day’s pieces on the board and have students put these in order, you can move quickly. It takes training, but it is worth it. One minute of transition eliminated ten times in a day adds up to roughly 35 hours of instruction time in a school year.
    Ms. Ramsey said, “Tight transitions cut down on wasted class time. We practice how transitions should look and sound. This includes what happens at the beginning of rehearsal and what occurs when we switch gears from a warm up to concert literature. We practice these transitions until we can do them correctly. A few minutes spent on this early in the year will eliminate wasted class time down the road.”
    Craig Ouellette, a second year teacher and director of bands at Camden/Rockport Middle School in Camden, Maine says, “Tightening transitions has been extremely helpful for me. In rehearsals, I used to only give a starting measure with no specific ending point, so there would always be several valuable seconds wasted by students continuing to play after I had given a cutoff. Additionally, I lost time addressing how long it took for the ensemble to stop after I had given a cutoff. This took unnecessary amounts of valuable instruction time away from students and set a negative tone for rehearsal.”
    One trick to tightening transitions is giving students both a starting point and an ending point. “At first we struggled as an ensemble to get everyone to end at the right place, but with practice students understood that ending at the right place was just as important as starting at the right place. This method alone has saved us countless amounts of class time and also makes it easier to keep rehearsals upbeat.”
    Key to both pacing and discipline is speech. In setting and maintaining behavioral expectations, Lemov presents numerous gems that work beautifully, such as “fewer words are stronger than more,” “your words must be far and away the strongest in the room,” “controlling who has the floor is the mark of your authority and a necessity to your teaching,” and “get slower and quieter when you want control.”

    “Great teachers,” Lemov states, “engage students so that they feel like part of the lesson.” Cold calls make engaged participation the expectation. Teachers who use this technique call on students regardless of whether they have raised their hands. This is a technique used by Caitlin Ramsey. “Cold calls make every student an engaged participant. Since it has become a regular part of class, students know ahead of time that they should be ready to answer questions. Everyone is on the spot, but no one is caught off guard.”
    The techniques I learned from this book are simple but work extremely well. In areas in which our technique needs work, practical solutions that immediately improve student engagement and classroom management are there for the taking. The last part of the school year, with warmer weather, lagging energy from at least some of the participants, and summer vacation on the horizon, can be a real challenge; however, we ended the year appreciative for vacation but not burnt out. Had the school year been a week or so longer, nobody in the bands would have been distressed.