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Rehearsal Management

Jim Shaw | September 2015

    When it comes to managing rehearsals, there are three areas that need to be addressed: rules and procedures, effective problem solving during class, and clear, effective communication. By making the rehearsal room into a place where students want to be, class time can be used in an efficient and productive way, with everyone working towards common goals.

    Most teachers are required to have classroom rules posted on the wall, in our handbooks, or on our web site. These classroom rules are usually discussed with our students during the first few days of school.
    Rules should be as brief and general  as possible. The more you try to address every conceivable situation with a rules, the more likely that students will try to find exceptions or loopholes. By trying to create very specific rules, directors paint themselves  into a corner.
    Here is an example of classroom rules that are brief yet apply to almost any rehearsal situation.
1. Be in the right place at the right time with the right materials and the right attitude.
2. Don’t do anything to interfere with the ability of yourself or others to learn.
3. Don’t do anything to interfere with the ability of the directors to teach.
4. Be excellent to and for each other.
If students are talking or someone did not prepare assigned material for the rehearsal, these situations fall under the rules listed above.

    While rules may be posted somewhere and are concrete, procedures should be thought of as the unwritten rules of how we do things. Examples of procedures include:

• How to enter the room
• Where to be at the start of class
• How to respond when someone is talking to us
• How and when to ask questions
• How to sit when not playing
• How to change from one piece of music to another
• How to end rehearsal
• How to travel (boarding and exiting the bus, behavior, etc.)
• Stage decorum
• Concert etiquette

    Unlike with rules, directors will not cover all procedures at the beginning of the year. Procedures are installed as needed. On the first day of school, cover only what is necessary to get through that class period, exit the room, and start class the next day.
    Before building in procedures, it helps to devise a list of expectations. As procedures develop, directors need to be insistent about expectations and allow students time to practice. These procedures need to develop into habits, so repetition may be necessary. Call attention to procedures that are not being followed and redirect student behavior as necessary.
    Many procedures are established in beginning classes, so there should be some carry over from year to year as students advance. If teaching on a staff with multiple directors or in a dedicated feeder system, it helps if all teachers are on the same page in terms of implementing and enforcing procedures and rules.

Reacting to problems
    As mentioned above, how a director reacts to unwanted situations in rehearsal goes a long way toward setting up a good or bad atmosphere. There is an old saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” With classroom management, there is no small stuff. Anything that is interferes with the rehearsal goals must be addressed.
    Directors should address the behavior, not the student. By making sure that corrections are not personal, we limit the likelihood that the student will react negatively. Simply redirect and move on (“Please don’t talk.”) Obviously, if the misbehavior persists, the director may need to show more concern, but in most instances this will be sufficient.
    Nagging is the fastest way to turn off a group of students. Many young people feel that they get enough of this from parents and other teachers. Also, helping students to understand the reasons for your expectations can go a long way toward increasing their commitment. If directors can get them to see that expectations help the group achieve its goals, students are less likely to see these expectations as a power struggle and more as a team effort.
    Not all corrections need to be verbal. Hand signals, facial expressions, and more can address issues without missing a beat of instruction or rehearsal. With minor misbehaviors or efforts to increase engagement, proximity can work wonders. The podium does not have a shark-infested moat around it. Directors are free to get off and move around the room when rehearsing.
    If teachers repeatedly address the same types of problems with the same techniques, those practices are not effective. It may be time to try something else, ask a student to meet after class for a private conversation, or involve parents or administration.
    With rehearsal management, perception is reality. Even if not intended, if the students feel that you are yelling at, talking down to, or being mean to them, you might as well be. Be sure to self-monitor when it comes to tone and delivery of any corrective information. A good question to ask oneself is, “If someone were talking to my own child about this, how would I want that person to behave, and what would I want them to say?”

    Rehearsal time is precious, and we directors want to make maximum use of that time in terms of efficiency and production. The more our students play, the faster they improve, but there are times conductors have to address the ensemble to teach and make corrections. Here are some hints for making your communication as effective and affective as possible.

   Be aware of non-verbal noise in the room. We all expect students not to talk when we are addressing them; however, the director should also listen for room noise. One might hear a trumpet player is turning his instrument into an Erector set by unscrewing the valves or valve caps or popping out slides. Someone might be shuffling papers or maybe a percussionist who is twirling sticks keeps dropping them on the floor. These behaviors are just as much of an obstacle as talking.
   A former co-worker and mentor, Randy Storie, often said to his band, “Listen to the lights.” This immediately produced a much more quiet, focused atmosphere even if the students were not talking.

Vary the tone of voice
   The reason the monotony of Charlie Brown’s teacher is funny to so many is because it is based in truth. By changing the speed and inflection of our words, we can better maintain a high level of student attention.

Limit what you address
    When stopping to fix issues in the music, only call attention to one or two things. Work on these issues, and then, if needed, bring up additional problems a few at a time. The more students can play, the more engaged they will be. Running down a long laundry list of problems usually only makes sure that nothing will get fixed. Students will either lose focus after the first few items or simply not remember everything that was addressed.

Eye contact
    Most of us insist that students look at us while we are talking to them. Many of us do not return the favor. If you are going to demand that students make eye contact with you, be sure to make eye contact back.

Talk with students, not at them
    Especially in the last few years, I have noticed that when addressing a group about things that come up in rehearsal, I use a lot more of we and us than I do you. This emphasizes that music is a team effort and that we are all working toward common goals, rather than the idea that directors are only there to judge and correct.

Work to create a sense of urgency and accountability, not a state of constant stress
    There is a fine a line between the two. The tension caused by undue stress creates an almost insurmountable obstacle to communication. By helping students to realize that they and the director share common goals, and that all expectations put into place and corrective information given are in pursuit of those goals, a sense of tension can be replaced by one of purpose.
    Most students know when they make mistakes. Therefore, directors can work to avoid rehearsals where every musical mistake is immediately mentioned. Instead, trust students to recognize and correct minor mistakes, until they prove that they need help by repeating those mistakes.

   A quick story or joke, even a bad one, can loosen things up and allow students and director to re-focus on the task at hand. Be sparing with sarcasm. If students don’t first know that you care about them, sarcasm sounds mean.

Communicating by conducting
    Playing time in rehearsal can be maximized if students pay attention to the conductor and implement the instructions from the podium. Directors must train our young students to watch and respond and then hold them accountable for doing so. The conductor should insist that the ensemble starts and stops with them, of course, but they should also understand the need to watch between the starts and stops.
    There are a number of teaching strategies that can be used in order to get students to watch. These include games such as holding up a number of fingers with the left hand during a passage and then asking how many students can show the number back to you or picking random students as one is conducting and not moving on unless they look back at the conductor within a measure or two.
    When it comes to conducting and response, directors must make sure they actually hear the group performing in the room, and not the ensemble in their head. If a gesture is given, do as my friend Bill Surface often says and “hold their feet to the fire” on accountability and response to that gesture.