From the Archives
We have talked with countless conductors over the past 77 years and often ask about their rehearsal ideas – how to warm up, what to correct, and how to make the most of every minute. As a new school year begins, we take a look back at a few of most interesting approaches used by conductors at every level of the profession. Perhaps there will be an idea or two that you can add to your teaching repertoire.
No Magic Formula
John Paynter, July 1979
You have to find as many ways to make a point as you can. I don’t think there is anything more dull than saying the same thing the same way over and over again. A common rehearsal technique is to stop and correct, stop and go down the line and have the next person play and the next person. Although I’ve done my share of that, I always dislike myself in the morning after I’ve done it because there are so many better ways to teach….
There are rehearsals where I feel like I’ve spent the whole time chipping away at things that don’t matter. There’s no magic formula. To be efficient, the most important thing is to know your people. Obviously you rehearse a group like the (professional) Northshore Band that meets once a week for two hours much differently than you would a university band that meets four hours a week or a high school band that meets 40 minutes every day. [The key question is] what do you try to get done and what do you let go? I know the personnel of the Northshore Band so well now that I know that just by uncovering the mistake, the mistake will be corrected. There’s no need to go back and prove you can do it if you’ve had the opportunity to scowl at somebody when they did it wrong. With a group you don’t know as well, there has to be a period of time in which you make sure they will make the corrections once you have pointed them out.
Correcting is really not the most efficient way to rehearse. It is best to have in your head the sounds you want and to conduct those sounds right from the start, guiding the performers so the mistake is never made in the first place. That’s idealistic, but it certainly is more efficient.
Of course, the most efficient rehearsal technique is the score study that precedes the rehearsal. This nitpicking rehearsing you and I have seen is the result of the conductor really not knowing the score. The conductor will spend time pecking away at something he knows is safe because he doesn’t know what else to rehearse.
A legend in the band world, John Paynter directed bands at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for more than 40 years.
Amanda Drinkwater, October 2010
Instead of calling the start of rehearsals a warmup, we refer to that time as an opportunity to work on fundamentals. I don’t think using the term warmup is necessarily negative, but it can have a physical connotation more than a musical one. Fundamentals are the musical building blocks from which musical literacy grows. Winds work on breathing with and without the instruments, and percussionists work on technique and quality of stroke the first time they play the instruments each day.
Following this, we may focus on sustained sounds in the middle range of the instrument and move from there to articulation, volume, or technique in a context of transposition or extended ranges. As ensembles progress over the course of the year, things get more complex, but always with the same focus. A good sound is a good sound, and if you simply expect that regardless of the technical demand, then students will always value a good sound. The individual sound quality, along with ensemble balance, becomes the signature of a group’s ensemble sound. These are the first things I hear when the baton goes down.
We construct specific exercises for our students with music-writing software or simply by rote explanation. I will take something well known like Remington and write it out in a specific manner for the ensemble so that there’s a unified perception of note length and release points. For outdoor rehearsals we’ll put spaces between the exercises so we can recover visually and get set up with a good breathing plan for the next entrance. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the exercises we’re pursuing, we simply unify our efforts in a way that might offer additional benefits in an outdoor setting. The goal is for every student, from the mallet percussionist to the oboist to the trumpet player, to know what to do if we say Remington.
Amanda Drinkwater is Director of Fine Arts at Lewisville ISD in Texas, overseeing programs at 60 schools. She previously was Director of Bands of the nationally recognized program at Marcus High School.
Marin Alsop, April 1995
The thing that bothers musicians most is having their time wasted. Orchestral musicians appreciate a conductor who uses rehearsal time well, and when they’re done, they’re done. I try to be efficient and to maintain a sense of humor, getting the work done while enjoying the music making. My father often said there was no point to a concert if you haven’t enjoyed the rehearsal…
I have the reputation of being tough and demanding. At the same time, I’m often able, especially with standard repertoire, to finish what needs to be done and end rehearsals early. Musicians appreciate that; not finishing early, but completing a task and not wasting time. I have to be prepared because musicians will know if I mess up. When conductors make mistakes on the podium, even if it’s just an accident, they should apologize and not try to cover it up.”
Marin Alsop was Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for 14 years. She is Chief Conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor of Chicago’s Ravinia Festival.
Preparing for Performance
Bruce Dinkins, May 2011
When putting a piece of music together, the notes and rhythms have to come first. Without those, the performance will not convey the intentions of the composer. Every composer has a trademark sound, and producing that is the goal of a performance, not just playing the notes sitting on the stand. It is important that students realize that music connects us with some kind of past experience, whether musical or otherwise. As Hindemith so aptly put it, if we didn’t have an emotional connection to what we hear, it would simply have a tickling effect on our ears. The music would not connect with the emotions and the mind.
I spend a lot of time working on fundamentals. I like to go back to some of the old books, for example the Unisonal Scales and Chords by William White, which was used by the service bands in the 50s and 60s to build an ensemble sound. I also use the Grover Yaus books, including 101 Rhythmic Rests. I think that’s the one most know, but there are several others, each with a varying degree of difficulty. I use the 150 Unison Exercises book with my freshmen because it repeats rhythm after rhythm, all in unison. That way it not only teaches a unified articulation but also intonation.
I use I Recommend by James Ployhar and the Claude T. Smith Symphonic Warmups for Concert Band for the chorales. The tunes in Smith’s book are familiar and use difficult keys like Ab and Db, so students become comfortable in keys other than Eb, Bb, and F. Directors frequently pass something out in Db, like one of those dark, sonorous Alford marches, such as The Vanished Army, and students just fight notes for weeks. My freshmen have to play all 12 major scales individually. It still doesn’t guarantee a great reading of The Vanished Army, but it does assure that students can listen in all of the keys and make adjustments.
A book that few people still use is Leonard Smith’s Treasury of Scales, which really builds the ensemble sound. It creates a strong sonority by teaching players to hear the root, 3rd, and 5th in different settings and to drop the 3rd or raise the 5th in a major chord.
I always teach rhythm with drumsticks in my hands. My clarinet teacher at Juilliard said that every minute you practice without a metronome is a minute wasted, and that has stuck with me for 30 years. Pulse holds the group together, so I constantly keep tempo and pulse in their minds. I use drumsticks because I’ve broken so many batons by banging them on the stand. After a while the students settle into the rhythm and make that their responsibility. Rarely do the groups here lose tempo.
I also teach tempo memorization. To do that I will set the metronome to 120, and we will play for a while. We move on to something else, and a couple minutes later I’ll ask somebody to tap 120. After someone guesses I turn on the metronome to see how close it was.
Bruce Dinkins was a highly respected conductor who led acclaimed music programs at James Bowie High School in Texas and Irmo High School in South Carolina.
Gabe Musella, November 2010
The best compliment I can give our students is to praise their openness to constructive criticism from the staff and their peers. I ask frequent questions from the podium about the sound and how it could be improved. The critiques are different depending on the playing level of the group, but even in the fourth band, I encourage students to give critiques of other players. With the younger students, it is really cool to watch their eyes light up as they develop the skills to hear playing weaknesses and make improvements.
I make it clear from the beginning that all critiques must be done in a constructive way without belittling anyone. The rehearsal room has to be a safe, comfortable environment at all times. I will ask leading questions about missed notes or whatever to steer the discussion. It works well to have one student play and then ask for comments from the rest of the band, but the director has to make sure that there is no personal vendetta or hurtful criticism of players. As we work on music and make suggestions for improvement, there is always a bit of the coach in me. If you make a suggestion about someone else’s playing, I might put you on the spot and see how you would play the same passage. In a friendly environment, this approach works well.
After a distinguished 30-year teaching career, Gabe Musella serves as UIL Assistant Music Director in Austin, Texas.
Harry Begian, November 1968
Implicit to a successful interaction of the two parties is mutual respect. Each side needs the other’s respect; the conductor without a group of players to conduct has no function, while the group without a conductor can only reflect a wide range of disjointed ideas and approaches to rehearsing and performing. It is the conductor’s task (mission) to unite individual attitudes and concepts and to direct their abilities toward a common musical ideal. This can only be achieved through musically demanding rehearsals during which the time is wisely spent in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Though the essential purpose of rehearsals is the detection and elimination of errors and wrong concepts, all opportunities to compliment exceptional performance should be enthusiastically and genuinely recognized.
Among many musical accomplishments, Harry Begian served as Director of Bands at the University of Illinois for 14 years and also at Michigan State University.
Lessons at a School Dance
John W. Knight, February 1994
As a first-year teacher of students in grades 5-12, I found that rhythms were the most prevalent rehearsal problem. I sent students home with the metronome and explained a foot-tapping method to them, but they returned the next day to make the same mistakes. Each day I sang the correct rhythm to them and hated myself for relying on rote teaching. One night I chaperoned a school dance and watched students who couldn’t keep a steady beat in rehearsals as they danced all night to complex rhythms. I realized that my traditional method of teaching rhythm had failed because it was too abstract.
That summer I read everything I could find about rhythm and concluded that students have difficulty when introduced to rhythms as fractional units instead of flowing patterns of duration with an internal pulse. To teach basic rhythm patterns that flow instead of isolated fractional units, I used a rhythm card devised by H.E. Nutt of the VanderCook School of Music and a counting system by E.C. Moore, from a helpful little book, Playing at Sight (Leblanc). I started teaching these rhythmic concepts to the fifth grade band during the two-week wait for instruments to arrive from the music store. I gave each student a percussion instrument on which to learn the rhythms on the card. They developed a firm basic understanding of rhythm from the start and progressed rapidly.
Rhythmic problems are not difficult when isolated and understood without being part of a context. I told students that a note has a beginning, middle, and end; the secret of reading rhythms is concentrating on all three areas and ending the previous note at exactly the right time by feeling the internal subdivision. I asked them to conduct the beat pattern and sing the rhythm while patting the subdivision with their free hand. After learning these in 4/4, I wrote cards in 2/4, 3/4, 6/8, and various asymmetrical meters. To add variety, I arranged the rhythms in chords and performed them at different tempos, styles, and dynamics. I had students count in both staccato and legato styles and in softer dynamics. Each day the band sightread a different rhythm composed by a student.
One student devised the rhythm, wrote it on the board, and taught it to the ensemble. The players also sang the rhythm card in canon with the bases and tenors starting on the tonic, the altos on the third of the chord one measure later, and the sopranos on the fifth of the chord one measure later. I emphasized the integrity of rests by explaining the silence is a dramatic and expressive element in music. I asked students to imagine the rests as a fortissimo dynamic. To augment my teaching I played a Toscanini recording of the introduction to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and let them hear how dramatic a rest could be.
John W. Knight is Professor Emeritus of Conducting and Ensembles and Music at Oberlin Conservatory, where he joined the faculty in 1978. He has published more than 100 articles on conducting.
Robert W. Smith, December 1997
More ensembles should focus on the concept of balance, which is three-dimensional. Each individual has to match tone color with the other members playing the same part; then each small section has to blend with like instruments; and finally choirs have to balance. In other words, the third clarinets have to balance with one another. Then they have to fit with the first and seconds, and finally the clarinet choir has to balance with the brass choir.
I spend some time teaching traditional Western harmonies. Most people assume that the three notes in a major triad should be equal in dynamic intensity, and that’s not necessarily the case. To establish tonality, the tonic is most important. The third establishes color and should receive a little more dynamic weight than the fifth. If the fifth is weighted more heavily than the third, the chord begins to sound hollow.
In rehearsal, I’ll take three clarinets or three trumpets so tone color is not an issue and explore this concept. Also, look at where a specific chord occurs within a bar. If it is on the downbeat and you want to establish the key, the tonic has to be prominent. Once that’s been established, you can concentrate on the third and fifth on beats two, three, and four. I spend time making sure students understand weight. If you have a dominant seventh chord, the most important tones are the third and the seventh because they resolve and provide color. From there, I take passages from chorales and have students identify their harmonic role.
Composer Robert W. Smith has more than 600 works in print and is President of RWS Music Company, exclusively distributed through C.L. Barnhouse.
Let Students Conduct
Author Unknown, December 1986
In my college band, we give two outdoor concerts in the spring that are rehearsed and conducted entirely by students. They also select the music. Any member of the band may conduct, including the liberal arts students. When I gently urge a freshman music education major to try it, the usual response is, “Oh, but I haven’t had conducting yet.” Ridiculous. I coax with more questions:
“How long have you played in band or orchestra? Haven’t you watched your conductors? Couldn’t you handle a favorite march?”
The student usually answers: “Five or six years. Not really. I don’t know?”
So why don’t more of us give more of them conducting opportunities early in their musical training. The answer, of course, is time. However, every kid who has had the experience of leading peers through a piece of music is going to be that much more aware of what a conductor is trying to communicate. That can save a great deal of time, and the earlier students start, the better. After all, learning to follow intelligently is a pretty important basic for any band member.
The first time I tried to promote student conducting with a junior high band (a non-audition group of students who were supposed to have had at least a full year on their instruments), I was met with looks of utter disbelief. They had never thought of such a possibility. Conducting was only for band directors.
Almost any student can correctly complete the following sentence: The first beat of a measure is always _______. Next with a little prompting, anybody can figure out that the last beat of a measure just about has to be up, which takes care of a rather rudimentary two-pattern. If there are three beats in a measure, then we have to find another direction in which to go, and so on. This particular junior high band was fascinated with the whole idea.
“Don’t I have to have a stick?” No sooner said than done. After a few hysterical giggles and a false start or two (because nobody really believed a kid could conduct), I urged the group to watch, and voila. The stick came down, the band started, and to the amazement of all, everyone continued together for quite a few measures. “Any volunteers?” You bet your baton there were.
Nobody expects every band member to become a Wynton Marsalis, Vincent Cichowicz, or Woody Herman. Neither will they become a John Paynter, Arnald Gabriel, or Erich Leinsdorf. Give them a little exposure to conducting, though, and just maybe one or two of them might have the spark. It is a real thrill to watch a student find that peers are actually following. It is even more impressive when you realize the ensemble seems to be watching the young Toscanini more intently than they ever watched you!