When I was a young student, my conscientious teacher put me on the standard regimen to learn my instrument. We began with scales, moved on to technique and etudes, and ended with solo music. Like many students, I did not enjoy practicing scales or etudes. In my view, they were musician torture and I didn’t understand why they were so important. I plowed through scales and etudes as quickly as possible so I could get onto my solo music.
As I have progressed in my musicianship I have come to understand and appreciate the value of scales and technique building. I suppose I have transitioned into a “conscientious teacher” because I now make sure to incorporate technique into my daily lesson plan in my performing groups. I have learned that technical studies help students learn concert music more quickly with improved intonation and rhythmic accuracy. It is my goal to help students focus and carefully practice technical studies without becoming bored or frustrated.
Today I’d like to share three ways to successfully incorporate technique in your daily rehearsal routine.
Pacing is very important when trying to fit everything into your rehearsal. Students become agitated when too much time is spent on scales or warm-ups and they don’t get time to play their concert music. There must be an appropriate balance.
When making lesson plans, decide how much time you will spend for scales, warm-ups, technique, and concert music. Stick to your plan, even if there is one more thing you wish you could fix. A quick efficient pacing will keep students interested and willing to work throughout the rehearsal.
In my 45 minute rehearsal, we spend 3 minutes for tuning, 2 minutes for a scale, 10 minutes for technique, and 30 minutes for concert music. Several years ago I worried that my classes would not be ready for their concert so I started to skip method book material and technique. A couple weeks before the concert I realized my students were ready and I could have been working in the method book all long. I now never skip warm-ups and technique and we have always been ready for the concert. There is time for technique every day with careful planning and proper pacing. Even a few minutes a day will go a long way.
2. Relevant Technique
It’s vital that we choose technique-building exercises that are relevant to current concert music. Building technique helps students learn faster. When correlating technique to concert music students are able to drill rhythm, finger-patterns, and key signatures which help them prepare for specific concert challenges. In order to do this, it is often necessary to skip around in the method book choose exercises that would be most meaningful.
Scales and technique must be carefully planned and chosen. When I begin teaching the keys of F and B flat major (which are significantly more difficult for beginning strings than beginning winds), we do a great deal of preparatory work to learn the proper technique. It begins with spending 5 minutes rehearsing new finger-patterns every day. After a week or so, we add relevant exercises for students to read notes and practice their new fingerings. Next, we begin rehearsing concert music in F or B flat major. Students are then better prepared to read in a new key and they don’t fear the flats.
3. Make Technique Fun!
As Mary Poppins once said, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Etudes and studies do not have to be a painful experience for students. Try adding harmony to your scale drills. Vary the rhythm or allow students to come up with different rhythms to try. When things are done the same way every day it can get dull. Keep students interested by varying your warm-up activities.
Play games during technical studies or method book work. Games are a great way to keep students interested. One of my favorite games is called “Epidemic.” We send 3-4 students to the hallway while the class decides on a disease that will slowly begin to affect the class. The disease is usually technique- or position-based. For example, a disease might be poor posture, flat fingers, collapsed wrists, bowing too close to the frog, using too little bow, etc. A handful of students are selected to become infected with the chosen disease.
Next, the students come in from the hall and become the doctors. They watch the class perform a short etude or method book exercise and try to figure out the disease. If they are not able to guess, more students in the class become infected and we play the exercise again. The game continues until the doctors correctly guess the disease. If the entire class becomes infected, the doctors lose the game.
You can also play simpler games, such as dividing the class in half and listen as each half plays an exercise. Give points to the side that plays with the best tone, intonation, rhythm – whatever you are focusing on.
B. Use Props
Students are happy to focus on technique when there is a fun prop to look at or manipulate. My classroom cabinet looks like a mini toy store. When teaching proper left-hand position, I have cello and bass students balance a small stuffed rabbit on their elbows. Violin and viola students balance tiny birds on their instruments to make sure they keep instruments level when in play position. We practice bowing straight using paint roller tubes. Marshmallows are placed behind left thumbs to make sure there is no squeezing. Fun stickers are used to mark and label bow placement to help practice bow distribution technique.
Be creative and capture your students’ focus to help them internalize technique.
I believe technique is a crucial element in every ensemble rehearsal. As you set aside time for relevant, meaningful studies you will begin to notice your students quickly increase in ability and understanding. The time used for technique is an excellent investment as it helps students prepare for concert music and beyond.