Back to School and Music: It’s Like Riding a Bike!

Back to School and Music: It’s Like Riding a Bike! Chris Bernotas

Returning to regular ensemble life in the back-to-school season is like riding a bicycle again after a long hiatus. There’s a transition, but it’s way easier than starting from scratch. But who has to get back on the bike? You? Your students? You and I know that it is both. Part of this transition period is dealing with the “Sunday night jitters.” Part of it is letting go of the fantasy that your students did nothing but practice for 10-14 hours each day all summer long. However, with some thought and a few revolutions of the pedals, you and your students will be back to the familiar routine of making social and musical connections in your classroom.

Begin the Transition with Fundamentals

One way to make the adjustment from summer fun to musical rehearsal fun is to revisit the fundamentals. When thinking about all of the complexities of creating a meaningful musical performance I think it is important to boil things down to their basic concepts and isolate them. For example, when performing a gorgeous, heart-wrenching lyrical passage, you want students to sound incredible. You want to hear dynamic contour and emotion to the point that you can feel it in your bones. How can we help students create that kind of moment for themselves and the audience? Start by isolating each concept and working on those skills as needed. 

Think about the example of the beautiful lyrical section. Do you notice what the first thing I said about it was? We want students to sound incredible. Here is the thinking part…what does that mean? What is it to sound incredible? A discussion on that singular concept can yield a variety of answers! 

In my opinion, the very first, most important concept in making something beautiful is tone. It doesn’t matter what instrument we are talking about (trumpet, snare drum, violin, or the voice), the tone is essential. What does a beautiful tone sound like on trumpet? How about a rich, full, and gorgeous sound on timpani? Here are a couple of quick tips on helping your students connect, or reconnect to the most fundamental of fundamentals!

You Are a Model

While we all know that every band director has a highly-developed fashion sense, and always wears priceless clothes from the world’s top designers, here I’m talking about modeling tone. Play your instrument for your students. Let them hear your amazing sound! 

Let’s face it, you work hard not only as a music teacher, but also as a performer of music. You spent countless hours in practice rooms, in rehearsal studios, and on stage. Show your students this part of you as well. 

Provide Other Models

Play recordings of performers who have a sound you want students to emulate. Our students may not be listening to music or performers we would choose for them. This is fine, they need to find their own musical expression. However, we need to augment their listening choices.

Consider playing a short recording of a different performer each day. Maybe on Monday you take two minutes from rehearsal to listen to a breathtaking oboe solo, Tuesday share two minutes of a powerful brass fanfare, and so on. Having students experience a few examples of the sound we try to explain in words through listening can be eye opening for them (and us). 

With so many incredible performances available online for listening and watching, it is easy and amazing to share with students. Remember, you may have watched that video, or listened to that recording 100 times, but your students likely have not. Share that joy!

SmartMusic’s professional reference recordings provide excellent models, too. Try it for free.

Work on Tone

Now that your students are gaining an understanding of your expectations in regard to the kind of sounds (characteristic tone) you want them to make, it is time to get to work making them. Remember the idea of isolating these skills? Yes, you can most definitely work on characteristic tone within your musical literature. It is a fantastic and appropriate thing to do. 

Another very effective way to work on this skill is simplifying an exercise so students can solely focus only on the skill you are directing them to work on. Playing in unison is incredibly effective in helping ensembles learn to play in tone, in tune, with clear articulation, with audible dynamics, and so on. In Sound Innovations Ensemble Development, there are many, many exercises written in parallel octaves that teachers can use to help students improve by focusing on any of these concepts. 

How about tone? A ‘Passing the Tonic’ exercise can easily fit the bill. You will notice that all three levels of SIED have these exercises. This is because every ensemble skill can be taught from the very first day they sit and play together as a group. In this type of exercise, students pass the root note of the given key all around the room (yes, through the percussion section as well!). 

During the passing of the note, teachers can help direct students by encouraging them to listen to the sound they are making. As those rhetorical questions, “Are you making a beautiful sound? Are you making a rich sound? Does your sound match what we heard on today’s recording?” Encourage your students to take action. Encourage your students to be the decision-makers in the room. It starts with YOU, and then you give them the gift of…control. Scary, right? 

Transfer that Knowledge

This example is about characteristic tone; we identified the concept, isolated the skill, and focused our exercises on improving the performance. Now, you take that leap. Apply it to your music. 

As you rehearse your literature you can remind students of those questions you posed in the warm-up. Are they using the same kind of tone that you worked on? Remind them of their achievement. Remind them of the sound that was modeled by you, or in your demonstration video/audio recording. This connection is essential. 

The last thing we want students to do is to compartmentalize their performance skills. When we identify, isolate, and rehearse ensemble skills in the warm-up, we do so in order for students to gain experience to be able to apply to their literature. It is up to us to help them connect the dots. Sharing the “WHY” of what we do is important. Tell them why you are working on the ‘Passing the Tonic’ exercise, “In a few minutes when we play XYZ, I want you to make the same beautiful sound you are making now…” Remind them when they are playing XYZ, “When we worked on #1, you had such a rich tone, let’s get that same sound here at letter B.” Those kinds of reminders help students understand why we spend time honing their skills.

Getting Back on the Bike

When you create this kind of experience for students they will get back on that musical bicycle very quickly! When you provide musical examples, and are a role model, they will know what to do. When you share the goals of your warmup and connect them to the music they create, they will express themselves more authentically through the music. 

Eventually, those “Sunday jitters” will become “Sunday excitement.”

Okay, maybe not.

But you will certainly be excited when you see (and hear) those magical, musical light bulbs go on in your classroom. Have a wonderful school year!

Chris Bernotas

Composer, conductor, clinician, and educator Chris M. Bernotas earned his BM from William Paterson University and his MAT from Marygrove College. As director of string publications for Alfred Music, he draws upon 28+ years experience as an instrumental music teacher in New Jersey. Chris is co-author, along with Dr. Peter Boonshaft, of Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development for Young, Intermediate, and Advanced Concert Band. He is also co-author, along with Dave Black, of Alfred's ground-breaking percussion method, Sound Percussion. Mr. Bernotas is highly sought after as a composer of commissioned new works, a guest conductor, an adjudicator, and a clinician.

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