For an instrumental music teacher at any level, the most important moments of the rehearsal are the first moments, when students prepare both mentally and physically for the rehearsal to begin. Though those moments may be structured differently at each level (younger students may participate in more group-based processes, while older students may participate in more individualistic ones), it is important that these processes help students recognize and make immediate connections to the rehearsal period that follows and even more importantly, the repertoire that will be rehearsed.
I consider these four elements when planning the fundamentals period that begins a band rehearsal:
- Breathing and the activation of the breathing apparatus
- Listening skills and audiation—the act of “thinking in music or thinking about music in a way that the brain is able to give meaning to the sounds”
- Articulation—how we begin AND exit sound
- Association of fundamentals with the repertoire being learned
In a rehearsal setting, this means a coordinated effort for the entire ensemble. This can mean exercises from the Breathing Gym (by Sam Pilafian & Patrick Sheridan), but from a global perspective, it means exercises that increase student awareness of how air is entering and leaving the body, and supporting the creation of their best possible sound when instruments are added. This can also mean an increase of student awareness in these “breathing adjacent” areas—body posture, instrument position, and embouchure formation. These exercises also include percussionists, as their ability to breathe with the rest of the ensemble is supportive to their ability to play in time with the ensemble.
Listening Skills and Audiation
In its most basic form, how does the ensemble sound when we create sound? Is each individual producing a characteristic sound, and then how about each instrument group? Is the overall quality of sound from the combination of instrument groups well-balanced/well-blended/symmetrical throughout the ensemble? And if not, what adjustments are necessary to improve the overall sound quality? The establishment of the characteristic ensemble sound can be rehearsed and achieved through the use of exercises such as:
- Concert F around the room (within individual sections, between sections, and then in unison)
- Concert F Descending Intervals
Wonderful resources include Foundations for Superior Performance, Essential Musicianship, Sound Innovations Ensemble Development, Tuned In, Superior Bands in Sixteen Weeks, and many others. The following playlist includes a broad sampling of exercises for both winds and percussion (as previously stated, we want them busy as well!). Using the metronome and tuner feature of SmartMusic both in class and at home will make a profound difference in listening skills and audiation. In particular, it is useful for students to record themselves in SmartMusic and then listen back to observe the intonation tendency and make any adjustments as needed.
How we begin AND exit sound is a key component to the successful achievement of precision (rhythmic and stylistic) in musical performance. This can be accessed and achieved in many ways:
- Via Concert F around the room—once students have established the desired ensemble sound, additional concepts may be accessed
- Are we all starting the note with the same articulation syllable and strength?
- Are we “touching the rest with the sound” to exit the back side of the note?
- Via F Remington or a written rhythm and tonguing exercise—sing the exercises on an agreed upon articulation syllable (e.g. tah/too/tee, dah/doo/dee, lah/loo/lee) in a written rhythmic sequence that includes sound vs. silence. Moving forward to playing with instruments, this will allow students to practice articulating in unison to establish unified note starts / note endings and be able to learn to self-diagnose how to improve their individual articulation.
For these exercises, I would suggest the use of a metronome as a pulse source to help develop ensemble precision.
Association of Fundamentals with the Repertoire Being Learned
Purposefully linking daily fundamentals and repertoire is essential to the continued development and reinforcement of these skills. Linking these two important elements can be approached in the following ways:
- Determine selected “areas of improvement” from the repertoire for that particular rehearsal.
- Create a series of rhythm and/or articulation exercises that extract the elements that are in need of support/refinement and rewrite for the ensemble (Exercises for Concert pitch, B-flat, E-flat, and F transposing instruments would be needed).
- Have all students play these excerpts on a single note (Concert F, for example) and assist students in refining the articulation or rhythm. Once achieved, have students play actual parts from the repertoire, having those students who may not have the part play from the ensemble exercises, remaining on the single pitch.
This quick exercise can then be incorporated directly into the repertoire that the ensemble will be rehearsing next in the rehearsal sequence. It should be noted that repertoire sometimes comes with these types of exercises already written out for students, making it easy to use as a part of the fundamentals session each day. A perfect example of that is the new PerformancePlus+ series from Alfred Music (which is available for concert band, choir, and orchestra). Every piece in this series includes educational resources designed to enrich the rehearsal process by including piece-specific exercises to focus on necessary skills and fundamentals.
The consistent use of this fundamental sequence supports students in building the necessary skill set (correct breathing techniques, active listening, and the ability to self-diagnose their individual performance) to perform successfully within an ensemble. These important skills will also support them as they continue to participate in ensembles beyond their time in our music classrooms, which is the ultimate goal—life-long music learners!