From the Components of Playing to Communicating Musically

Scott Rush SM blog

Much of how we spend our rehearsal time involves perfecting the Components of Playing. After all, bad tone quality supersedes much, if not all, of the components … you can’t tune a bad sound. The hard work required to hone skills such as timing, tuning, balance and blend are noble undertakings and should be passionately pursued. The time slated for fundamentals at the beginning of each rehearsal should be devised to address the various components as part of the normal warm-up process. However, it is imperative that our teaching curriculum not stop there. So the question seems to be … once we’ve addressed the various components, then what?

For the sake of providing a systematic process to this musical journey, I would like to suggest the following exercise. Take a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page. On the left side of the paper, write the following Components of Playing list, leaving several spaces between each word. This is essentially what you are responsible for teaching in terms of fundamentals. On the right side, start listing how you teach the various components. Fill as much of the right side as you can by listing teaching strategies, method books, worksheets, and any other means that you use to teach the component. When you’re done, you should have a blueprint for your daily, weekly, and quarterly fundamentals curriculum. You should be able to visibly see your teaching process in action. Here is a simple template for your work:

The Components of Playing

            What to Teach                                                                                      How to Teach It?

  1. Tone
  2. Timing
  3. Tuning
  4. Dynamics
  5. Phrasing
  6. Articulations (staccato, marcato, legato, slurred, various accents)
  7. Rhythm
  8. Balance
  9. Blend
  10. Attacks
  11. Releases
  12. Duration of notes
  13. Range
  14. Endurance
  15. Technique
  16. Tone Color (intensity, color spectrum, sonority)
  17. Consistency /Accuracy

Doing this exercise will make tremendous headway toward getting your students from point A to point B. It establishes a rehearsal dialogue, provides a blueprint for teaching fundamentals, and allows for transfer of concepts. If you’re having trouble establishing exercises to teach each of these components, I’ve written a method book titled Habits of a Successful Musician that will help aid in devising appropriate exercises for use during fundamentals time.

Where the teaching of the above-named components is critical, it shouldn’t stop here. We should extend this process under the umbrella of equipping the musical toolbox. It’s not, in and of itself, a way of communicating musically. However, these components must certainly be tenaciously perfected to have a chance at musical communication.

It’s All A Means to an End … Music Making

We must cross the threshold from the Components of Playing to communicating something musically.

Musicianship (beauty, shape, interpretation, emotion, style, mood, artistry)

These words represent the ability to express something through the artistry of the music-making process. The following is a different type of dialogue, which should be used when students are mature enough musically to accomplish the nuance or concept. This is not designed to be a comprehensive list, but to establish a more musically extensive vocabulary.

Musical Tips

  • Long notes should have direction—they should intensify or decrescendo.
  • Phrases should have peaks and valleys, arrival points, and weighted notes (agogic).
  • You should carry over (connect) phrases and make sure you don’t breathe at inappropriate places.
  • If a line is repeated, do something different with it the second time.
  • Find tension and release points.
  • Musical moments usually take longer to build than they do to pull away.
  • In many styles, short notes lead to long notes.

Extramusical Stimuli

  • It’s what’s NOT on the page that makes the music.
  • Use “mood” words to establish style and ambiance.
  • Assign words to entire musical phrases to help establish meaning and purpose.
  • Persichetti said, “Music is either dancing or singing.”
  • It’s what happens between the notes that makes the music come alive.
  • The music will tell you what to do; the intuitive response causes you to create more than what’s on the page.

Philosophical Prompts

  • Trust your soul to feel and express the music—be musical! Tell a musical story with passion and conviction.
  • The conductor’s blood must drip with musical conviction, both to the players and the audience.
  • Try to discover music in every phrase.
  • Unlike a painting or sculpture, music can be re-created again and again, with new meaning and understanding.
  • The paper and ink don’t make the music; instruments make no sounds on their own—the soul creates the music.
  • Music must be interpreted to the point that the performance is said to be artistic and the performers, artists.

These bullets are designed to establish a vocabulary and a culture for music making. These musical truths are different from the Components list in that they cause the performer to feel and interpret the notes and ink on the page. It’s a different mindset than being “in tune,” playing “in time” or executing the correct articulation. It’s a form of musical communication, a language in and of itself. This list can aid in the development of the conductor’s ability to communicate musical concepts from the podium. However, the students must be at the point in their musical development where you’re not talking over their heads. Our rehearsal halls should be filled with this type of dialogue. Try making a list of “musical truths” that you use within the rehearsal setting.

scott_rushScott Rush is the Director of Fine and Performing Arts for Dorchester School District Two in South Carolina. Prior to that appointment, he was Director of Bands at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina for 15 years. He is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where he received a Master of Music degree in French Horn Performance. Under his direction, the Wando Symphonic Band performed at the 2007 Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, Illinois. In 2008, the Wando Band program received the prestigious Sudler Flag of Honor by the John Philip Sousa Foundation.

Mr. Rush is active as a clinician and adjudicator and has presented workshops for various universities, school districts, and conferences throughout the United States and Canada. He is the author or co-author of six highly touted books published by GIA Publications. They are: “Habits of a Successful Band Director,” “The Evolution of a Successful Band Director,” “Habits of a Successful Musician,” “Habits of a Successful Middle School Band Director,” “Habits of a Successful String Musician,” and “Quality of Life Habits of a Successful Band Director.” He has been the recipient of the National Band Association’s Citation of Excellence on five occasions and is a former board member of the NBA. In 2010, Mr. Rush was elected into the prestigious American Bandmasters Association and in 2015 was elected into the South Carolina Band Directors Association Hall of Fame.

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