This is the second post in a series about preparing your ensemble for festival. In the first post, we looked at what to consider when selecting repertoire. Now that you have made your music selections, it’s rehearsal time. Almost. In the third part of this series, I’ll discuss day-of logistics.
Before I can dive into rehearsal, I need to study the score. This makes me aware of the potential problems my students will face, and helps me prepare multiple solutions.
Then I write an outline for how I plan to teach each piece. What will I do first? What’s next? This lets me plan ahead, rather than just react to the mistakes as they arise. Then I take the plan for each song and map it out, along with all the other song plans, over the weeks that I have set aside to prepare for festival performance. This allows me to have a rough idea of what I will be doing each day in rehearsal. I can still sit down and write each daily lesson plan based on how the rehearsals are going, but this way I keep my long-term goals in mind.
Some directors have difficulty mapping out a long-term plan because things never seem to go according to plan. Consider this: General Dwight D. Eisenhower, recently ranked #5 in the C-SPAN presidential survey, said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” It’s not that our lessons will work exactly as we planned. But by planning we are prepared to respond to situations as they develop. Jazz improvisers don’t plan out every note they will play – but they do prepare before a performance!
Moving Beyond Notes and Rhythms
Many students tend to focus on just notes and rhythms. But as we prepare them for festival, we have the chance to encourage them to strive for more expressive playing. They have to think about:
- Attacks and releases
- Dynamic shaping
- Tone quality
Of course, this list is just a start! Our goal in rehearsal is to help students grow in all of these areas. My students always become much more polished and expressive musicians after we go through the process of preparing for festival performance.
Explain What’s Expected
Playing for judges at festival is very different than playing for parents, so students need to understand the process. Here are ways you can help:
- Show them a copy of the sheet that the judges will be using. You should be able to obtain this from the organization that is hosting the festival.
- Explain each of the categories. Use the terminology that’s on the form in your rehearsals. This is a great time to teach students the language of music.
- Have students use the judging criteria to assess a recorded performance you find online. If it’s especially good, what makes it so? If there are problems, what are they?
Most students don’t naturally strive for the level of polish and preparation that’s expected in a festival performance, so this is a great opportunity to teach them to raise their standards.
Play the Ink
One way to help students go beyond playing just notes and rhythms to do this is to encourage them to pay attention to everything that’s printed on the page. This includes:
- Articulations: accents, staccatos, slur patterns
- Dynamic markings
- Tempo markings (and changes)
- Expressive directions, such as rit.
- Roadmap signs: endings, repeats, etc.
As a judge, when I am looking at a score, I expect to hear the group use all these printed directions to help bring the music to life. (If you need to edit bowings for your orchestra, that’s OK.)
Developing Tone Quality
It’s easy for us as adults to forget that our students may not have many good mental models for how their instrument should sound. When they hear professionals modeling good tone and expression, they are able to try to emulate that. To help:
- Play recordings for them in class that feature specific instruments and discuss what they hear.
- Give them listening assignments through an online portal like Google Classroom.
- Encourage them to listen to excerpts from specific albums on iTunes or a similar web store, since there are always 30-second clips of tracks.
In the 21st century, it is easier than ever for our students to hear and copy great musicians.
Posture – Yes, It Really Matters!
Remind students that judges will also look at posture. While it takes time to develop many other elements of musical skill, simply sitting with good posture is something that can happen quickly. A group’s posture on stage also creates expectations for the audience about the sound.
If you were to walk into a restaurant and see that everything was dirty and disorganized, you would make a judgement about how the food would taste. In a similar way, an audience will form judgements even before the first note based on how the group is sitting on stage. Students need regular reminders – I make multiple comments every day about posture.
Build These Standards Into Assessment
In your playing tests, consider using a rubric so that students get individual feedback on multiple elements. This lets you push students to improve in all areas, not just technical ones. My usual rubric has the following captions:
- Rhythms and Pulse
- Posture and Embouchure
- Tone and Use of Air
- Dynamics and Articulation
Have students set individual practice goals based on this feedback.
Good ensemble music-making depends on the members of the group really listening and responding to one another. As directors, we sometimes fall into the trap of telling our students to “listen” but not very clearly defining that. We need to guide their ears:
- Give a specific direction to each student that defines exactly who they need to listen for. Then have them point to the person they are to listen for. When they play, they should not listen for their own sound, they should listen for that person and play soft enough to hear them.
- Play through a part of the music, then ask students to point to the section that just played the melody. Or have them sing that melody! If they aren’t sure, have them try it again. They will start listening more carefully. Remind them not to play louder than the melody.
- Have students listen and match style. Pick one student as the model and have the other students match note length, dynamic shaping, etc.
- Mix up the seating. (My students love this!) They can sit anywhere they want–just not next to any instrument that they normally are next to. All of a sudden they will hear new things in their concert music. You can even have them play the piece a few times, changing seats more than once. Then have them go back to their normal seats and listen for those same parts that they “discovered.”
- Go around the room – have students play four notes in a row and match the previous person’s volume, pitch articulation, tempo, etc.
Intonation and Listening
Of course, playing in tune requires students to be actively listening and adjusting. While a tuner can be a helpful tool, students will never play in tune if they are depending on the tuner’s visual. How do we develop aural sensitivity?
- Teach students what “in tune” and “out of tune” sound like. You can use two digital pitch generators or two students to demonstrate what the “waves” sound like when two pitches are out of sync, as well as how when it’s in tune it sounds like one person.
- In addition to playing with a steady pitch, teach students how to bend pitch up and down. This skill is necessary for them to make adjustments based on what they hear.
- Use a digital pitch generator to create a drone and have students play along with it until they are in tune. The students who aren’t playing can use hand gestures to show if they hear waves or a steady pitch.
- Point to two students randomly; have them play together. Ask, “Is that in tune?”
Record Your Students
I usually try to have my students ready to play through their music two weeks before their performance. Then we record it in class. I play back at least some of the recording to them so that they can hear what they are doing well and where they need to improve.
- I like to use the recording as a sort of mirror–did we really hold that note full value? Let’s listen and check.
- With strings, this can be a literal mirror: are we bowing together? Using the whole bow?
- Sometimes I give the students copies of the judge’s sheets and have them grade themselves.
In my long-term plan, I have marked dates on which I plan to record.
Some festivals include sight-reading as a component of the process, so it’s important to include this in your preparation. But even if you aren’t sight-reading at festival, it can be a helpful tool to see how well your students have internalized the concepts. Sight-read something easier than you are currently preparing, but challenge them to read it at a high level.
- When they are sight-reading, do they still play with the tone quality you have worked on?
- Can they listen and tune as they sight-read?
- Can they play the dynamics?
- Are they listening for the melody?
Sight-reading can help you see which concepts may need further attention.
Ask for Help
It’s always helpful to have another director come in and work with your students. Even if they say exactly the same things you have been saying, some students will suddenly “get it.” And I have found that when another director is in the room, I suddenly become aware of problems that I have overlooked.
Try to rehearse in another room besides your usual band room. This can help your students get used to hearing different acoustics and making the necessary adjustments.
Hopefully, these rehearsal ideas help you prepare your students musically for their festival performance. The final post in this series will focus on planning for the contest day.