Simple Strategies for More Productive Rehearsals

Mike Lawson • ChoralPerformance • March 13, 2008

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When it comes to rehearsal techniques, there are as many styles as there are teachers. Success in the band room can be achieved in different ways, and although there is no clear-cut formula, the most effective rehearsals at all levels are comprised of three components: preparation, pacing, and participation. A great rehearsal is not a stroke of luck; it is the result of the skillful orchestration of these elements by the director.

Great coaches possess a positive vision for their program, prepare for the season, then each practice and game; likewise, band directors must do the same. Preparation begins outside of the classroom with goal setting. Goals should be long- and short-term, broad and specific. It is imperative to have an idea of what is to be accomplished over a year, from concert to concert, or even on a weekly and daily basis. Through this, one can ensure there is direction in the program and in daily teaching.

Once goals have been established, proceed to examining the physical condition of the band room. This is something that may easily be overlooked, but can greatly impact the quality of rehearsals. Not only does it affect the students’ psyche, but also valuable time can be saved if the room is properly organized. Make sure there is a clear path from the doors to the instrument lockers or cubbies to avoid congestion. Check that all stands, chairs, and folders are in place, and instruct students to leave cases outside of the ensemble set up. Give all percussionists designated places to store instruments to avoid clutter in their section, which is often the messiest area in the band room. At the end of rehearsal, give your students a friendly reminder to leave the room in the same condition it was when they arrived, then dismiss them. A neat and structured room sends the message that the band hall is a place of business.

Another important step to follow in the preparatory process is writing the announcements, rehearsal sequence, and even short goals on the board. Instruct the students that it is their responsibility to have the appropriate music and materials in order. This is of special importance for percussionists, with all the shifting and changing of equipment required on their part. If playing a new piece of music, pass it out beforehand so it sits on their music stand as they arrive. Handing out music during class can easily derail the momentum of any rehearsal. Finally, leave a minute or two at the end to answer questions and briefly cover the announcements posted.

Perhaps the most important piece in the process is that of score study. Have a working knowledge of the overall form, harmonic and phrase structure, and even pitfalls for each instrument or the ensemble. Have an idea of what is to be accomplished in terms of musical decisions before the rehearsal begins. We constantly tell our students that rehearsal is not for learning parts, so why should the conductor be the exception? It is imperative to devote quality time to studying scores, no matter the difficulty level.

The goal should be to make music as soon a possible, for as long as possible. Keep the rehearsals moving fast enough to attain optimal results in the time available, without overwhelming the students. Give them sufficient time to apply the corrections, but do not err on the side of giving them too much. Also, be concise with your comments and do not keep them waiting for long periods of time. Keep them playing! Idle time can easily lead a student’s concentration astray. Put yourself in their place and remember how it felt to be in rehearsals under directors who talked too much.

Administrative duties of the classroom such as attendance can sometimes be a burden and disrupt the flow of rehearsal. In order to accomplish this without squandering valuable rehearsal time construct a seating chart for the ensemble. Scan the room as they are assembling their instruments and the process can usually be completed in no time at all. Photocopy the chart and reuse it.

A great way to transition from attendance to the warm-up is with a simple breathing exercise. Rather than signaling frantically for their attention, simply give them a visual cue. Extend your arms as if you were conducting the ensemble and instruct the students that when you do this they are to begin a steady sizzle sound. A wave of hissing will envelop the room as the students notice the cue, and once everyone has joined, you can proceed. This also serves as a valuable tool in sensitizing the ensemble to non-verbal communication.

When class time is of the essence, focusing on one specific fundamental playing skill in addition to the warm-up each day can be very effective. For example, one needs to cover scales, interval training, chorales, etudes, and sight-reading with the ensemble, but not all in one setting. Making each one the focus for the rehearsal allows that concept to be covered in depth and does not overload the students. A fundamental calendar or schedule of sorts can help ensure that sufficient time is allotted to each skill. A sample weekly schedule can cover interval training on Monday, chorales on Tuesday, scales on Wednesday, etudes on Thursday, and sight-reading on Friday.

Something that can help expedite the sight-reading process is creating specific music folders for that purpose. Select a handful of pieces that are of merit for sight-reading from your music library and make folders for all the parts in the ensemble. Set them on the stands and, when the time comes, announce the piece and have the students retrieve it from the folder. This saves valuable time, and the folders can be used for weeks or even over entire grading periods. By making this task less time consuming, it becomes easier to incorporate into rehearsals.

The often-overlooked element of a good rehearsal is student participation. Band directors love to talk and sometimes forget to ask themselves one important question: Are the students paying attention? Silence is often treated as comprehension, when in fact it is not. It is imperative that some form of feedback is constantly requested throughout the rehearsal.

One way in which this can be nurtured is to keep the players involved in the musical aspect of the rehearsal. Ask them probing questions regarding their intonation, balance, rhythmic accuracy, and other musical components. Find ways in which they can apply their knowledge to help others. Often times, the same message may have more of an impact coming from one of their peers than from the teacher.

Furthermore, do not be afraid to be creative and break out of the norm. Keeping a certain element of spontaneity and excitement in the class will increase student participation. Students have a natural sense of curiosity and excitement towards the unknown. Unfortunately, too much routine and mind-numbing drilling can squash this. Once they become bored they will be “out to lunch,” and it will be an uphill battle from then on.

We need our students to be active rather than passive participants in the rehearsal process. Once they gain a sense of purpose and ownership, the whole environment of the class will be altered in a positive way and music will begin to take shape. Make rehearsals an enjoyable experience for the students, and in turn, they will do the same.

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