8 Essentials for Maximizing Rehearsal Time

Mike Lawson • ChoralMAC Corner • December 4, 2018

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Here are eight things you should be fitting into every rehearsal. If you keep things moving, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a 45 minute class.

Have a Plan so No Time is Wasted

Isn’t it amazing how much time we spend with our students? In a given school year if you teach a class for 45 minutes per day, five days per week, for 180 days, you are spending 8,100 minutes with the same set of students. Those minutes are a valuable commodity. Displaying the agenda/plan for the day is so important for students to know that you have a plan, and it helps lower student anxiety levels when they can count on things happening in a particular order. Having a plan usually saves you time over the course of multiple classes.

Individual Warm Up Time

I am a big believer in allowing students to warm-up individually before the rehearsal begins. I realize that there may be reason why you might not want them all playing before class starts, but in most cases, I think it’s an essential skill to know how a proper individual warm-up can drastically improve success for the entire ensemble. I can’t tell you how many times students find out that their instrument isn’t working, or students are able to help each other with musical/ non-musical items during warm-up time. Give them a time limit of 2-3 minutes and if you have younger students, you might want to post on the board several “choices” for warmups such as “long tones, major scale, chromatic scale, a melody from a piece of music, lip slurs, rudiments, etc.”. If you want to help keep students accountable during this time, I recommend having them journal periodically in their folder so that they have an opportunity to describe the warm-ups they are using. Making them write about it usually helps keep them on track for several days afterward. I also recommend watching several videos of professionals warming up so that they can see it and hear it done correctly. I would also recommend that they see you warm up on your instrument from time to time so that you can show them what you are trying to accomplish in that time period.

Play in Unison

It is so important to play in unison. It is a wonderful way for students to learn to come to a “musical consensus” and is often time the only time in a rehearsal where you can teach the exact same thing to every student.

It is an opportunity to focus in and out from your own sound, and I think too many of us jump right into playing in harmony way too fast. The payoff for playing in unison is that students learn how to start, sustain, and release together. They learn how to play with dynamics and how to manipulate pitch so that the intonation sounds correct. At Metea Valley, we start almost every band rehearsal with a Concert F Remington exercise (sometimes called an F Pivot) which allows us to work on light articulation in a legato style, shifting from note to note cleanly, and playing in tune and in time. Next, typically we have students play a scale in unison or perhaps a unison melodic phrase. Try this to get students super focused for the next part of rehearsal!

Play Intervals

Many times, we mistakenly jump from playing in unison directly into a chordal piece, and I think students need more time to develop their understanding of playing 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6th, 7ths, and octaves. This practice allows you to teach pitch manipulation, but honestly, they do it naturally.

Perhaps the best way to experience intervals is playing along with a drone pitch. Try playing a drone on the tonic or pick a specific pitch in a melody that needs work and play that pitch as the drone. My students really enjoy this! The easiest way to work on interval training is to split your ensemble in half from left to right. Tell the students on your right to watch that hand when you conduct, and then tell the students on your left to watch that hand when you conduct. Start everyone playing a Unison BH (or any key for that matter), then only move your right hand to direct them up the scale one pitch at a time. As your left-hand players are sustaining, they provide the drone for the other players. At any point you can move up and down the one octave scale creating intervals as you go.

Students naturally correct the fourths and fifths easier than they correct thirds and sixths. After you have brought each group up and down the octave, both end on the Unison BH.

Play Chorales

After we finish playing in unison and intervals, we move onto chords by playing chorales. First and foremost, it is so important to get wind, string, and percussion students playing in a legato style so that the idea of uninterrupted breath, stroke, bow, etc. is achieved. This is where beauty of tone takes place. Chorales offer this experience whether playing slowly or quickly. My favorite way to get students thinking about playing chorales in SATB parts is by allowing them to see the score I use the chorales in the Tradition of Excellence Technique & Musicianship with the ninth graders, and 40 Chorales for Band, by Aaron Cole, with my upperclassmen (which is available online as a free resource with a suggested donation). Many books today have sections where students read from a SATB score, and this helps students learn other parts in a chorale.

Sight Read As Much As Possible

I am a big believer that students experience a lot of learning when they sight-read, but most of us have no time to sight-read regularly. To force the issue in our ninth grade band, I spent a while several years ago creating folders for each student called the “Sight-Reading Anthology.” I collected pieces of music in a beginner through intermediate range that progress students through several keys, time signatures, styles, et cetera, and in total there are almost 30 pieces. The students read one piece per day (generally speaking) until we finish the project. Right now, it is November 15, 2018, and we are about to finish the folder. The benefits of this activity are that students regularly practice analyzing, reading, entering, resting, matching, creating, and best of all, making connections between success and failure from day to day, which is what learning is all about!

Count, Clap, Play, Rhythm

Students need several methods for counting, subdividing, and practicing rhythm so that they can process it on their own one day. It’s our responsibility to give them strategies for counting and executing rhythm, and one of the most crucial items is exposure to multiple time signatures, note and rest values, and learning how to process rhythm quickly.

Most method books these days have pages of rhythm in the back of the book, or you can create your own “rhythm sets” so that students have opportunities to see and master lots of rhythms in lots of different contexts. Another variable to adjust is tempo. One of my favorite games in ensemble rehearsal is when I play a measure of rhythm, and then they have to guess which rhythm I played from, say, a page that has 20 rhythms on it. Hands go up to provide the answer, and then once the correct answer is revealed, the entire ensemble gets to play the rhythm. The reward for getting the answer correct is that student is the next one to play the rhythm for the class to guess. They seriously would play this game for hours if you let them! One idea for a different counting system, check out David Newell’s Teaching Rhythm: New Strategies and Techniques for Success. I think you’ll enjoy his ideas on subdividing and counting rhythm from a whole new perspective.

To Do List

One part of each of my rehearsals includes a rapid fire “to do” list of micro details. An example would be for song #1 you write on the board: “Flutes – pitch @ end of meas. 17, clarinet – sixteenth notes meas. 17-18, trombones EH & AH chords meas. 35, percussion – sd tamb groove @ meas.107.” I typically do one of these per piece of repertoire being played that day. The students know that after we accomplish fixing all of the “to-dos,” they get to move onto playing bigger chunks or entire pieces. The nice thing about using an approach like this is that you don’t get bogged down during a piece of music trying to fix random details that coincidentally just occurred.  I call that “whack-a-mole” rehearsing where you just stop every time you hear an error…we want to be in a instructional mindset where we already know what we want to accomplish.

Individual Playing

When playing warm-ups, playing chorales, detailing music, or even sight-reading, there are opportunities for individual playing which I consider to be the breeding ground for students inspiring other students. They also serve as learning models as you work on fundamentals or details in their playing. I love teaching individuals during ensemble class time because it allows all students to see an improvement process.

The students who struggle the most can benefit from your help, and even your best players can always play something more musical or with more professional attention to details like articulation or intonation. I don’t use individual time for grading their playing, I use it as “example” time. Use questioning like “Who wants to play the first note at measure 12?”, then move onto “Would you mind playing the whole measure now”, or “Who can play a beautiful concert F for us today?” and then follow that up with “Everyone try to play that note exactly like you just heard Joe play…didn’t you love the way he started that note?” Use positive and specific language when listening and helping individuals in front of the ensemble and ensure that other students are paying attention to the lesson you are giving so that they can benefit from the information as well. The idea here is that you are making each and every link in the chain stronger.

It is possible to fit all of this into a rehearsal. If you have trouble managing your time in a class and feel like you usually do not accomplish everything you were hoping to, consider having a co-worker observe your class at some point with a stopwatch and have them keep track of the number of minutes you give announcements, talk rather than play, etc. Of course, we need rehearsals where we develop some depth of understanding, but for the most part, students like it when you have a plan for many activities that vary instruction and learning. By ensuring that you are fitting these essentials into most rehearsals, you are showing an enthusiasm for learning music. I’ve found over the years that students feed on our enthusiasm, so I continue to keep things fast-paced, focused on musical and personal growth, and encouraging improvement every day. I hope these ideas will keep your rehearsals fresh and productive.

Glen Schneider is a music educator at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, IL, where he teaches a variety of wind and percussion classes, directs the Marching Mustangs, jazz orchestra, Metea Valley Symphony Orchestra, and is the Music Department PLC Leader. An adjunct instructor at VanderCook College of Music since 2015, he teaches several courses for the MECA Graduate Studies program and has been involved with the Music Achievement Council since 2008.

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