Empower by Sharing Power – Creating Student-Centered Rehearsals Through Guided Listening

Jason Missal • CommentaryNovember 2022 • November 13, 2022

Initial Thoughts
In any rehearsal, one of our primary goals should be to try to create as many moments of beauty as possible. Beauty occurs when everyone is fully engaged and actively listening, working together to realize a collaborative musical vision. Though guided listening will really blossom when students have mastered their individual parts, it is also a valuable rehearsal tool in the early stages of the process. We as conductors should strive to make the music, rather than the technique, the impetus of feedback. As one of our greatest conductors, Carlos Kleiber, said while rehearsing the overture to Die Fledermaus with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra: “It’s very difficult to say: let’s take care of the technique and then we play with expression. Because, strangely, the technique is the expression. If the technique is there but without expressiveness, it is nothing.”  Finally, the best way we can give our students a listening model is to highlight who is doing it right. The listening students gain a model, and the demonstrating students become empowered and more confident in their music-making.

General Listening Concepts
Using guided listening in the rehearsal transfers more responsibility to the students, forcing them to become more independent and self-sufficient. Though it may be tempting, conductors should avoid telling students to watch. We should tell students to listen and more specifically, who to listen to. It is not only acceptable but recommended to do repetitions where we do not conduct at all. We may be surprised how well our students function without us!  In his book The Compleat Conductor, Gunther Schuller highlighted seven areas of musical hearing: pitch/intonation, harmony, rhythm/articulation, balance/orchestration, color, dynamics, and line/continuity. We should try to incorporate all seven in every rehearsal.

How Great Ensembles Play Together
If we watch a world-class orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic perform, several habits become apparent. Players breathe together, often moving together as well. The musicians watch each other just as much or perhaps more than they watch the conductor. Why not devise ways to incorporate listening “etudes” to re-create these situations in our own rehearsals?  One such idea: ask the ensemble to close their eyes, and using a pre-determined pitch, ask them to take an audible breath and sing the note together. It may be a bit ragged on the first try, but soon the more assertive members of the group are leading, and the note is together, often within three or four repetitions. This process can then be applied (with the conductor’s guidance) to specific rehearsal situations.

Conductor’s Role in This Process
To facilitate guided listening, we should ask more questions of the ensemble members rather than give easy answers. The goal is for the students to demonstrate their knowledge. Let them show you they understand. Too many rehearsals focus on what I call “trickle-down musicianship,” the idea that the conductor is the only source of musical authority and the players have no autonomy in the process. The result may end up being excellent, but the students are treated as pawns on a chessboard instead of collaborators capable of their own informed musical ideas. Using the seven areas of musical hearing mentioned earlier, let’s discuss some guided listening strategies in each.

Even at the earliest levels of ensemble musicianship, we can still discuss how a triad is constructed and how harmony determines musical form. Without using the term “cadence,” we can ask the musicians questions like “does this sound like the music could end here, or does it need to go on?”  When learning triads, we can have the ensemble sing their pitches while we explain what the root, third, and fifth are. Alternatively, we can sing the root without saying the note name and have all the students with that note play it back. This engages their listening in a different way. Point out consonances and dissonances and use these as an opportunity to discuss musical inflection. We can relate it to speech and how we emphasize certain words. Be creative with relatable examples!

Dynamics are always relative to the specific piece, the composer, and the texture. We can enforce this idea by asking our students “Does it sound like many people are playing here? What do you need to do to your volume?”  Devise “etudes” to reinforce dynamics. Have the students do a crescendo and diminuendo on a single pitch or chord, then try it while giving certain individuals or sections a chance to lead the dynamic shape. This will prepare the students when you assign roles for balance in rehearsal later. Dynamics and balance are often intertwined.

I believe a great deal of music-making is knowing who has the melody and making sure they can be easily heard. To that end, we should engage our students’ listening: “Who thinks they have melody here?  Okay, go ahead and play it!”  Then, we are guiding them instead of doing the work for them. Another possibility: we say, “here’s what the trumpets have” in lieu of “listen to the trumpets here.” Balance is always about context. This can relate to speech again: is this an intimate conversation, a small group of friends, or a soapbox moment for an audience?

Take a situation where melody is shared by two different instruments such as flute and clarinet. Have the students play with equal partnership, then with the flute leading, then with the clarinet leading. Ask the students to comment on the difference. This is color. Try to avoid using terms like “dark” and “bright” to describe sound, as these are abstract and have no real meaning. Discuss sound in terms of resonance and overtones and demonstrate examples for the students. If appropriate for the instrument, students need to understand the concept of vibrato. How fast should it be, where does it apply, and how does it relate to singing? If a non-vibrato instrument plays with one that traditionally uses it, weigh the musical context before deciding. In rehearsal, using singing and speech as aural aids helps students understand color. Finally, use verbal imagery and other relatable analogies to create links between concepts the students already understand and what you want them to be able to hear.

Precision comes from matching rhythms and articulations. Sizzling rhythms is a great method for students to get real-time feedback by simply using their ears. The conductor can then ask guiding questions rather than tell the students what to do. It is sometimes helpful to create an external source of pulse from within the ensemble (students counting the pulse or a snare drummer playing eighth notes come to mind). This forces the students to listen to a constant (but still living) pulse rather than a metronome. Emphasize the players who are doing it right by having groups play and asking questions in rehearsal. Rather than constantly giving the ensemble a diagnosis, we must occasionally give them a chance to participate in their own recovery. Along these lines, draw attention to the lines that generate the pulse. Better ensemble rhythm and tempo comes from disciplined listening and awareness in rehearsal.

Tune from within the ensemble whenever possible (i.e. an oboe or bassoon, or clarinet). Building from this foundation, Richard Floyd reminds us to “tune our trio” by listening to those on either side of us. This creates links around the entire ensemble and begins the process of listening more globally. When encountering intonation issues, have the students listen for waves and ask them questions about pitch. Sing often and have your students sing without you in rehearsal. If we can sing in tune, we can play in tune. As musicians, we must always assume we are wrong and make our own adjustments. Putting complacency and ego to the side are essential. As educators, it is our responsibility to inspire this process of adjustment in our students.

Emphasize playing through notes. Many young players (and teachers) only worry about the beginnings and endings of notes. Notes need body; this is what helps sustain musical energy. I think of music as a living, breathing entity so I sometimes talk about connections between musical moments being like tendons, arteries, ligaments, etc. Think about lines in terms of vocal inflection and ask the students which notes need more weight. This weight gives us a destination, and the line is either the journey away from or towards each destination. Have students listen for contour (something even beginners can do) and discuss shape from there. Finally, try to relate the individual line to the architectural whole. This creates cohesion and promotes an organic flow to the music rather than a performance full of “manufactured moments.” Each line becomes a tributary of the river of the musical whole.

In addition to the methods discussed above, we can help our students listen in different ways by experimenting with different setups. Some possibilities include letting everyone pick a random spot in the ensemble setup, using concentric circles of brass and woodwinds facing inwards, putting percussion in the center or front of the group, and facing the brass and woodwinds towards each with conductor in the center. Also consider a specific setup for each piece on your program. Are there lines or passages in the piece where a change in setup will put the musicians in a better position to succeed?  While routine is important and we do not want to create chaos by doing something like this every week, experimenting with layout and rehearsal techniques will keep students engaged and listening.

Ultimately, our goal as music educators (other than instilling a lifelong love of music) is to create self-sufficient musicians. By transferring responsibility to our students and giving them an active role in rehearsal, we empower them to be creative, to engage their listening, and to collaborate with each other. This newfound autonomy fosters confidence, independence, and perhaps most crucially, trust. Without mutual trust and an atmosphere where mistakes help us learn, we cannot expect our students to feel free to take risks. The best and most fulfilling music-making happens when we can take chances freely because we all have a stake in the outcome. When we empower our student musicians through guided listening, our willingness to cede some of our power will be handsomely rewarded. 

Jason Missal is associate director of bands at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!