SBOUpfront: Planning a Performance

SBO Staff • ChoralOctober 2006 • October 18, 2006

By Robert Brown

All conductors face the issue of planning for their next performance. I constantly mull over questions like “How many weeks do I have?” and “How am I going to tackle this issue?” In planning from year to year, I always look for new and interesting ideas to help in the preparation for my next year’s performances. I have found the answer in the concept of the “bowtie” rehearsal plan; X, Y, and Z axes (plural for axis, not the lumberjack tool); and stimulus variation.


I learned of the “bowtie rehearsal plan” while attending a workshop at Columbus State University (CSU) in Columbus, Georgia. The director of Bands at CSU, Dr. Robert Rumbelow, facilitated the workshop. This particular work shop featured Gary Hill of Arizona State University and Craig Kirchoff of the University of Minnesota as the guest clinicians. The workshop was a two-day event with clinics scheduled after each conducting session, and one of the topics discussed in one of the sessions was how each of the three clinicians paced the rehearsals for the next performance.

Each conductor shared a similar concept, and they encouraged each of us to work, “from macro to micro to macro.” The idea behind the concept is that each student needs to have an understanding of the overall architecture of the piece before the detail work begins. This gives students a direction for the particular learning process needed for the music, and it allows them to focus their own practice sessions toward the goals of the selection. As the details fall into place, the focus gradually returns to the overall structure of the composition, so each student gains an understanding of the true intent of the composer.

As each clinician shared his ideas, I began to nod in agreement, and Rumbelow said, “Have you not ever heard of the bowtie rehearsal plan?” I had never heard of this concept so I listened intently, and he said, “I use a diagram of a bowtie to help me plan my rehearsals. The wide sides of the bowtie represent the large-scale material, and the smaller, center knot represents the detail work needed to refine the piece for performance. I determine how many rehearsals I have, and I divide the bowtie by that. If there are twelve rehearsals until the performance, I divide it twelve ways and that tells me how many rehearsals I can spend working on the overall concept of the piece and how many rehearsals I can spend working on details.” He proceeded to draw a diagram (see Fig. 1) and showed us the format that he used.

Using the ideas of time management and rehearsal pacing outlined in this concept and diagram, I have found myself less often making the statement, “I wish I had one more rehearsal.” I use this plan for both marching and concert band; in addition, I have found this format useful in the planning of the administrative duties of my job.

X, Y, and Z Axes

While I was attending graduate school at the University of Oklahoma (OU), the late Dr. Stephen J. Paul was the program coordinator of the undergraduate music education program. Dr. Paul liked using analogies to help in the teaching process, and one such analogy was the use of the “X,” “Y,” and “Z” axes (see Fig 2). The use of these axes is rooted in the math world (remember all those graphing assignments?), and it is used to identify which method would best address ensemble problems.

The X-axis represents the musical elements of tone, pitch, dynamics, and balance on the graph. Commonly, the questions used to determine if the problem is an X-axis problem is “Are the sounds aligned in the horizontal direction?” and “Are the notes in tone, in tune, and in balance?” Always, X-axis issues are the result of the common problem of air verses embouchure.

Rhythmic accuracy, time, tempo, and note length are related to and form the Y-axis on the graph. Rhythmic accuracy is based on two things: the ability to keep a steady pulse and the ability to place events along that pulse. Commonly, the questions used to determine if the problem is a Y-axis problem is “Are the sounds lined up vertically?” and “Do the notes begin and end together?” Whether the obstacle is not playing together, not matching note lengths, or not accenting a note, the issue falls on the Y-axis.

The Z-axis represents musical style and is the product of the controlled manipulation of all elements. According to Dr. Paul, musicality is expression of emotion, and students will not play with emotion if they do not feel any. You must model for the students’ different “frames of reference” in order for them to learn to play musically. The Z-axis deals with all issues associated with dynamics, style, interpretation, phrasing, and responding to a conductor. Also, the Z-axis deals with the musical ideas of expression and sensitivity to the music and its intent.

Finally, the “principle of isolation” must be used when deciding which direction to go when using the axes to solve common problems. The principle states that, “the specific skill or musical situation that is creating the problem must be isolated.” All of the complicating factors must be removed. Once the individual issue is resolved, we must add the musical context slowly. The principle of isolation is the basis for 90 percent of all rehearsals, and sorting the problems according to which axis they belong is the basis for the principle. I always determine which axis will best solve my problems, design an exercise that will achieve the rehearsal goals, and use the principle of isolation to correct the ensemble’s shortcomings.

Stimulus Variation

While I was in graduate school, I assisted with the Instrument Teaching Lab, which was OU’s instrumental methods class. Once again, Dr. Paul was the lead teacher in this class. He constantly reminded the class of a concept known as “stimulus variation.” A stimulus is defined as “any form of energy to which an organism is capable of responding.” As humans, we learn to discriminate which stimulus we are going to respond to as well as how we will respond. Dr. Paul’s concept is a simple one that teaches you to vary your routines, both within the rehearsal and day-to-day, so that the learning remains fresh, and the students do not experience boredom. I had always tried to keep my rehearsal moving, but I had never planned each event as carefully as I do now.

For me, variation within the rehearsal is the easiest to achieve. I can accomplish this by changing the piece I am rehearsing, playing a march like a chorale, or “bopping” a slow, lyric piece for precision. In a more expanded model, I divide my rehearsal into different sections to address different problems. For example, I designate part of my rehearsal to warming-up, part to rhythm reading skills, part to sight-reading, part to X, Y, and Z activities, and part to rehearsing the music the band is preparing to perform. All of the various parts are centered on the music being learned, and each section smoothly transitions to the next.

Varying my routine day-to-day is much more difficult for me. I am a creature of habit, and I need a routine that is consistent. I prefer a routine that is unchanging, but that leads to student boredom. This is where I really use the concept of the X, Y, and Z axes. According to Dr. Paul, you must decide if the problem your ensemble is having is an X, Y, or Z problem. Once you decide which axis will address the trouble spot, you then design exercises to address the problem. The process, for me, goes something like this#133;Let’s say that my ensemble is playing the notes of a march too short and the harmony is not coming through. Step one would be to ask the question, “What type of problem is this?” It deals with note length, which is a vertical issue – Y-axis. Step two would be to consider the question, “How can I solve this issue?” I need to design some exercises that will address note lengths. I would incorporate these exercises into my warm-up and proceed into the march after the warm-up so that the students can transfer this to the actual music to be performed.

The possibilities for the concept of “stimulus variation” have endless potential to make a rehearsal more interesting for both director and student. Whether the variation involves day-to-day changes in format or slight variations in a standard routine, it has made me a more creative teacher thus creating more energy and focus in each rehearsal.

Putting It All Together

All of the concepts that I have mentioned are not my own; however, they have helped me to plan my rehearsals and more efficiently teach the music my band is preparing. The bowtie rehearsal plan helps me to sequence the learning to take place in each rehearsal so the students gain an overall grasp of the piece and present a polished performance. In my planning, the concepts of the X, Y, and Z axes and stimulus variation work together to help me plan efficient, fast-paced rehearsals. Through the use of these teaching tools, I am able to incorporate all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in my rehearsals thus enhancing student learning.

Robert Brown is Band director at White Hall (Ark.) High School and also serves as the Music director/conductor of the Pine Bluff Symphony Youth Orchestra. Brown received a M. M. in Wind Conducting from the University of Oklahoma and a B. S. E. in Music Education from the University of Arkansas. He currently serves as the band chair for the Arkansas Music Education Association. Brown’s professional affiliations include membership in the Arkansas School Band and Orchestra Association, Arkansas Bandmasters Association, MENC, and Phi Mu Alph Sinfonia.

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