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Sound Advice: Revisiting Frederick Fennell’s Points for Performance

Timothy Bulow • CommentaryMarch 2022 • March 18, 2022

Frederick Fennell’s portrait, courtesy Eastman School of Music

Frederick Fennell is internationally recognized as one of leading conductors of music for band in the latter half of the 20th century. He established the wind ensemble as an important performance group within the band tradition. His work as the conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble set a standard of performance that remains a high watermark for conductors of established band repertoire to this day.

His Points for Performance are important principles for those teaching and conducting performance ensembles. These points are as relevant today as they were when they were first written. It is important to revisit them from time to time to reaffirm their importance. In an effort to be as clear and concise as possible, I have codified Fennell’s 31 Points into eight key points for performers and conductors alike. 

Points for Performance Revisited

1. Directing music is a form of visual communication; keep your eyes on the conductor before and while you play. (2,3,8,9)

2. Listening is key! What to listen for and to whom to listen to are critical when performing with others. Listening to yourself as you listen to those around you. Whether it be technical, mechanical, or stylistic, listening determines your effectiveness. (1,4,5,8,9,13,14,17,19,20,21,22,23,29,31)

3. Playing correctly requires musicians to be familiar with the work’s style whether performing individually or together. (1,8,11,12,27,31)

4. Making music is a full body experience. Between listening to oneself and others, the mechanics of correct breathing, maintaining good posture and attentiveness, musical performance requires consistent focus and energy. (1,4,6,10,17,20,25,28) 

5. Always be aware of the quality of your sound. How you begin and release the tone, the fullness of it, how your individual sound blends or contrasts with others, all contribute to success. (6,7,10,16, 21,26)

6. Commit yourself to consistent and dedicated practice. The technical and mechanical aspects must be worked out individually BEFORE the rehearsal. (1,5,11,12,13,14,15,17, 24, 30)

7. The requirements of a solo performance versus an ensemble performance must be kept in mind, especially with the acoustics of any given concert space. Be aware of where you are and how you sound (1,16,21,29,30)

8. Time is limited. Make the most of every rehearsal. Work out the errors beforehand. Play the passage correctly every time. Do not practice mistakes. (5,13,15,17,18,30)

Points for Performance (Original)

1. Have some idea what the music is going to sound like before you play; learn to listen to everything – not just yourself.

2. Line up your chair and stand so you may look directly over the top of the music at the conductor.

3. The conductor must have your eyes before he begins the music – especially if you do not play.

4. Play your whole instrument – learn to LISTEN.

5. PREPARE! Be cocked and ready to play – LISTEN!

6. Play with INTENSITY – BREATH AND FINGER SUPPORT – KEEP YOUR STOMACH IN IT.

7. Resonance is the whole reason for your instrument to exist and why you play in the first place.

8. Learn to look at the conductor once every bar in music of a slow pulse, frequently in music of rapid pulse. – LISTEN!

9. Music is also a waiting game – WAIT FOR ONE!

10. VIBRATE. Music is also controlled and ordered vibration; you, too, must make it a vibrant sound; support your sound constantly.

11. Pulse is music’s life blood as well as yours: Learn to feel it – for it is always present. Seek to play by it.

12. Learn to listen and look for the phrase – listen for phrase endings. 

13. Help stamp out mechanical ERROR – LISTEN!

14. THE PERFECTION of ensemble playing is not a matter of acquisition. Rather it is a matter of elimination – of mechanical error, unnecessary motion, the wandering mind, and all those things that get in its way – LISTEN!

15. Don’t repeat your mistakes – they become a disease!

16. The group that plays together – stays together.

17. Get it the first time – get it right – LISTEN!

18. You can only read a piece of music for the first time – once. Make that one memorable. 

19. Constantly widen your range of dynamics – Avoid mezzo-nothing – LISTEN!

20. At a pianissimo release, let the sound evaporate.

21. When the dynamic is fortissimo, hear only yourself; when the dynamic is pianissimo, hear only your neighbor. 

22. Uncontrolled silence is the enemy of music. LISTEN!

23. The group that breathes together – plays together – LISTEN!

24. Music is not an art for the chicken-hearted: Seek what is right, but DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE WRONG.

25. Give all of your energies to performance: Avoid fatigue: Blow out the chops; shake out the hands.

26. The music turns you on but only you can wind yourself up for it.

27. Legato playing is mostly a thu-thu business. 

28. Blow thru the whole passage.

29. Beware of the practice-room sound – get out of that telephone booth.

30. Good performances are planned that way.

31. Seek the STYLE of the music – and this you can only do by listening to and for everything. 

Timothy Bulow is a band director and conductor at Roosevelt Middle School in Monticello, Indiana. He graduated with BA degree in music education from Ball State University (2017) and received his Master of Music degree from Boston University (2021). He is a composer and arranger of school band music and other ensembles.

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