Spinning your wheels because you're still in holiday mode? Frantic because you have an important performance soon? Learn three strategies to replace short term thinking with long range development that will make your ensemble better.
It's the start of the semester - and for those of us down under, the start of the school year. Our golden window of opportunity to reset our priorities and set our ensembles up with better habits.
If it's the start of the year for you, it can be an easy time to 'ease into' the year. Fudge planning the first few rehearsals, pull some music off the shelf so the ensemble has something to play, and generally make it up for a while. There are performances on the horizon, but they're distant.
On the flip side, if you're starting second semester the pressure to jump really hard into things can be fierce, with high-stakes performances looming in just a few weeks or months. Focussing on the outcome of the gigs can often overtake our focus on consistent skill building.
Though they might seem polar opposites, what both these situations have in common is a focus on the end point, the final outcome. In the first, it's distant and seems unimportant. In the second, it's taunting you from your calendar.
Regardless of which position you're in, now is the time to recommit to the long game. We need to remind ourselves that solid fundamentals are ultimately what drive ongoing success for our musicians. If they have the tools to problem-solve a piece of music, or an aspect of their playing, then they can tackle whatever (appropriate) music lands in front of them.
However, if we're short-sighted and teach only the pieces, not the concepts within them, then we have to reinvent the wheel with every new program of music. It's our musical equivalent of teaching to the test. The skills and learning are not transferred, and growth is much slower.
So how can we ensure that we keep in mind that long game, whether we're time-crunched, or feeling a lack of pressure?
Know what skills you want to build over the course of the semester/year. What do they need to be able to do to progress to the next ensemble? What skills do they need to flourish independently as musicians once they leave your school/community ensemble?
What areas of weakness keep popping up in rehearsals or across different pieces of music? What strengths do you want to build upon?
You can find a free, downloadable Yearly Skill Development Planner and many other planning templates as part of the resources for our podcast series on Selecting Repertoire. Listen to the first episode, which breaks down how to do this in detail.
It's so easy to let warm-ups and fundamentals exercises slide. If you're just getting the ball rolling at the start of the year it's tempting to get the ensemble to play a lot so they 'have more fun'. Conversely if you're hurtling towards a gig it's easy to think 'I don't have time for this, there are SO many things I need to address in the pieces'. Neither of these approaches result in ultimate musical success.
Long term investment in skill development does pay off. It ultimately means students can connect the dots and apply concepts across pieces, and tackle new works with more ease. Trust the gradual (and non-linear) progress of regularly working on basic concepts and techniques. It takes grit on our part, to not succumb to the short term gratification of 'fixing' over more long-sighted, patient 'teaching & learning'.
If there are aspects that need quick results in your pieces, make these the focus of your warm up and be explicit about their connection to the pieces. Have the music for the relevant piece on the stand in front of them while they're doing the warm up.
Ask 'Why do you think we're working on this?' 'Where would we apply this in X piece?' You could even split the warm up so the exercises come right before you rehearse each piece, making the links more obvious.
If you feel like you are investing in the basics yet you keep finding the ensemble is struggling when you're close to a performance it might be time to re-evaluate the level of repertoire you're putting in front of them. We're all guilty of over-programming and miscalculating what our groups can achieve.
For us as conductors this comes back to another short vs. long term tussle. Do we want the short term glory of woodshedding our students through a 'hard piece' that makes us 'look good' in front of our colleagues? Or are we willing to forego the ego boost and instead choose appropriate music that the musicians can succeed at while continually developing their skills?
For more of my thoughts on how to choose appropriate repertoire, listen to the podcast episodes Make Real Music Faster with Appropriate Repertoire and How to Pick Quality Music.
When we're focussed on the score-sized experience in front of us we can easily let basic things slide. Posture. Intonation. Tone quality. Rehearsal etiquette. On the flip side, if we're noticing these issues all the time but have to create a new solution every time it can become very tiring.
Having a system for addressing these issues can lighten our mental load, as well as help us be more vigilant about noticing them. The more systems we have in place and the more consistent we are in addressing fundamentals, the more our musicians come to understand their value.
We already have systems in place for things like tuning at the start of the rehearsal. The consistency communicates that we value this activity. (So we'd better make sure our tuning process is dynamic and useful!). Many schools and community groups have clear procedures for disciplinary action - like talking out of turn or using mobile phones. If you don't have a clear set of expectations and consequences around behaviour and etiquette now would be a great time to create them.
It's not a big stretch to apply systems to both musical areas, alongside things like posture and behaviour. Issues with Intonation, articulation, dynamics, rhythm? Find set some exercises you can jump to at any time in rehearsal if these elements are persistently problematic? This will reinforce that fundamentals are important. Linking them back to the warm ups you did earlier will keep instilling this too.
Create a system for addressing it! You could:
- Have 'Sit Tall' posted on your whiteboard behind you, or written inside their music folders.
- Create a leaderboard on the white board for each section who demonstrates the best posture each rehearsal. Gamify it, nothing motivates like cross-sectional competition!
- Every third time you have to address posture in the same rehearsal get everyone to stand and play for the next 3 minutes. The purpose being not to punish them, but rather to make them more physically aware and taking them out of their habited experience - short-circuiting the loop.
Usually it's too loud, but sometimes with young or inexperienced string players it can be the opposite. A system could be:
- Ensure dynamic exercises are incorporated in every warm up that focus on the area of weakness (eg. soft playing). The consistency demonstrates their importance to the ensemble.
- Whenever the quiet dynamics are missed, stop and ask the ensemble why you stopped. Have a series of responses that automatically follow this, such as:
1) Revisit the warm up exercises from that day (or a previous day).
2) Ask the ensemble to describe the feeling of the passage (eg. light, gentle, fragile, sneaky, mysterious) and play that feeling. Have them write the feeling word in their music, and think about it while they are playing that passage.
3) Ask half the ensemble/section to play the phrase their best piano - then have the entire group/section play and attempt to imitate that sound.
These are just a few examples. When we have systems in place we're more likely to enact them, rather than get frustrated 'oh they're slouching AGAIN!' and give up trying. This is in turn working on OUR fundamentals as teachers and conductors - recommitting to keeping on top of our basics, and not letting them slip due to short-term thinking.
1) Pick an area of challenge for your ensemble that you can create a systematic response for.
2) Jot down five ideas for how you could address it, like the examples above.
3) Put the list of ideas in your conductor folder at the front, so you see it at the start of every rehearsal.
4) Write your focus area on a post it note and keep it in your conductor folder. Put it on the music stand each rehearsal.
1) Pick an area of challenge for your ensemble.
2) Create or choose a warm up exercise that will address this areaWrite a mini lesson plan for how you'll present it in your next 3 rehearsals
3) Put the lesson plan in your conducting folder
2) Sign up for the free course and download the free planning resources
3) Start filling out your Yearly Skill Development Planner for how you'll lead your ensemble to success this year
3 student activities and 5 teacher PD questions from my interview with Steven Bryant
Including 5 activities for conductors and students on being in the moment, being more expressive using acting and reflecting on competition.
Even though we're not playing together, we can still practice listening for who has the melody in our ensemble music. Plus, how to turn this into a 5-minute score study activity.