Ensemble having trouble getting beyond the notes? This might be why...

We all know that expressive performances are way more engaging, satisfying and interesting for all involved. So why do we often get stuck grinding through notes, leading performances that barely get the dots across? What can we do about it?

This is the follow up to an earlier post Going beyond the notes: How to Conduct with More Expression.

Can't seem to get beyond notes and rhythms? Talking about expression and think you're conducting great but the group doesn't seem to be able to do it? There are usually two main reasons for this, and they're both related to each other.

1. The music is too hard

The no. 1 barrier to going beyond the notes is programming music that doesn't allow the musicians mental room to be expressive.

If your ensemble is expending 95% of their attention just reading the notation and operating the machinery there's simply NO WAY they can also be expressive.

This is what is going on in musicians' brains when the music is too hard:

They might want to do more with the music but they simply can't. Their brains and bodies are at max capacity and cannot process any more inputs (or outputs).

Their RAM has been maxed out. You can usually spot this when:

  • Their heads are buried in the stands (well after sight-reading)
  • You can't play more than a few bars without stopping (in the first rehearsal)
  • They keep playing when you stop conducting because their attention is elsewhere
  • They get lost and don't know it

All these are signs you've got an over-programming problem on your hands. This is amplified right now due to COVID. So many students have missed out on foundational concepts of ensemble playing that things are even more overwhelming than normal. Skills like counting, maintaining a tempo, subdivision, listening and playing together are way less familiar and haven't been trained as consistently as pre-COVID. The result? These take up more mental RAM than in the past, leaving even less room for expression.

If this is a problem for your ensemble (and you should assume it is), then the simple solution is to ensure that 80% of your music is sight-readable without stopping at the first rehearsal. By following this rule you will quickly be able to move from woodshedding notes and rhythms to working on expression, character and phrasing.

For more on this, check out this episode of my podcast on choosing appropriate repertoire.

An aside, many of us can attach our egos and self-worth to the complexity of music we're playing. We think "the harder the music my group plays, the better I am at teaching". This may be true, but often isn't. The reality is that we have two choices:

  1. Play music that is too hard: Satisfy your ego at the expense of the musician, audience, composer and conductor experience.
  2. Play music that's just right: Satisfy everyone, including your ego because you made a performance that felt and sounded great.

Your choice.

2. You teach expression last

Most of us got taught this weird, non-sensical hierarchy of how to learn a new piece:

This is almost always deeply connected to problem number 1: the music being too hard. When you learn and teach music that is too hard you're forced to rote-learn single elements before you can put them all together. (Because to do them all together would max out your RAM).

When we learn and teach this way the things at the start of the list become very solid and ingrained. We get good at the notes and rhythms.

But those at the end are far less stable - and easily lost, especially under the pressure of performance. When we think "But all that work we did in the last 2 rehearsals....what happened to it?!" this is why.

That's if you're lucky and you even got there. All jokes aside, the unfortunate truth is that most of the time we never reach mystical level 3 or four to begin with.

Sure, we want rhythm and notes to be stable - but dynamics, articulation and expression (and everything else) are all bound together. The purpose of those elements is to create a musical narrative, character or mood.

Artificially dividing these is completely at odds with the entire raison d'être of music - to communicate and connect with others. It reduces music performance to decoding symbols on a page - a mathematical, binary, black-and-white affair. We never get beyond the notes to the technicolour humanity that brought the music into existence forth in the first place.

Our role and responsibility as musicians to share the expressive essence of the music with our audiences. As teachers and leaders, we must infuse every moment we can with expression and colour to help our ensemble members understand this important, joyous responsibility.

The worst thing about this way of teaching and learning is it is hella boring and frustrating for everyone! If you never get to the heavenly realm of Secret Level you don't know what you're missing. But if you are one of the rare few who has been there because of good teaching, spending most of your rehearsals stuck on level 1 with hard music is going to drive you bananas.

What happens if we flip it the process start with expression?

Everything is more efficient.

Firstly, we'll be thinking, acting and internalising the character from the beginning. This means we don't have to relearn the music multiple times to additional elements, which requires extra repetitions to overwrite the neural pathways we ingrained with the boring version.

Secondly, communicating in expressive terms is way more efficient as it usually solves multiple problems at once.

You could ask for the right rhythm...then for it not to rush...then for it to be heavier with longer notes...then fuller tone..then stronger, stopping each time to ingrain each step. By now you've taken 5-10 minutes on this one passage.

Or you could ask for it to be "more sturdy, like a giant walking very deliberately" and it takes 1 minute.

Having an expressive goal also helps musicians self-assess far more easily and independently. They can judge whether it's sturdy and adjust accordingly. But if you're adjusting one thing at a time they are completely dependent on you as the source of all musical judgement and discernment.

Lead expressive rehearsals

You can do this with your ensemble by asking them to think and be expressive:

  • What do you imagine is happening in the music here?
  • How does the music feel here?
  • If this were a movie, what would be happening?
  • How would you show the feeling in your face and body?
  • Turn to the person next to you and show the feeling on your face.
  • Play the melody to the person next to you and have them guess the feeling you're trying to show.

You can use great resources like the Feeling Wheel and keep them handy in your music folders for students to reference. As a bonus, these are great literacy teaching tools.

Remember to always tell students to write their feeling words on the music so you don't have to reinvent the wheel every rehearsal. They'll be able to easily reconnect with how to play the music, rather than asking "How does this go again?" every time you turn to a new piece.

This is the second in a series of posts related to our 2022 Calendar which features monthly topics to challenge and inspire you to grow your capacity. If you haven't got yours (it's FREE!), get it here.

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