Find a musical reason to improve the technique

Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.

As conductors we spent the vast majority of our time making musical adjustments. Asking our ensembles to change dynamics, articulation, intonation, tone, balance and more to better realise the composer's intent.

Simply asking musicians to play louder, softer, faster, slower, longer, shorter can definitely get the job done. However these words are blunt tools that deny our capacity for imagination. They often lead us into a groundhog-day-esque world where we're constantly repeating ourselves, retention is limited and progress is stunted.

The alternative, finding a musical reason to improve the technique, ignites the imagination of everyone present. It treats musicians as humans with infinite creative potential, rather than robots capable of only binary adjustments.

How do you do it in rehearsal?

Instead of just saying "Play louder" or "More trombone" or "Sit up properly!" help the musicians understand WHY these changes are necessary. Through targeted questioning you can help THEM independently discover what you already know, empower them to make their own musical decisions and gain a sense of agency in influencing the sound.

  1. Ask the ensemble* what the character of this moment/sound/note/section is.
  2. Ask how what you're currently doing aligns with that character
  3. Ask what adjustments need to be made to bring your sound in alignment with the character

It could sound something like this:

Q. What is the character at X?

A. Bold, majestic, proud^

Q. How are we showing bold, majestic and proud? Is there anything we're doing that's NOT bold/proud/majestic?

A. Our tone quality/accents/balance sound proud. It's not loud enough. There could be more trombone and timpani.

Q. What can we do to make the music more bold/majestic/proud?

A. Get the trombones to play more. Play with more air/bow. Sit up taller. Play louder.

^What if the ensemble say something you think is WAY off base here?!? Cool! I love when this happens! It gives real insight into their current experience of the music. Time for more questions! Ask why they think this and for others who have a different opinion. Often it can be because they aren't yet playing/singing what's on the page and so they have an incomplete picture of the music so far. Questions like "What on the music supports that view? What contradicts it?" can be useful. Feel free to also articulate your opinion and why you've come to this conclusion.

What if I'm strapped for time?

Well first, asking questions saves time in the long run. But if the moment calls for you to be more instructive you can also use this approach.

Dynamic (tone, balance) Instead of "trumpets play quieter":

Trumpets, you're the wind whispering through the trees here.

Trumpets, can you play as if it's a lullaby to a sleeping baby?

Trumpets, it needs to sound reverent and holy here.

Trumpets, be hushed here.

Trumpets, it needs to sound as if it's coming from the next postcode/ZIP code.

Physical technique Instead of "Violins use more bow":

Violins, can you make it sound like you're singing your favourite song at the top of your lungs?

Violins, it needs to sound healthy and right now it sounds unwell!

Violins, be confident and assertive here.

Violins, play like you're challenging the cellos to a duel.

Violins, make it sound like an unrelenting fire alarm.

Intonation Instead of "altos it's out of tune":

Altos, we need a really peaceful sound here so it needs to be in tune.

Altos, it needs to be in tune so we don't distract from the soprano solo.

Altos, when it's out of tune we lose the strength of your tone.

Altos, it needs to sound searing and white hot here, when it's out of tune we lose that clarity.

Rhythm Instead of "percussion, it's out of time"

Percussion, you're the heartbeat of the music here - it needs to be with us.

Percussion, when your rhythm is uneven we lose the boldness and confidence the music needs.

Percussion, when you're behind us we lose the driving energy of the music.

Percussion, when you push we lose the sense of poise and restraint we need here.

Percussion, this music needs to be mechanical and precise like clockwork, when you're out of time it sounds more like jello salad.

Improved engagement

Now pause for a minute and think back to a time when you were sitting in an ensemble.

How would you respond differently to these kind of statements or questions?

How is that different to your experience of being told louder/softer, faster/slower etc?

I'd bet the first is far more interesting, engaging and fun - even if sometimes it can be ambiguous, and challenge you as a player/singer to take risks and try new things.

Wait, could I use this to get better at conducting technique too?

You betcha! Instead of just thinking "I should conduct smaller here" (and feeling like you never execute that as well as you'd like) flip it around and put the musical reason front and centre.

  1. Ask yourself what the character of this moment/sound/note/section is.
  2. Ask how what you're currently doing aligns with that character
  3. Ask what adjustments need to be made to bring your sound in alignment with the character

See what I did there? ;)

For example:

The music needs to be more delicate here.

This is the sun just peeking over the horizon, just a sliver of light showing.

This is the music coming to rest, about to fall asleep.

This is ants scurrying around - tiny but busy and full of energy.

Then ask yourself "How can I show that better?"

Way more fun than "conduct smaller" right?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

  1. Pick a section in a piece that you're having trouble getting your ensemble to execute
  2. Write 5 descriptive character words/images/phrases for that section
  3. Use these phrases in rehearsal to improve the technical challenges in the music (sub in using the examples above).
  4. Try it out this month and see how it goes for you!
  5. Follow our Instagram for more possibilities as the month progresses!

This part of 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.

The Problem with Talent (And What to Do About It)

Why do I shudder when people use the word ‘talented’ to describe me? Why would I ask journalists and marketers to remove it from articles about me? Though it might seem like praise, the word ‘talent’ actually holds us and our people back.

Read More

4 Ways for Teaching Rhythm (including 3 you've probably neglected!)

How can we get our ensemble members to better connect rhythm with a consistent beat or subdivision AND to become aware of when they're out of sync?

Read More

Elevate musicality with trigger words

A simple approach to instantly approach every piece with more musicianship, storytelling and emotion - for us, and our ensembles!

Read More