How can I plan for success? Top tips for returning to in person rehearsals

Going back to in person rehearsals? Congratulations! Here's how to plan for success, manage challenges and be realistic in your expectations.

If you're going back to in-person rehearsals after the "joy" of online rehearsals you might be feeling a whole range of things. Excited. Anxious. Nervous. Concerned. Exhausted just at the thought of it.

I have felt all those things (and more) in the six times we've gone back to in person ensembles since our first lockdown in March 2020. (Yep, we've had a LOT of lockdowns and a LOT of online ensemble!).

In this series of four posts I'm going to unpack the musical, psychological, personal and planning consequences of going back to in person and what you can do to manage them.

Today we're diving into planning.

I'm normally a meticulous planner, especially when it comes to repertoire and what I plan to get done in rehearsals. Going back to in person threw of ALL my plans and I had to completely re-calibrate what was reasonable. Here's what I learned:

Choose. Easier. Music.

If you do ONE thing going back, do this. Your ensemble will be starting the year at a lower level than they normally would be pre-COVID.

We want them to feel successful, sound good and have a good time right off the bat. Easier music is how.

If you give them the old stuff they will struggle, have a bad time, and it will sound bad. It will be gruelling and unpleasant for all of you.

The need for easier music might not last long, but it will happen. You might find they only need a few weeks of easier music before getting back in the groove. Or it could be longer. This will depend a lot on how often you rehearse and how long your rehearsals are. More contact time = quicker bounce back. More experienced students = quicker bounce back.

  • Have a wide range of pieces to choose from, starting 1-1.5 grades lower than normal.
  • Resist playing harder music because you think it will appease your or their egos
  • Stick with the easier music, even when they say 'This is too easy for us' - especially if it doesn't sound great
  • Persist in getting the easy music sounding great before moving on to harder rep
  • Be ready to play music that doesn't get performed
  • Be ready to adjust the music level up or down after a few weeks
  • Consider entering festivals/competitions at lower sections than you have in the past
  • At first, focus on music with lots of ensemble work (rather than independence) to re-establish fundamentals

When my middle school band started back I put LOTS of music in the folders. We normally start the year with Grade 2-2.5 and introduce 1-2 Grade 3 pieces by the end of the year.

Post-online I started with only Grade 1, 1.5 and 2 music in the folders. They ate up the 1.5 faster pieces and quickly moved onto a grade 2 then an easy 2.5 within about 5 weeks (we rehearse once per week for 90 mins). I kept the easier ones in the folders to use for sight-reading and warm ups.

The Grade 1.5 ballad/slow piece was another story. This was a real challenge for them and we ended up working on it for a good while and performing it in our first concert back.

Allow more time for everything

Things can be slow to get back on track. That's normal. Accept it - ragging on yourself or your musicians about it won't help anybody.

  • Plan for things not to go to plan!
  • Cut what you expect to get done in a rehearsal/semester by 30% (if you get it all done, awesome, if not you won't beat yourself up about it later)
  • Plan time for more repetitions, run throughs and reinforcement, especially before a performance
  • Add in explicit teaching of performance skills several weeks before you have to perform (even if you rehearse everyday)
  • Have backups - backup programs for performances, backup activities for rehearsals etc.

Let Go of Control

Yes, you read that right.

We teachers so desperately want it to be good. We want it to be good for our students. We feel so much responsibility toward them! And while we do have responsibilities, we are often really deluded about where those responsibilities begin and end (if they ever end!).

The most important thing is to know what you can and can't control. Be really honest about this with yourself. The only thing you can change is you, your actions and your responses. You can't change students, parents, colleagues, administration or the weather.

If you're getting mad at something you can't change, take a moment to breathe and consider changing your response. Staying annoyed at something you can't change is a recipe for burnout.

Be Flexible

Just like in online learning, things probably won't go to plan. When they don't, it's up to you to work out what you can and can't control and how you can respond.

It mightn't be musical things you have to be flexible about - it might be your school not communicating, last minute changes, things being cancelled or added.

  • Be shameless about using your backups - repertoire, activities, performances
  • Don't keep pushing if something isn't working in rehearsal - pivot and move on
  • Mourn your losses - take time to acknowledge what you've lost when things change, and talk about it with your ensemble: "Yes, I'm really disappointed our music camp got cancelled too"
  • Get creative with finding new solutions where possible
  • Accept and acknowledge that everyone is doing their best, including you

Progress not Perfection

We conductors can be quite the perfectionists! Now is not the time for that!!

  • Let go of perfect and focus on progress, improvement and success.
  • Acknowledge, recognise and reward progress rather than results
  • Read this article about Maintaining Expectations and Adjusting Standards, which is as relevant now as it was to online teaching

Ditch the idea of 'Catching Up'

  • Read all about how to go from teacher-centric catching up to student-centric success here.


Enjoy going back to rehearsals - it is such a privilege to make music with others!

Read the other articles in the series of Tips for Returning to In-Person Rehearsals

What will it sound like?

What will rehearsals be like?

How will I feel? Managing Yourself

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