It All Comes Down to Communication

Rehearsal time is very precious, and we directors want to make maximum use of that time in terms of efficiency and productivity. The more our students play, the faster they improve. But there are times during a rehearsal where the director has to address the ensemble in order to give corrective feedback and/or just teach. Here are some hints for making your communication in band as effective and affective as possible.

Great tips for improving your communication skills in your band rehearsal. Visit Band Directors Talk Shop for more great band directors resources! #banddirectorstalkshop

Be mindful of “non-talking” noise in the room.
We all expect our students to be quiet in terms of not talking when we are addressing them. However, the director should also take a moment to listen for room noise. One might hear that a trumpet player is turning his instrument into an Erector set by unscrewing the valves or valve caps, popping out slides, etc. Someone might be shuffling papers or maybe a percussionist is twirling his sticks and keeps dropping them on the floor. Behaviors like these can serve as just as much of an obstacle to “getting the information in” as talking.

A former co-worker and mentor, Randy Storie, used often say to his band, “Listen to the lights.” This immediately produced a much more quiet, focused atmosphere even if the students were not talking.

Vary the tone of voice
The reason the monotony of Charlie Brown’s teacher is funny to so many is because it is based in truth. By changing the speed and/or inflection of our words, we can better maintain a high level of student attention.

Limit what you address
When stopping to fix issues in the music, only call attention to one or two things. Work on these issues, and then, if needed, bring up additional problems a few at a time. The more playing time students get, the more engaged they will be. Running down a long “laundry list” of problems usually only serves to make sure nothing will get fixed. Students will either “check out” after the first few items or they just won’t b able to remember everything that was addressed.

Eye contact
Most of us insist that students look at us while we are talking to them. Many of us do not return the favor! If you are going to demand that students make eye contact with you, be sure to make eye contact back.

Talk WITH students, not AT them
Especially in the last few years, I have noticed that when I am addressing a group about things that come up in rehearsal, I use a lot more of “we” and “us” than I do “you.” This reinforces the idea that music is a team effort and that we (directors and students) are all working toward common goals, rather than the idea that the director is only there to judge and correct.

Work to create a sense of urgency and accountability, not a state of constant stress
There is a fine a line between the two. The tension caused by undue stress creates an almost insurmountable obstacle when it comes to communication. By helping students to realize that they and the director share common goals, and that all expectations are put into place and corrective information given are in service of those goals, a sense of tension can be replaced by one of purpose.

Most students are aware when they make mistakes. Therefore, the director can work to avoid the “picky” rehearsal where one points out every single musical offense the very first time it happens. Rehearsals like that usually lead to the director feeling that he or she is playing the musical equivalent of the old arcade game Whack-A-Mole. Instead, trust students to recognize and correct minor mistakes, until they prove that they need your help by making the same mistakes again.

The use of humor in the rehearsal can act as a “reset” button when it comes to eliminating or reducing tension. A quick story or joke, even a bad one, can serve to loosen things up and allow the students and director to re-focus on the task at hand.

A quick word about sarcasm: be mindful of it. That’s not to say that sarcasm cannot be used, but if students don’t first know that you care about them, it’s not sarcasm anymore, it’s just being mean. Also, sarcasm is best served in small doses.

(20 Analogies That I Have used (With Love) in Band Rehearsals That You Have Not.)

Going Non-verbal
We directors have been gifted with a wonderful, universal method of non-verbal communication, and it’s called conducting! Playing time in rehearsal can be maximized if students are taught to watch the conductor and RESPOND to what is being shown.

Of course, this means that we must train our young students to watch and respond and then hold them accountable for doing so. The conductor should be insistent that the ensemble starts and stops with them, of course, but they should also be made aware of the need to watch between the starts and stops.

There are a number of teaching strategies that can be used in order to get students to watch. For ideas about getting students to look up, read this post – Getting Students to Look Up.

When it comes to conducting and response, the director must make sure that he or she is actually hearing the group that is performing in the room, and not the ensemble in his or her head. If a gesture is given, do as my friend Bill Surface often says and “hold their feet to the fire” in terms of accountability and response to that gesture.

In order to be efficient and allow for the most amount of time on instruments, director communication in a rehearsal must be effective in terms of being clear and affective in terms of producing results.

Jim Shaw is the Director of Bands at Willow Wood Junior High School in Tomball, Texas. A graduate of West Texas A&M University and contributing editor to The Instrumentalist, he can be reached at

Great book recommendations for band directors!

Related Reading:
Plickers for Band
5 Ways to Get More Out of Your Region Band Clinic
Band Seating Chart in 3 Minutes

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