If preparing for concert contest (or any other performance) is like climbing a mountain, then the last 2-3 weeks is the part where things have gone relatively well so far, but now we find ourselves just a few hundred feet from the peak, and, rather than the previous somewhat gentle and obstacle-free slope, the mountain side now goes straight up. It can be the most difficult, and most rewarding, part of the climb (or so my non-mountain-climbing self assumes).
Here are nine tips to make that last part of the ascent as effective and easy as possible.
Focus The Daily Drill
We all have our “go-to” exercises that are used at the beginning of rehearsal each day. At this time of year, the challenge can be making sure that we do “enough” daily drill/warm-up while still allowing for maximum class time for rehearsing our performance music AND allowing time to practice sightreading.
Here are a few suggestions to make effective use of this initial part of rehearsal:
- If band members have shown that they can handle it, allow them to self warm-up once they enter class and have assembled their instruments. With most younger groups, the director needs to specify what types of warm-ups are appropriate and to remind the students to self-monitor posture, playing position, tone quality, etc.
- Choose exercises and fundamentals that target areas of the performance music. For example, if working on articulation and style, use a portion of the music (or passages written out on Concert F) instead of a generic articulation exercise.
- Don’t feel like every exercise has to be played every day. There may be some “absolutes” that you feel need to be reinforced daily (for me, it’s Chicowicz-style air flow studies and some type of articulation/style exercise) while others need to be touched on twice a week or so (at this point of the year, I don’t feel the need to do Remingtons every day).
Divide and Conquer (Music Segments)
This has been especially helpful over the years as my middle school bands have improved to the point where they could play longer grade 3 and grade 4 selections. Early in the process, I divide each of the three performance pieces into segments. Once all three selections have been covered from beginning to end, my goal is to make sure that I get to each one of those segments multiple times each week in our class time and/or sectionals.
When making weekly lesson plans for class-time rehearsals and sectionals, I keep the list of segments nearby and check them off as they are covered at a given time. I want each segment to have at least two check marks next to it.
Here’s an example of how I have broken down each of our three pieces for this year:
|Segments||Marche Diabolique||Viva||Simple Gifts|
|1||mm. 1-40||mm. 1-29||Mvt. 1|
|2||mm. 40-72||mm. 29-84||Mvt. 2|
|3||mm. 72-end||mm. 49-73||Mvt. 3|
|4||mm. 79-end||Mvt. 4, mm. 1-61|
|5||Mvt. 4, mm. 61-end|
With a band that is playing shorter pieces, it may not be necessary to break them down into so many segments.
Play Larger “Chunks” of Music Without Stopping
For the sake of continuity, the closer we get to the performance, the less we stop for individual mistakes. That does not mean that mistakes are not addressed; however, there are very few perfect performances out there, and playing “through” the mistakes helps train band members to “move on.”
Students are generally aware when they have messed up and, at this point, can correct most individual slips themselves.
Addressing Those Mistakes
How we address mistakes at this point can go a long way toward creating OR preventing performance anxiety. Yes, we want our bands to perform at the highest level at which they are capable, but if every rehearsal is a “picky” one where every single mistake is read out “laundry list” style, then we run the risk of doing more harm than good.
Try to focus on one or two areas that need improvement at a time rather than rattling off the multitude of things that you may have heard. Also, try to work in one or two positives.
If despite your and the band’s best efforts something just isn’t “fixing,” then punt to a future rehearsal or sectional or, if you have the ability to do so, maybe a quick pull-out of a section by a team teacher.
Try to Play Something in Each Piece Everyday
Even if focusing on one particular piece or section of a piece in a given rehearsal, we try to touch on something in the other pieces each day. These could be “go-to” spots that need daily repetition in order to improve (or maintain) the quality of performance or it could be just a quick run-through of one of the music segments described above.
Vary The Routine AND Approach
Here are a few things to try when just rehearsing the music over and over again is getting stale or not producing results:
- When isolating a section or sections of the band, have the others give feedback (thumbs up or thumbs down, “raise your hand if you hear the intonation improve,” etc.).
- If working on balance, try having the accompanying voices play one on a part to balance to the melody. Then have the melody play one on a part with accompaniment at full strength…but still hold them accountable for balancing to the melody.
- If working on blending within parts, have the instrument you want the others to “fit to” play one on a part while the others match (for example, if you want to the upper woodwinds to fit to the trumpet, then have one trumpet play while all of the flutes/oboes/clarinets try to fit to the trumpet soloist).
- Create “mini-bands” where each instrument and/or voice is represented and have them take turns playing the part in question.
- Mix up the band for a rehearsal or portion of a rehearsal. For example, tell the students that they have to sit on a different row than usual and cannot sit next to someone who plays the same instrument.
Focus on the Music More and the Mechanics Less
Assuming that the notes and rhythms are well in place, as the performance gets closer I find it more effective to talk about musical aspects such as phrasing, dynamics, style, and what we want to convey to the audience. The students use the skills in their personal toolbox to make these things happen. In other words, less explaining about how things should work and more trusting the students’ learning and that we have (hopefully) done a good job by this point of giving them the skills to be more accountable for performing and less “receivers of information.”
Cleaning and Other Chores
Because we have the luxury of weekly sectionals and multiple teachers on staff, most cleaning at this point is done outside of rehearsal time or via small-group and individual pull-outs. However, there may be certain areas in the music that need to be addressed and cleaned up in full band.
In addition to the strategies outlined above, cleaning in class may take the form of:
- Going down the row and hearing individuals. In some cases, as we get closer to the performance, individual players may be “cut” from a section of the music that they have not taken the time to master (“cut” players always have an opportunity to “earn their part back” if they so choose by playing it off for a band director).
- Building a section of the music up again incrementally from a slow tempo to the current performance tempo.
- Working on intonation by having groups or individuals play a passage against a drone, playing to and holding out “target notes” in a given phrase, playing in pairs while one student looks at a tuner, etc.
- Changing the rhythm in technical passages so that certain notes are emphasized then going back and playing as written.
Reps, Reps, Reps!!!
In my experience, the fastest way to improve and gain confidence on performance music is through repetition peppered with appropriate amounts of feedback. There is no substitute for playing the music!
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 email@example.com.
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