Great recordings–are you using them in your teaching? We are fortunate to have a wealth of high-quality band recordings that are easy to obtain. Probably every director would agree that if their students listen to great compositions played by awesome concert bands, they will play better. However, directors are held back by mental debates like what to play, how to play, and do they have time to use listening in a rehearsal. I have been on a crusade to help directors use brief moments of listening to teach specific concepts and draw more expressive performances from their students. This article will discuss some strategies, techniques, and resources that can produce great results.
The methodology that I encourage is more than just casual listening, but spotlighting for students moments in recordings that display aspects of performing that need improvement or inspiration.
For example, listening excerpts can help students hear the attention-grabbing power of subito dynamics, and therefore, work to produce more noticeable dynamic contrasts in their music. If a conductor works with younger students, recordings can help students improve their tone quality and articulations. I will often, at the beginning of a sectional or private lesson, as students are assembling their instruments, play an example of their instrument displaying a wonderful tone. Something meaningful can happen during that time of transition.
The first discussion we should have to make listening efficient and beneficial in your rehearsals is about equipment and storage/streaming. If you worry about wasting time, you will want to be able to get an excerpt playing quickly. You can spend a lot of money on a big system, but you do not have to go crazy. Studio monitors like the Presonus Eris 3.5 speakers can be purchased for close to $100, and they put out a lot of sound that is not distorted. I have a pair in my office that I use with private students. Similar products can fill a standard-sized band room with true-to-life sound. If you need a sound that projects and is not distorted, bigger is better. I use a substantial stereo system with 200-watt speakers in my rehearsal room.
Directors will also need a means to quickly retrieve or queue up the desired recording. It is essential to have the ability to move within a piece and start closer to the beginning of an excerpt. Many directors prefer to use streaming services like Spotify. That can definitely get the job done. I’m in my fifties. I own compact discs and upload them into Apple Music App (the replacement for iTunes). I also download pieces from sites like marineband.marines.mil (Free downloads of almost everything recorded by “The President’s Own”). I can very quickly find and start pieces I want my students to hear. I can conveniently drag the cursor on the time bar to the excerpt I need. There are different ways to store and/or retrieve music, like external hard drives, but keep in mind, you want your resources stationed close to where you teach. If you have to run to your office to grab equipment, you will waste time.
The next question to discuss is, “What should you play?” As directors do their own personal listening, they probably notice great examples of concepts like a lifting release, beautiful phrase shaping, effortless asymmetrical meters, or warm vibrato. Directors may be able to use listening examples without any assistance. I found, over time, as I collected more and more recordings, it was hard to think of a piece to play at certain times. Furthermore, not all great excerpts happen at the beginning of a track. I did not want to waste time sliding the cursor around on the time bar, trying to find the section I wanted.
I created for myself numerous tables of excerpts that illustrated the various concepts that arose during rehearsals. Even though I am very familiar with what is in my music collection, the resource I compiled has helped my efficiency. (See link in bio for video examples of excerpts and how I use them in my teaching.) Directors can similarly do something along those lines for themselves. Regardless of how directors choose what to have their students listen to, they can grow students’ abilities more quickly by supplying them with small doses of guided listening.
During moments of listening, there are three simple steps that I recommend for maximum benefit. The first is to let your students know what to listen for. Their attention will already be focused on the focal concept or concepts before you hit play. The second step for better listening is to use gestures to pinpoint the exemplary moments. If your gestures visually imitate the concept, students will quickly develop an aural image that will help them perform more expressively. For example, if you want students to play with a better sostenuto line of air while listening to an excerpt, a director could have their hand move in a smooth linear fashion.
The final step to efficient listening is to provide students with technical suggestions. Students will naturally imitate the concepts they have just heard, but suggestions about physical and possibly mental approaches to performing will help them mature more rapidly.
Often, when I use listening excerpts, it is to motivate and develop concepts pertaining to specific performance issues. However, occasionally, when I have not used listening recently, I will play a portion of a great recording and point out multiple concepts that often arise in our rehearsals. For instance, I might say, “Did you hear that brass section? When I say dark, robust tone, that is what I am talking about.”
It is my hope that I have encouraged directors to incorporate listening excerpts into their instructional bag of tricks. There are many great recordings, and some can be downloaded for free. It is not complicated but does require a bit of advanced planning if you want to be efficient. Our field, by its very nature, necessitates the use of listening.
Jim Childers has directed bands since 1991. He has been teaching at Marion Jr. High School, where he directs all band activities in grades six through eight, since 2002. In addition to directing at Marion, Mr. Childers has compiled and authored a resource book, Listening Excerpts to Develop Band Musicianship, for concert band directors, which is published by GIA Publications (free video examples included in this link!). He also enjoys guest conducting, judging, presenting at conferences, and serving as a clinician.