What Idle Students in Music Ensembles Should Be Doing

2011Symposium_1_2Classroom management in large music ensemble rehearsals can look a little different from that used in conventional classrooms. The number of students is larger than an academic or general music class, and the nature of what we are asking students to do—make sound—is also different. If everyone were always playing or singing, there would be little difficulty; but what strategy is best for those frequent times when we are working with one section of the ensemble? What are the rest of the students supposed to do? Leaving students with nothing to do is never a good plan, and allowing them to talk quietly until they are asked to play again rarely stays at a quiet level.

This issue comes up because we incorrectly decide that teaching playing skills is why the students are there. Teach notes, teach fingerings, teach interpretive gestures such as articulations, tempo, and dynamics, and we are satisfied that it was a good rehearsal. But if we have properly prepared our students for playing in an ensemble, they will be equipped to do some work on their own; work than can and should be done during those minutes when other sections are playing or singing. Students can “whisper sing” their part. This is done by blowing air through the lips, like whistling, but without making a sound other than the air flow through the lips. Anyone who can whistle will intuitively know how to do this. If it is an instrumental ensemble, the student can finger the notes being whisper sung for added benefit. Students can whistle sing a part they are having trouble with that is unrelated to what is being rehearsed with the other section, or they can whistle sing their own part that they would be playing or singing with the material that is being covered if the whole ensemble were performing. Articulation can be practiced too. Singers can whisper the text in rhythm with attention given to making clear consonants and with precise rhythm. Wind instrument players can practice tonguing with teeth together and the syllable “ta” articulated on the roof of the mouth. I practiced many etudes this way on the train to and from lessons in New York City.

There are also opportunities for students to work within artistic processes other than performing Ensembleduring their down time in rehearsals. Students can be required to have a journal and a pen or pencil. When not playing, they can listen to another section as they rehearse, and write down what is being worked on, what progress is being made, what strategies were employed for each attempt at improvement, and how well each strategy worked. This exercise engages students in evaluation, and also provides a record of practice strategies that they themselves can employ in rehearsals and when they practice alone. It can also be extended by asking students who aren’t playing to suggest a strategy for those who are rehearsing. The possibility of being called upon to do this will tend to focus everyone’s attention on what is going on in the rehearsal, and will further strengthen the learning that came out of writing in the journal. This activity also is an effective way to include writing in band, orchestra or chorus rehearsals without taking time away from rehearsing; remember, you weren’t having these students do anything productive before, so any of these strategies is giving them a way of using their time more effectively, and is likely to increase student learning.

Students whose parts are not being rehearsed can also be included in the rehearsing of other sections. One way to do this is to have non-performing students clap a steady beat, as a human metronome, or perform with body percussion the actual drum parts or rhythm of the piano accompaniment with or without the percussion section or pianist playing. You can also up the ante and have the students do the same with the rhythm of a part other than their own. This develops awareness of what the other sections are doing; an awareness that will result in better ensemble playing when they are added back into the rehearsal. It is very important to me to not waste time. Students should be on task nearly all the time they are in your rehearsal. They should never be sitting idle for long amounts of time within or throughout the rehearsal. Keeping their minds active with musical things is the best use of time in a music classroom.


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