When planning a concert, there are many more things to keep in mind than just the date, time, place, and what pieces will be programmed. While these certainly need to be set, without first establishing why we give concerts with our students, and what we hope to accomplish by doing so, programming and scheduling issues will likely be unfocused or even arbitrary. Perhaps most important is why we give concerts with our students. Every reason we give to this question will effect every other decision we make regarding our concert. Allow me to propose a few reasons.
First, we give concerts to showcase our students’ accomplishments. Concerts are an opportunity for parents, teachers, and all members of the school community to witness what our students have achieved as a result of being in our ensembles, and for students to take pride in what they have accomplished. Clearly, what our students achieve is determined in large part by what we have taught them, which in turn is determined in large part by what we planned to teach them when we first started teaching them the concert repertoire.
Often the specifics of what our students have learned will not specifically be known by our audience, though the overall benefit of it will be appreciated. For example, if you lead a school string orchestra, you may have worked hard on developing an even, smooth, resonant legato bowing technique. To achieve this, you selected music with cantabile melodies, long flowing phrases, and perhaps a variety of legato articulations. Growth in playing this way is evidenced in the students’ performance, but few in the audience know that it sounds so beautiful because the students are using excellent legato bowing technique. What they do know is that the music sounds really good. The students benefit from a more highly developed bowing technique, and the audience benefits from a highly satisfying concert; however you did not teach legato bowing for the audience’s benefit, you taught it for the students’ benefit: what the audience gained from the experience positive, but residual—it is not why you taught what you did.
Second, we give concerts so that students can express themselves to others artistically. Technique is a gateway to healthy emotional expression through musical performance, and not an end to itself. Teaching technique so that the students can play the music is not a good enough reason. The technique must be serviceable for gaining the benefit from playing the music, not simply for playing the music. This mindset to rehearsal demands a greater emphasis on tone production and expressive gestures than is sometimes given in even high school music programs. The realization of the performer and composer’s expressive intent demands a certain level of technique that exceeds what is necessary to simply play the notes, and get the dynamics right. Music teachers sometimes confuse separating pitch, rhythm, dynamics and articulations for purposes of drill and practice, with separating them at the peril of loosing the expressiveness of the music; they must be re-connecting so that students understand how all expressive elements work together with accurate pitches and rhythms to make music what it expressively is.
Third, we give concerts because they are culminating events that pull together the many strands of learning that students have acquired, so that every detail studied can be seen, known, and experienced in its musical context. Rehearsals are rarely comparable to performances, and are frequently segmented into sections rehearsing parts one at a time. While this builds technical skill at performing the music being rehearsed, it is easy for students to loose sight of the whole, to get lost in the trees, so to speak. They get glimpses and partial experiences of what the composer really wrote, but it usually doesn’t all become perceptible, and by all I mean technically, expressively, and emotionally, until the performance or perhaps the dress rehearsal. A performance not only gives closure to the study of that music, but adds another experience, another memory, another slice of creative life to every students’ consciousness and self-understanding.
To accomplish these three things, showcasing achievement, providing an outlet for healthy expression, and to provide an effective culminating activity, concerts must be planned so that challenges are high but doable so that both a high level of learning and performance can be attained, so that repertoire is of a high quality, with expressive potential that will engage students, and so that the musical performance in its final form is worth putting together and celebrating in the performance. Certainly not all music on the market measures up to all three, and some music, which we sometimes refer to as “teaching music,” is worthwhile for instruction, but not worth investing the time of preparing it for public performance. Keeping all of these factors in clear focus paves the way for more meaningful, worthwhile and cherishable concerts.