With December upon us, many of you will soon go into high gear with concert preparation. While you are well along in rehearsals, there is still much to do, and with each passing day, it can begin to seem like time is running out on you. With may directors, it is almost cliche to say things like, “we only have two weeks before our concert, so you really need to start practicing more.” Before long, what began as an endeavor packed with enjoyment and high hopes becomes a pressure filled and unpleasant dash for the finish. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some ideas to make these final rehearsals more productive, more relaxed, and more enjoyable for you and your students.
First, take a long view of your ensemble’s needs, and begin working on them calmly and methodically. Utilize older and more advanced students who are respected by their peers as sectional leaders. Begin with a full rehearsal playing through passages that most need attention. Tell the ensemble what needs to be accomplished with each of the passages, but don’t rehearse them; leave that to the sectional. You are just setting objectives and expectations so that the student leaders will know what to do, and the rest of the students will know what you are expecting them to accomplish. When that is done, release them to the sectionals. If your rehearsal space doesn’t have practice rooms, make arrangements ahead of time to use other available spaces in the school. The teacher’s lunchroom, the auditorium stage, the custodian’s office, and nearby classrooms that are free that teaching period are all possibilities. Be sure to tell everyone what time they are to be back in the main rehearsal room, in their seats ready to resume a full ensemble rehearsal.
Schedule the reconvening so that you have enough time to re-play the passages you assigned for sectionals, so that you can assess the progress and plan for the next rehearsal. Issues within a section are best addressed with another sectional, while issues across sections or the entire ensemble are best addressed with a full rehearsal instead. Assess where you are after the sectionals and plan from there. Be sure to recognize the student leaders and thank them for their work. This will make others who may be almost ready to be leaders to push themselves just enough to make a difference for this concert.
You want all aspects of your performance to be pristine for the concert, but some aspects of performance are more crucial than others. For example, a wrong not here and there won’t be noticed, but an errant rhythm can throw the whole ensemble off with highly unwanted results. With this in mind, double down on the rhythm elements of every piece you intend to perform for an audience. When I say rhythm element, I mean note durations, tempo, meter, and articulations. The latter is often overlooked within a rhythmic context, but it shouldn’t be. Length of notes, transparency of texture, and a stylistically accurate presentation are all effected by articulation. Have the ensemble tap the pulse while chanting rhythms, and tap rhythms while vocalizing the beat on a neutral syllable such as “bah.” This will strengthen the students’ rhythmic understanding and independence. Then have half of each section continue this while the other half plays their part. The ones playing will connect what they just did to their playing because they are hearing it in the chanting and tapping of their classmates. Then switch roles and do the same thing again before having everyone play. The tapping and chanting they just did will transfer to their playing if the chanting was done long enough. Do not rush through the chanting. Do it several times until it is secure before allowing them to return to their instruments.
With rhythms secured, proceed to expression. I have found that when students are playing expressively, many other errors disappear. I have spent much less time correcting notes when I have first taught my students to play the passage expressively. The brain seems to know what to do when it is given the task of expressing through the music. Of course this requires that notes have been practiced and learned–no one can play expressively if they don’t know what notes to play; but once the basics are there, teaching expression before dwelling on note error correction is a good strategy that will save time and result in a better performance.
By this point, the executive skills should be mastered, signaling the beginning of the polishing process. There are two strategies I like to use to get the performance to the next level. First is to transform the rehearsal into chamber performances. Two players on every woodwind part, one player on every brass part. Do this for sections or entire pieces. When the chamber group gets to the end, assign new players and do the same piece or section again, or switch to a different piece. Students will be able to hear all the parts clearly, and they will be compelled to bring out their best playing now that there is “nowhere to hide.” Don’t make this punitive though. Make it a positive and fun change from the usual routine, and encourage a sprit de corps between performers and performers in waiting. After playing this way, and the whole ensemble plays the same section or piece, you will hear a noticeable improvement in all aspects of the performance.
The last strategy is the rule of independence. I have had a rule every year I taught that for every ensemble I directed, it was not allowed to perform any piece that they could not play or sing in the dress rehearsal without a conductor. In fact, I sometimes started my concert with a march, and had the band play the entire piece without me conducting. I would be hidden in the middle of the band playing. At the end of the march, the audience would clap and then begin to wonder where I was at which time I would stand and walk through the band to the podium to conduct the rest of the concert. It was great fun, but more importantly it taught my students how to listen and be independent musicians.
Have fun with these strategies as you guide your ensembles toward the concert performance. If you haven’t done things like this before, and especially if you’ve been in the habit of “tightening the screws” on your musicians, pressuring them into ramping up their practice, your students will be refreshed by the change, and you and they will be much more relaxed and more able enjoy the season and the best concert yet.