When scheduling my winter concert, I prefer to select a date that is at least one week before the winter recess. This avoids the last minute mayhem that can develop in the final days of school, the conflicts with classroom parties, and the possibility of loosing students to early withdrawals for family travel that precedes the end of school. When choosing this schedule, I am left with a week of rehearsal class meetings after the concert but before the break. These rehearsal times can easily be anticlimactic if they are not thoughtfully planned. There is the potential for valuable learning with these “extra” rehearsals, but also for boredom to overcome post concert excitement. I will discuss strategies for maximizing learning and taking advantage of these classes.
One common practice for a post concert rehearsal time is to show a video recording of the concert. This affords the students to see and hear themselves in a way that is similar to the way their audience did so. It can be a positive learning experience if handled properly. First, if you are going to record your concert, use only the finest video and audio equipment. If your school does not own quality equipment, use your own, borrow, or even rent it. I have found that if I use the stock school equipment, I can easily end up with a poor quality recording that does not do justice to how the ensemble sounded. Remember, students are excited about the concert they gave. Their memory of their performance is that it was excellent, and probably all the feedback they have received from their family members has been positive. Hearing a poor quality recording of that performance that does not approach the quality they remember will backfire and cause your students to think they are not as good as they thought and as you and others told them. You want to avoid this deception, so only use the best recording equipment. If you absolutely can’t find quality equipment, don’t record the concert.
Assuming you have a quality recording, show to your ensemble and have them listen for moments they especially remember enjoying. It might be an entire work, or it might be particular passage they nailed and are excited to hear again. It might even be to recall how great it felt to finish performing a song they worked hard on and weren’t sure would come off good, but went really well. Use the first playing of the recording as a celebration of what they accomplished. There will be opportunity for critique later. First, take time to celebrate and “enjoy the moment” before delving into evaluating in detail. Mix in your own praise with their own. Tell them you are proud of them for specific things they did well. All of this will lay the foundation upon which critique and growth can be built. They will be motivated to improve and learn more once they realize how well their prior learning went and the good things it led to. Never use failure as the sole basis for motivating students to learn. While it is true that learning from mistakes is valuable, mistakes are made in the context of successes; they are blemishes, not the whole body of work. Use the mistakes to improve the successes. Do not separate the two.
With the foundation of accomplishment established, it is now time to move on to looking at ways to improve. This should be student centered at the outset. “As good as the concert was, what are some things you noticed that we can learn to do better.” Students are not allowed to single out individuals, but may only speak to sections of the ensembles, or about themselves. For example, they can say “I could have played better if I had practiced more. Before the next concert I will do that,” but they cannot say, “Tommy played too many wrong notes; if he had practiced more, we would have sounded better.” The idea here is for the students to listen for things they tried to do but did not fully succeed at. For example, they may have practiced a subito piano before a dramatic crescendo, and in the concert only come down to a mezzo forte. A student would do well to point that out. If you have a college or professional recording of the piece, perhaps the complete performance cd from the publisher, you can play that passage so the band can hear what it sounds like when it is fully executed. If your students’ performance came close to a recording you have of another ensemble, you might want to play their recording and your students’ performance, and have them compare and contrast the two. Only do this if the two performances are close in quality. If the other recording is far better, then you will only discourage your students by “showing them up” with the other performance. All of this will take multiple class periods to complete. It is time well spent.
After the foregoing has been completed, it can be valuable to perform at least part of the concert again. This gives the students the opportunity to incorporate into a performance what they have learned in the post concert sessions. This performance might be a school assembly, at a performance at a nearby venue off campus such as a nursing home, Lions club meeting, or the like. It is always important for students to have the opportunity to apply their learning, and this is a great way to do it. Some directors prefer to do this kind of performance before the main school concert and use it as a “warm-up” concert. I find the logistics of moving equipment and students distracting in the days leading up to the concert, and do not find great advantage in this kind of performance. I like to move my ensemble into the school’s performance space several rehearsals ahead of the concert to give them the opportunity to get settled and comfortable there, just as they do in the normal rehearsal space. If the warm-up performance works for you that’s fine; it is not what I prefer.
Finally, find time before the winter break to leave off playing or singing, and just have some fun down time together. Ensemble directors can learn something from their theater colleagues. The cast party is something the students look forward to and is a kind of reward for all the hard work and subsequent accomplishment. Band, chorus and orchestra directors should afford their students the same. I never met a pizza my students didn’t like. Order a bunch of large pizzas and bottles of soft drinks, turn on a playlist (preferably one students prepared for the occasion), and just enjoy each other’s company. What a great last experience to leave your students with before they leave for the holidays.