How does a music educator introduce their ensemble to a new piece? Perhaps it goes something like this. The school ensemble conductor passes out the new music, maybe plays a demonstration recording, maybe gives a verbal summary of the main sections of the piece, and then optimistically begins to lead the ensemble in sight reading the new selection. The students will draw on their reading and executive skills to do the best they can at playing parts they’ve never seen or heard before. At that moment, the conductor needs to be an expert in that music, because the students are all novices with it. Like a good travel guide, the teacher must take the students on a tour of the piece, pointing out important sights along the way, and sharing his or her favorite moments with excitement, anticipation, and energy.
Would you want to take a tour on your vacation that was led by a guide who had never been there before and hadn’t even read up much at all on the place they were about to show you, relying instead on the assumption that he or she still knew more about the place than you? Of course not. So the conductor’s main task at this first reading of a new piece is to be a first rate guide. To succeed at this, thorough preparation and extensive experience must precede that encounter with the students. He or she must also be prepared to return to that work many times throughout the rehearsal process, drawing out ever increasing proficiency at performing, and ever more depth of understanding of the work.
How does a conductor arrive at this advanced level of preparedness? How does one go about studying a score, preparing to rehearse and conduct a performance? In this article, I will share my procedure for preparing a score. Mine isn’t the only way, but if your preparation could stand to improve, my method may be a good place to start, and if you just want to up your game, my method may be compatible with yours, adding a few helpful elements to it.
My method has four parts. They are observation, analysis, prediction, and practice. When I first open a score that is new to me, I want to get a “lay of the land.” What is the style? Where are the main sections? What tempos are involved, and what is the character of the piece? I will find key changes, tempo changes, and main melodic lines. By looking at these things, I learn what to expect, and what my approach will be for the next step in my process. After making my observations, I will know, for example, that the piece is a gallup, it will be at a very fast tempo, that there are three sections with a quieter middle section, and that the main melodic line is in the treble voices for the fast sections, and in the lower voices for the slower middle section. I also notice that the middle section is in a minor key, whereas the piece begins and ends in the parallel major. This first step goes relatively quickly, taking no more than 5 or 10 minutes for a 3 or 4 minute piece.
Next, I will analyze the score. As the verb suggests, this is a more extensive and time consuming step. Here I will examine what I observed, going deeper into what is there beyond what I initially noticed. At this stage, I will learn where the foundational chords and cadences are, what the melodic arcs will be, where the doublings occur, what the primary rhythm patterns are, and how the patterns of building tension and relaxing are. I will begin to form dynamic and tempo decisions that will bring out these tension and relaxation patterns, and that will reflect the signposts of cadential sequences.
I will find where excitement and relaxation is built, and how they are built. This prepares me to guide the students in forming an interpretation. I will also make decisions of balance by finding where the main melodic and counter-melodic lines are, and how to effectively bring those to the fore, while containing background and accompaniment figures appropriately. If I have instrumentation concerns, (maybe I have only three basses and four altos in a choir of seventy) then I make decisions on doubling certain lines in other voices, or cutting back to less than full instrumentation so that those lines given to under represented sections will be heard. By the time I’ve finished my analysis, I have a good mental image of what the piece sounds like, and how I will rehearse it to arrive at that idealized image.
It is critical that I know what I want the piece to sound like in the context of the students I have to work with. While demonstration recordings are helpful, a college wind ensemble on the CD will not likely sound exactly like my middle school band, so there are likely ways I will conduct the piece that are different from the way the wind ensemble conductor on the recording conducted, ways that are more effective and appropriate for my ensemble, so it is important for me to learn in what ways I must take a different tack.
With my intentions settled in my mind, I next go through the score and predict where my students will have difficulty. It may be there is an awkward fingering my clarinetist will struggle with, or a recurring melodic leap that my tenors will find challenging, or there may be a transition from one section to the next that will likely need to be rehearsed extensively. I will circle these items in my score so that I remember to give them extra time and attention, and so that I will remember to break them down into more attainable steps, possibly inserting drills or exercises to build a skill that will make the problem spot easier to handle. Having worked on strategies to rehearse these spots in the rehearsal, I will also plan to make those sections practice assignments. One note here: never tell your students to practice something they can’t play in rehearsal until you have showed them how to practice it, assigning the steps, not just the passage in general.
After making observations, analyzing the score, and predicting trouble spots, I still have one more step to go before I’m ready to present this piece to my ensemble and ask them to sight read it. I must practice. I sing parts, I audiate the piece, and I conduct in front of a mirror while audiating and singing. The motion of conducting helps me remember the music, I get a first hand look at what I will look like to the students, and as I audiate and conduct, I am at least starting to memorize the score. I have rarely conducted a score from memory, but any conductor should only need to use the score as an occasional reference while conducting, and to direct students to a particular measure in rehearsal. Once I am comfortable conducting in silence, I will walk into my rehearsal, ready to go.