Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ensemble Musician's Taxonomy of Musical Mental Habits

Over the past several years, I have noticed that student musicians can fall into a static mental mode while in various stages of the rehearsal process.  If they have mastered their individual part (notes and rhythms) they simply check out mentally and wait for the next basic challenge. I have a number of theories as to why this happens. But, for now I will stay away from my theories about why and simply discuss the issues as I see them and possible solutions.

Let me describe the problem that I see. I find that students are interested in playing correctly. I also find that they are used to being told specifically what to do in rehearsal. What I find missing, are appropriate habits of mind or habits of what to be thinking about throughout the rehearsal process. For instance, if a student has mastered the notes and rhythms of a particular passage and the conductor continues to review that passage, my feeling is that students don't understand what they can be thinking about individually while the repetition is occurring. So, with that in mind, I felt it would be important to discuss this concept with my Orchestra. As we began to develop a list of things to think about while in rehearsal, it became apparent to me that there is a hierarchy of these concepts  that one might consider while in rehearsal. Obviously, early in the rehearsal process, basic ideas such as right notes, right rhythms, key signature, time signature, etc. are the things that one should focus on. However, as the rehearsal process progresses, each individual should be able to move on to higher order skills in the ensemble rehearsal process.

For instance, after a student has mastered the notes and rhythms, they may then move their thought process to the written dynamic scheme of the piece. Or, they may be compelled to think about bow direction and or bow placement. Or, they may to turn their attention to other parts in the orchestra, focusing on what's happening outside their own part both around and with them. This, to me, begins to look like a taxonomy. That is, a sort of hierarchy of priorities and mental habits within the ensemble rehearsal process.

Here is the list that we came up with in class.  I have been keeping it posted on the white board at the front of the room. Then, if a students needs some ideas on what to think about, they can refer to it quickly.  
  • Accurate Rhythm and Time
Obviously, these are the first steps in learning a piece of music.  Right notes played out of time are wrong notes.  So, I place a great deal of emphasis on rhythm early in the rehearsal process.
  • Accurate Notes and Key 
Very close behind rhythm is tonal center and correct notes.  Obviously.  The thing is that many teachers never get past this spot in the taxonomy.  This is understandable.  If the students are out of tune, this must be corrected.
  • Playing Technique
I try to give all of my students individual technique goals. These can be left or right hand position, bow hold, set up, right had fluidity, vibrato, etc.  Then, they can focus on this when they have learned the basics of their part.
  • Written Dynamics
This is the next obvious step in preparing a part.  It is written on the page, for goodness sake.  I encourage my students not to  think about dynamics as some fixed value, but rather to consider them in the context of the overall piece.
  • Fingering/Shifting
This is one of the first big shifts in thinking that I find I can affect.  So many kids think that they only need to shift when the part gets high.  I try to change that way of thinking to looking at fingering from a perspective of ease of passage, tone color, and string crossing.
  • Bow Direction and Use
In a perfect world,  this would be higher in the taxonomy.  I feel like this is incorporated into every moment of every rehearsal.  I don't usually over-bow string parts for my orchestra.  I want them to be thinking critically about direction as it pertains to style, dynamics, and articulation.  Bow direction is so subjective.  I usually have very clear priorities, but I love to articulate them in the context of a great discussion about bow direction.
  • Articulation
This is strongly related to bow direction.  I find that students often come to me with a very limited palette of articulation options.  I try to get them thinking about the initiation of sound throughout the rehearsal process.
  • Vibrato/Tone Production
Vibrato  and tone production are often the difference between an average overall sound and a mature sound.  But, where do changes occur and how can these be varied?  These are important questions for each musician to be constantly asking themselves.
  • Artistry/Direction of line
This is where real musicianship develops and emerges.  When we can get a student to think about this independently, they are truly on the way.
  • Tempo/ Push-Pull
This is typically dictated by the conductor, but the students that are intuitive with this can help the group along!
  • Section and Individual Balance
Where do I fit in the dynamic balance of the orchestra? Where does my section fit in the dynamic balance of the orchestra?
  • Section and Individual Role
What is my role in this passage?  What is my section's role in this passage?  Melody? Harmony? Off Melody? Bass line?  Engine?  Rhythmic Underpinning?  Sustain/Pads?  Teacher? Student?  What else?
  • Perspective and Emotion/ Performance
How might I move during this passage?  Who should I look at?  What is the overarching emotion of the passage?  

So, what have I missed?
Is this something that you may be able to use with your classes?

I  truly believe there is something here for everyone.  We have all had that precocious kid that thinks their work is done before they have even scratched the surface.  Maybe this can work for them.  Or, maybe your whole group would be open to thinking about this.  I certainly hope there is something here that you can use in your ensemble.  


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Sectional Rehearsals

Sectional rehearsals are an integral component of any orchestral concert cycle.  Today was my first opportunity to hold sectionals with my new group of students at NCSSM.  Rather than to simply throw them into the sectional rehearsal experience, I thought that it would be beneficial to discuss the goals, important techniques, and values of the sectional rehearsal process.  We had a great discussion before they broke into sections and then we discussed the results at  the end of class.  Here are some of the thoughts and concepts that emerged in class today.

Goals of the Sectional Rehearsal:

  • Details
    • Fingerings
    • Bowings
    • Intonation
    • Rhythm
These are the nuts and bolts of the section's work.  Most everyone recognized that these are the primary goals of the sectional rehearsal and following today's rehearsal, it was clear that these were the primary topics of discussion.  
  • Tone/Sound
I would argue that this may be part of a sectional rehearsal later in a concert cycle.  Earlier sectionals with student musicians may never get to this point.
  • Phrasing/Expression
Much of this work will be done in the larger group rehearsal and it is even possible that work in this area in a sectional rehearsal may occasionally run contrary to the conductor's vision for a piece.
  • Ensemble
This is where the section may hear inconsistencies in style, articulation, and and rhythm; as well as see inconsistencies in bow placement, use, and distribution.
  • Communication
One student noted that this is a perfect opportunity for student leadership and for students articulate original thoughts regarding the repertoire at hand.
  • Corporate Gain
It is vital that every musician walk away with a sense that the time was well spent for the individual, the section, and the greater ensemble.

Vehicles that help reach the goals:

  • Collaborate
Everyone must be willing to work together.
  • Communicate
The sectional is more effective when folks communicate freely: ask questions, offer suggestions, and engage in the group goals.
  • Active Participation: Invest!
One can not simply "go through the motions" in a sectional rehearsal.  The activity requires active engagement from all parties involved.  This is really tough in today's academic setting.  If find it more difficult each year to elicit active mental rigor from every member of my ensembles.  I will not give up the fight!!
  • Listen
I feel that listening skills are not addressed enough in the orchestra rehearsal. We discuss what the player should "do."  Sectionals are a great vehicle for individuals to exercise listening skills.
  • Assess
This is another great opportunity for musicians in sectionals.  They are, by nature, less conductor-centric than rehearsal.  In a rehearsal, the conductor is constantly assessing and the musician is adapting to the conductor's instruction.  Sectionals provide the opportunity for the individual musician to assess their work and that of those around them.
  • Think like a scientist: Identify problems, develop a hypothesis, limit variables, address issues
At my school, this makes lots of sense!  I love to draw the comparison of a person practicing to that of a researcher.  It is an easy comparison to make.
  • Slow Down
No - really - slow down!  Like - half tempo.  Or less!  Zoom into the microscopic level of rhythm and intonation.  Take time to really hear intervals.  So often in rehearsal, some members of an ensemble are "left in the dust."  It is part of the process of rehearsal.  So, seize the opportunity in sectionals to slow things down and meaningfully listen to the inner levels of the parts assigned to the section. 

Don'ts  (Things that make for a bad sectional rehearsal):

  • Just run through passages
What a waste of time.  We can do that any time.
  • Clam up
We have to communicate.  Take a chance.  If you are thinking it, someone else is too!  We all must lead and that comes in a variety of communication packages.
  • Weak Leadership
Enough said.  Someone has to drive the train. My students all agree that a sectional where no one is willing to lead can be futile.


  • Citizen
  • Artist
  • Scholar
  • Teacher
Many of you have read my previous posts on this acronym.  I believe deeply that after each rehearsal, any student should be able to look at this acronym and identify the areas that have been addressed. Have they enhanced their citizenship of the ensemble? Has their artistry been engaged?  Have they expressed or enhanced their scholarship?  Have they taken advantage of opportunities to lead and help, as well as learn from, colleagues.

As a result of this work, I intend to create a template for a good sectional rehearsal to use with my students in coming months and years.  This would provide a model and outline for the anatomy of a productive sectional rehearsal for student reference.

How does all of this hit you?  What have we missed?  What did we get right?  I would love to hear from you as I continue to develop the template for a great sectional rehearsal.   I will share it here in coming days and weeks.

Until next time.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Don't Miss The Forest For The Trees

Today was the first official day for instructors at NCSSM.  It was a great day of meeting our new colleagues, renewing friendships with others, and catching up on each others' adventures from the summer.  The first day back at school can be very inspiring as we prepare for the upcoming academic year.


it can be totally overwhelming.

There is a huge amount of information to process.  We have received mountains of e-mails and correspondence. We received calendar information. We received information on updates to the school  facility and summer programs. We received details today outlining professional development obligations, academic advisor training, details on class schedules, details on student schedule conflicts,  budget details, details on planning for the new NCSSM Morganton campus, training videos, getting our teaching schedule into Google Calendar, and much more.  There is just so much.

Sadly, even those of us who can't wait to get back to our work and start the year can get overwhelmed by all of  these details.  

On top of all of this, the music wing at NCSSM just had new flooring installed and my colleague and I have to move all of the equipment, music, and others stuff from our offices and classrooms back from storage. It  is a huge job looming in front of us!

So, today I made a resolution.  I decided to only do what I can.  I am not going to get so overwhelmed by all of the administrative details of life at NCSSM that I miss the joy of teaching music.  I am going to enjoy greeting all of the returning seniors as they return to campus.  I am going to enjoy meeting the new juniors.  I will think creatively about my curriculum.  I will embrace the opportunity to facilitate student learning at every level.  I will seek to be a positive force in the lives of my students and colleagues.  I will strive to inspire and support my students every day and every class period.  

We are so privileged to teach.  We are privileged to participate in the lives and development of our students.  And, for goodness sake, I make my living as a musician!  I am living the dream.

So, while I respect the administrative necessities of life at NCSSM, I can't let them overwhelm me.  We have much bigger responsibilities.  We have lives to change.  Humans to support.  People to inspire.

Don't miss the forest for the tress this year as you begin the school year.  Our work is too important.  


Friday, August 4, 2017

An Accounting of Ideas

As we get ready to wrap up the 2nd session of Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen for 2017, I thought it would be cool to take and accounting of the ideas or perspectives that I shared with students over the course of the summer.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give you a quick idea of my thoughts while in front of an ensemble for an extended period of time.

  • My tuning procedure
  • Concepts in orchestral playing position
  • Moving with the phrase
  • The concept of inner rhythm
  • Listening for "the engine"
  • Elements of a moving performance: Technical,  Artistic,  Purpose, Perspective 
  • Breathing into entrances and phrases
  • "Bumping" the pulse
  • Look at conductor during static passages
  • Teacher/student: what is your role at any time?
  • Harmonic Underpinning
  • Deeper dynamic meaning, role, and contrast
  • Shifting for color and ease of fingering, not high pitch
  • "Chocolate Milk"
  • Finding all that is embedded in the music: phrase, push/pull
  • The concept of Dynamic vs. Static
  • Meeting 3 composers of performed works
  • 2 world premiers (Ancient Light, by Peter Terry and Sunset Colors, Alejandro Bernard-Papachryssanthou)
  • Lead from any chair
  • Extended visual communication
  • The conductor's role in a variety of situations
  • Good = good, Hard does not necessarily = good
  • No 3rd or higher positions does not = easy repertoire
  • Artistic performances can move audiences.  Bad performances of hard repertoire doesn't move audiences

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive.  But, it will give you an idea of the things that I am trying to teach and communicate during rehearsal. There are previous posts on many of these ideas, so I encourage you to check out the blog for my extended thoughts on these concepts.

It has been a great summer!  Thanks to all who have supported me and ICO this summer.  I appreciate you all so much!


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Harmonic Underpinning

Those of you that know me and my pedagogy, are aware that I'm a firm believer in utilizing harmonic underpinning while teaching melodic instruments and concepts. That is, providing some context for melodic line when teaching parts in the orchestra or in private lessons. I really believe that everything makes more sense when there is a chord progression behind or underneath the melodic line.

This week in Interlochen's Intermediate Concert Orchestra, we do not have the privilege of having a student bass player.  We will have a faculty and staff bassist for the concert, but not until the dress rehearsal.  So, we are working with an incomplete voicing in the orchestra and I have noticed that there has been a great deal of difficulty in truly tuning from bottom to top in all of our repertoire. So, today I asked my stage services staff member to set up a piano in the front of the orchestra. Throughout today's rehearsal I played bass lines and chord progressions as best I could, accompanying all of the pieces that we are working on.

Wow! What a transformation in the orchestra. I was reminded yet again that harmonic underpinning is so important for true musical understanding and learning. Quickly, everyone in the orchestra was tuning in a much more meaningful, informed manner. I had to step back and asked myself, "Would we be better off having this harmonic reference right from the beginning of the rehearsal process?" I am sure that many orchestras use an accompanist throughout a concert cycle to help with this very issue. That is not something that I typically do, but today I am really convinced that it paid huge dividends in this orchestra.

This can be done either by realizing chord progressions on the piano or on another chord playing instrument like guitar, mandolin, and others. I realize that this isn't rocket science. But, it is always good to be reminded. I'm reminded of when my children were younger and studying violin repertoire. I would frequently play piano or pick up my guitar and play along with them. Or, other days I would pick up the bass and create a bass line while they were playing the melodies of the pieces . I have particularly fond memories of performing the Monti Czardas with my oldest son, Matt. I played guitar and he played violin. We did something similar with both of the Vivaldi A minor Concerto movements that are found in the Suzuki Book 4.

All of this goes to encouraging the student to hear the function of every note of a melody. Is the note a chord tone? Is the note a passing tone? Is the cord a tonic? Is it a dominant? Or is it something else? When a student hears a secondary dominant progression on the guitar or piano common, suddenly those accidentals make a lot more sense.

I know this is a quick one but I just had to get this off my chest tonight. It was a great rehearsal and I can't wait for tomorrow!



Monday, July 31, 2017

Intermediate Concert Orchestra Repertoire: 2017 Concert #4

We are winding down the summer here at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp and the Intermediate Concert Orchestra is deep in preparation for their final performance of the season. We have a wonderful program planned for this concert. As is my tradition, I will give you some information all on all of the works that we are doing.

First, we are preparing Highlights from An American in Paris, by George Gershwin, arranged by Jerry Brubaker. This is a Belwin publication and is listed as a Grade IV. I first heard this arrangement at a new music reading session that was sponsored by JW Pepper at an American String Teachers Association conference. I have never done anything by arranger Jerry Brubaker before. But, I really like this medley from An American in Paris. I will certainly keep my eyes open for more of his arrangements in the future. This is scored for string orchestra with percussion. I think the percussion will add a really nice touch to this piece.  It includes bicycle horns.  I spent a couple of hours today, shopping for bike horns at two different pitches!! The students will be exposed to George Gershwin's interesting harmonies and magnificent melodies. The piece features 4 distinct sections that all provide wonderful opportunities for each voice. The arrangement is also very clearly edited with fingerings and good bowings, saving a great deal of rehearsal time for me. The students really like this arrangement and I think it will be a wonderful addition to our concert.

Next we are doing Smooth Sailing by Tom Sharp . This is listed as a Grade Three and is published by Ludwig Masters Music. It features opportunities for melody in all of the voices of the orchestra and a simple and lovely melody that is passed between all of the sections throughout the piece.  It is full of beauty and grace and contains an abundance of lush romantic quality to please the most discriminating ear.  I always love Thom Sharp's stuff and this is no exception.

Next, we have been spending a great deal of time preparing Mars from the Planets by Gustav Holst, arranged by Robert McCashin. This is a Tempo Press publication and is listed as a grade IV. This one is tough! We have spent a great deal of time on the 5-4 time signature and the intricate interplay between 5/2 and 5/2 feel. There are many divisi parts in this arrangement and a few 16th note passages that are really tough. The group has worked hard on this piece. And they love it. I'm not a hundred percent sure that we will perform it for our concert but I have challenged the students to prepare it well enough that it will be easy to make the decision. This one is a real challenge!

Finally, my dear friend Alejandro Bernard Papachrysanthou has written a brand new piece for intermediate concert Orchestra to perform this session.  It is entitled Sunset Colors and is a magnificent piece that we will premiere on Saturday. Please see the separate post about this composition.

It has been another great summer at Interlochen and I'm sad to see it winding down. That said, I am ready to get home and begin my work at NCSSM. I'm also very ready to see my family. Thanks to all who have been reading these posts throughout the summer. I hope that you will stick with me as we move into the fall and the new academic year. Thanks to all of my friends here at Interlochen who have supported me this summer. Let's do it again next year!



Sunset Colors, by Alejandro Bernard-Papachryssanthou

This summer, the Interlochen Intermediate Concert Orchestra has had several unbelievable opportunities to meet composers and perform their works. It has been a particularly strong learning experience for students to hear the words of the composers themselves and to learn the motivation behind the works which they are performing. This is one of the great benefits of coming to and  performing at Interlochen. We have such a wonderful community of musicians that do so many things. And, for one group to be involved in two world premieres in the same 3-week session is simply unheard of. But, that is what is happening this session. The Intermediate Concert Orchestra will be performing another world premiere at our Saturday concert in Kresge Auditorium, 4 p.m.

Last summer I became friends with Alejandro Bernard-Papachryssanthou over lunch down at the waterfront.  We were both eating alone and struck up a conversation. We hit it off as friends right away and it was truly my pleasure to feature him on the last piece of the summer in of 2016, Bossa Rojo, by Bert Ligon, as a keyboard soloist with ICO. This summer, we met up again and following the first ICO concert, he asked me if I might be willing to play a piece that he was interested in composing. He has been working on Sunset Colors throughout the summer and it is our pleasure to perform it this week.

He came to class today and spent about an hour with the orchestra, discussing the motivation behind the piece and several specific performance practices. It was a thrill for us to have him at the rehearsal and a great deal of work was done.

He began by explaining the motivation for the piece. It is intended to conjure up the image of the beautiful sunsets that we experience here in Northern Michigan, particularly those that are seen over a lake where mountains do not encumber the view. The sunsets in this region are absolutely beautiful and it is a perfect inspirational vehicle for a piece of orchestral music.

Sunset Colors begins with a quiet Andate section. It is in a major but really travels between a number of keys throughout the work. The opening features the viola section right out of the gate. There is a beautiful melody and tight, jazz inspired harmonies throughout the work. The opening eventually gives way to a beautiful piu mosso so that features moving 16th notes in the first and second violins and a syncopated rhythmic pattern in the viola, cello, and bass. This section certainly presents the image of the brightest, most glorious sunset. This moving passage eventually gives way to a heroic section which culminates on a beautiful, sustained C sharp major chord. We spent a good deal of time in rehearsal today dialing in that chord and even discussed what color it sounds like. We had some students say orange, others felt it was pink, and I felt like it was a deep purple.  (All were correct!!) Following a grand pause, it returns to the "A" section and winds down to a beautiful ending which conjures up the image of the last little bit of color in the sky as the sun finally goes down for the night.

This  work is a perfect challenge for the Intermediate Concert Orchestra. I would say that it is probably a Grade 4. There is a little something for everyone and every section must be rhythmically and tonally independent. The kids are really committed to this work and have rehearse with great maturity. Their work today was admirable. Mondays are always tricky for ICO because Monday afternoon is usually "beach day" for the kids. They were certainly ready to look ahead to the fun of the afternoon during rehearsal today. Instead, they gave their full attention and had a wonderful rehearsal.

We are really excited to give the world premiere of this piece and I look forward to performing it many more times both here at Interlochen and in my various travels around the United States. I'm pretty sure that I will program it at NCSSM this fall!

We hope to see you at the concert on Saturday afternoon. I believe it will be live streamed as well.