As orchestra directors and string instructors, we always strive to develop our skills in teaching students how to play an instrument. We find creative methods and interesting metaphors so they will master the necessary skills. We ask them to “play a lower c natural,” or to “use more bow.” We, essentially, work every day to help them to develop good playing habits. We want that good bow hold, playing position, and lovely vibrato to become second nature and completely habitual.
I have grown increasingly aware in recent years, that in addition to reinforcing all of those good playing habits, the students I encounter are in need of instruction and reinforcement on productive habits of mind during a rehearsal. In other words, I find that there is a need to instruct them on what to think while playing in an ensemble, when to think about those things, and musical cues to guide them into those lines of thinking. I divide these concepts into three categories: dynamic, rhythmic, and technical habits of mind.
First, I find that students need to be reminded that a rehearsal requires an active mind and an interest in the dynamic. This requires dynamic habits of mind. Rehearsal is not a passive or reactive endeavor. It must be full of thought and motion. Ultimately, it is the players’ responsibility to keep rehearsal dynamic. I believe that students are empowered by an expectation of active minds. We live in a culture of the standardized test, and I believe that our best students fall into a mindset of right notes verses wrong notes as opposed to engaging in an active artistic activity while in a rehearsal. Players must be encouraged to think about their roles in the dynamic nature of each piece. This may include the direction of the melodic line, the overall energy of the movement, and the dynamic ebb and flow of a piece. This can be achieved by challenging players to engage visually and to communicate physically with you as a conductor and with each other (much like a chamber musician) within the scope of a piece. Give small goals, such as, “make eye contact with at least one member of your section, one member of another section, and the conductor during this passage.” It is also vital to define and demonstrate the purpose of this engagement. Have students consider what this engagement brings to the sum-total of the performance for both the listener and performer.
Next, we must teach our students to exhibit thoughtful rhythmic habits of mind. These include noting which section of the ensemble is driving the rhythm, listening to the static or dynamic nature of each voice of the arrangement, and making decisions about when to establish visual contact with the conductor and other members of the ensemble. So many conductors only ask students to look up at particularly difficult passages and tempo changes. I would argue to it is equally important to establish contact with the conductor and other players during repetitive passages, including repeated eight notes and long sustained passages. There are numerous exceptional times to engage with other musicians and affirm the collective rhythm and ensemble beyond times of tempo change.
Technical habits of mind include a variety of decisions that musicians must make from the sight-reading stage of preparation until the time of performance. This may include thinking of appropriate fingerings for seemingly simple passages and trying them out in the context of rehearsal. It also includes considering appropriate bow placement for passages and comparing their bow placement to others in the section. Bow direction based on the phrasing and rhythm of the work and comparison to others within and outside the section also falls into the technical category. Thinking about specific pitch issues and the function of each note that is played within the harmonic structure of the piece is also included. Technical habits of mind include the process of marking parts as well, including simple markings as reminders where a part may be just slightly counter-intuitive.
These are just a few examples of habits of mind that are essential to the well-rounded ensemble musician. By categorizing them as dynamic, rhythmic, and technical, we can aid students in focusing on these important habits. I encourage you to consider these as you play in ensembles and as you bring that experience to your work in front of your own ensemble.