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.