Monday, February 26, 2007
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Many times I am asked to work with groups of all age levels as they begin preparing music for contest or festival. This yearly quest for the perfect performance can sometimes cause high levels of stress and anxiety for all who are involved in the process.
I constantly reflect on the preparedness of a first year teacher embarking on their journey to that perfect festival performance. As a first year teacher, there were many questions I still had and many experiences I had no way of predicting.
My first year as a middle school band director was an experience I often look upon with trepidation, embarrassment and humor. I knew I wanted to teach, read books about teaching, took classes on how to teach, had a good downbeat, knew my transpositions, could tell you when Beethoven was born, analyzed and re-harmonized chorales and received the stamp of approval from the State of New York as a "certified teacher." So now I was ready to teach right? Well that's what I thought.
As I began my first year of festival preparation with my middle school band from South Georgia (yes you read that correctly, New York to South Georgia…that's another story) I selected literature for my group that was too hard (I thought harder equaled better), too late (we only had three weeks in college to prepare for a concert so I thought the same was true for all groups) and too complex (for me to teach). So with those criteria in mind I challenged my 7th and 8th grade band to perform Finlandia (I remembered playing that in college orchestra and it was great).
Of course I am sure you can predict the rest of the story. The stress levels increased, the music-making decreased, classroom management became a chore and all the classic first year teacher mistakes were modeled in my room (some of my proudest moments).
I share this with you not to embarrass myself and ask for forgiveness from the people that granted my degrees, but to reflect on the changes I made to assure this experience was a successful one for all. I must also state that many of these techniques were gifts from experienced teachers who I sought out after that first dreadful year. It is also an evolutionary process that I continually revise in hopes of providing our undergraduate students with some fundamental tips for successful festival performance. By no means does it preclude that one can succeed simply by following these steps, however my hope is that it serves as a starting point.
Start with a Depth Chart (Music--Ensemble--Director)
This is a concept I have adapted from Allan McMurray, Director of Bands at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Simply stated you rank the ensemble, the director and the music individually on a scale of 1-10 and see if there is balance. For example, if you pick a piece of music that is an 8, have an ensemble that is a 5, and your depth of understanding on that piece is a 10, this may not be the best piece for a successful contest/festival performance. Conversely, if you have all equal scores of 9 you may have a winner. This is where the director truly earns their keep. Selecting literature is our responsibility and it in turn will set up your ensemble for a successful performance.
This is a question music educators have wrestled with for years; what's more important the process or the product? My charge is that if your philosophy is aligned correctly and you have selected the proper literature for your group, the process should result in a product you can celebrate and embrace. Only you can determine that and therefore it is critical to establish your goals and your philosophy for the group long before festival time comes around.
Programming Content and Order
This element of a successful performance is sometimes overlooked. Simple questions can be asked when looking at this area. Are all my selections in the same key, style, tempo, genre, etc. This is one area that can be very difficult to avoid when working with younger groups. However, diligent research will certainly result in a wider array of options. Consider the possibilities of order. By ending with one piece over another are you showing off the groups' strengths? Decide if you want to end with technique or effect..
New vs. Standard Repertoire
When considering repertoire to perform realize that the standard repertoire is more difficult to perform convincingly. Most respected adjudicators have already developed their perception of the ideal performance. Therefore, it may not always be the best option to perform that piece you remembered playing in college. Were you adjudicated at that performance?
This is where I made my biggest mistake as a first year director. It is imperative that the director know the groups strengths and weaknesses and from that try to make an informed decision about literature. Because of my naivety, I did not ask for any help in literature selection. It would have been very easy for me to acquire a recording of the previous year's festival performance allowing me to collect data about areas of improvement and needs for concern for the coming year. I could have also called people with similar programs or individuals who I could trust and ask for guidance. The point, ask as many people as possible and listen to as many recordings as possible to match your literature to your group. You can never have too much information before you select your program.
Now that you have selected your pieces, you must institute a method to successfully prepare the music and group for the performance. This is one area that can easily be overlooked if attention is not given to detail.
Planning -- How Long?
Although there is not one standard answer to this question, one can easily determine the best time to begin preparation by basing this on the literature selected. One method to equate preparation time is to:
(1) Count up the total amount of rehearsal time you have per week (let's say 1400 minutes).
(2) Think carefully about how much you are going to have to work on each piece, then give it an appropriate weighted number (let's say on a scale of 1-8, from "not much' to "whew"). If there are three works on a concert, you may have ratings of 2, 4, 8, which make a total of 14.
(3) Divide the total number of rehearsal time (1400 minutes) by the total weighted time (14) to get the value of one unit (about 100 minutes).
(4) Figure the time to be spent on each piece by multiplying your rating of the piece by the rehearsal unit.
(5) Make plans, but be prepared to adjust them.
Smith, J. (1998). In John E. Williamson and Kenneth L. Neidig (Eds.), Rehearsing the Band (p. 76) Cloudcroft, NM: Neidig Service.
Whatever method you use, the most important element in rehearsal planning is to make sure you keep track of time. You do not want to end up a week away from the performance wishing you had spent more time on a piece. The beauty of a pragmatic system is that you can always adjust time from one piece to another. So, if piece A is going better than piece C you can take from one and give to the other.
Whole vs. Subsets (Chaining/Transitions)
Although it is a good idea to provide the ensemble with an idea of the overall concept of a piece, it may not always be the best way to rehearse each day. As with any task we face in life, transitions are always a bit more involved. This holds true for music as well. In the classic sonata form, the development of a piece can often be the most challenging part of the work. Many times the energy or focus of a piece is lost during these moments, therefore it is critical to pay special attention to these areas so the overall flow is seamless and musical. Backwards chaining also provides some effective methods of rehearsing. Next time you rehearse why not start at the end and work backwards?
Macro – Micro – Macro (Specific Feedback)
When working on a piece of music the director should always work toward the big picture (Macro). However, there are many times where we must break the whole down into its relative parts to check for accuracy (Micro). It is at this critical level that specific and targeted feedback must be delivered effectively and efficiently (I remember being encouraged to keep my comment to seven words or less when stopping, a task that is quite difficult to accomplish effectively). Ensemble members need quantifiable information delivered as quickly as possible (5 cents sharp, 10 cent flat, 25% too loud, 10% too soft, etc) in order for the biggest impact to be made at this level. It is at this juncture where novice directors may have the least effect. If that is the case, nothing can be more helpful than a recording device. It is very difficult to assimilate and diagnose the amount of information being generated by the ensemble while on the podium; therefore using any type of recording device that allows you to listen away from the podium will only strengthen your ears. Once you have effectively diagnosed the issues at the Micro level you are able to return to the Macro level to see if the bigger picture is clearer as a result of your rehearsal work. Be patient and diligent and you will reap the benefits of your work
So you have been practicing the music for three or four weeks and you are a week away from the festival, what do you do now, the answer is approximate reality. Set up a performance for your group. If possible, take them to the actual site of the performance so they can see, hear, feel what it is going to feel like. And if possible, record them in the environment so that you can listen and make adjustments based on any issues you hear in the hall. Perhaps you will need to relocate a section that is overbalancing or not being heard at all. Set up performances for parents, at a P.T.A. meeting, etc. The more you play the program for people the better prepared your group will be. This is a direct transfer for anyone who has ever prepared for a recital and suffered from performance anxiety. In order to get rid of performance anxiety you must perform, and perform frequently.
Record, Record, Record
You can never record your group too much. Technology has made this very easy. Use a camcorder, computer, mini-disc, cassette deck, etc. There is no excuse for not using technology to enhance your rehearsal preparation and feedback. It is amazing how much preparation you can get done away from the podium when you sit down with the score and your rehearsal recording. You should be armed with an arsenal of information to implement at that next rehearsal.
This was one area where I missed the boat in my first year. I did not ask people for help. Don't be too proud to ask people you trust (friends, colleagues, and famous clinicians) to come in and listen to the group. Get as many people to listen to the group as possible so that you have a wealth of feedback. If you find reoccurring themes, then you need to strongly consider those comments. Your goal is to gradually have the comments move from objective to subjective. If your philosophy is in place and the literature was selected wisely this should not be a problem.
National Standard (Evaluating…two weeks before)
National Standards are easily implemented into the final stages of festival preparation. When you record your group one to two weeks before the performance have your students evaluate the performance with the same forms being used for the festival. If you are unable to acquire those specific forms you can download some standard forms from the MENC web site at http://www.menc.org/information/prek12/score_sheets/sesheets.html.
After you have received your ratings and returned home, have your students evaluate their finished festival performance before sharing any of the judges' comments or tapes. Have all the students listen to and adjudicate themselves, share the comments with each other, and compare their comments with those of the experts. You will definitely reinforce the process and the product by involving some thoughtful and constructive dialogue between you and your students.
Finally, implement those comments as best as possible and play the music one final time. Many times we play the music for festival and never implement the suggestions made by the experts. There is nothing more pleasing then hearing a piece of music mature with each performance and enhancing the musical growth of our students and ourselves.
Joseph Parisi joined the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music in 2002 as assistant professor of instrumental music education and assistant director of bands. His duties include conducting the Conservatory Wind Ensemble, teaching music education courses, and supervising student teachers. Prior to his appointment at UMKC, he spent eight years teaching in the public school system of Georgia. He has extensive experience as a performer, clinician and adjudicator while also keeping active as a presenter and researcher in the field of music education and jazz improvisation. Parisi received a bachelor's degree in music education from the State University of New York at Potsdam (Crane School of Music), a master's degree in trumpet performance from Florida State University and a PhD in Instrumental Conducting/Music Education from Florida State University. Dr. Parisi is an active member of the College Band Directors National association, Music Educators National Conference, Missouri Music Educators Association, International Association of Jazz Educators, International Trumpet Guild, Phi Mi Alpha, and Kappa Kappa Psi.
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