Monday, March 6, 2017
IN THIS ISSUE:
Respected colleagues and friends, this is the time of year when I start getting calls, emails, and carrier pigeons asking me to schedule clinics with ensembles to help in the development of their concert festival programs. I am always happy to do this when my schedule allows, as I used to be a director and LOVED the process of developing a top notch performance for concert assessment.
However, something that always strikes me a bit funny is that they usually ask me (or other directors/clinicians) to help with their programs one or two weeks before their contest performance. While I'm happy to help out, and every ensemble can benefit from a fresh set of ears and ideas on style and interpretation, I believe that the work that REALLY makes the difference happens at the front of and throughout the semester. If you're skipping out on the most important elements, the last two weeks are not going to fix the problems that such neglect creates. Thus, I submit the following checklist of elements that should be your priority, and if you or another director identify a potential problem in any of these areas, they need to be addressed immediately rather than two months from now:
1) TONE and TUNING
There is no such thing as too much emphasis on tone; it is the one unifying, ever-present element in ANY performance. A good mentor and friend of mine once told me "If your kids don't play 16th notes, you can pick a piece without 16th notes...if your students don't play well in the key of Db, just don't pick a piece in the key of Db...but if your kids don't play with good tone, your entire performance will be bad no matter what you do." If you are letting bad tones go right now...two weeks before contest is NOT the time to fix them. Isolate problems now and begin trying to fix problems (embouchure, reed strength, mouthpieces, etc...).
Tuning is also a skill that must be addressed every day. Do your students even know what in tune sounds like? While simply going down the row with a tuner is a good start, it the most basic of approaches and very time consuming as well. Singing and group tuning by ear will help develop the skill and increase the speed at which your ensemble establishes a good pitch center. Make sure you demonstrate what "in tune" and "out of tune" sound like daily, as well as demonstrating the science of how changing the length of an instrument alters it's relative tuning. A synthesizer or Schwartz's "Tuning CD (available on iTunes)" are great resources, along with "Let's Find Out" by Stephen Mellilo.
2) BLEND and BALANCE
I am a firm believer that the way you do anything is the way you do everything. While it is true that balance will need to be adjusted in certain pieces and at certain moments (like two weeks before), it is essential for an ensemble to have a regular concept of balance and blend to create their "sound." First, make sure to establish a basic sense of pyramidic balance (a great resource and explanation of this concept may be found in "Effective Performance of Band Music" by Francis McBeth. Chorales and Chords exercises are great for this. While most directors seem to have a good basic understanding of balance, another element that seems to elude about half of them is blend. Blend, for me, is the matching of tone qualities and tonal strength from member to member within a section. If you can discern an individual within a section sound, you do not have good blend, period. During your tuning time, you might play a game of "Pitch Around the Room" where each section holds your tuning note or chord. Instruct the students to match the strength of the sounds beside them, not to stick out and not to hide.
Once good blend within sections is established, good blend between sections is the next step. A great exercise for this with groups or individuals is to have one party hold a steady pitch while the others crescendo/descrendo above and below the tonal strength until they learn to match.
Here is my basic breakdown of division ratings based on the number of articulations you can perform:
Articulations are skills that must be developed so they become second nature to the performer, just as finger positions and embouchures are. Include articulation development exercises for your entire ensemble in your daily prep/warm-up/technique drills. Also, remember that articulation does not only happen with the tongue. The air is just as involved; if you want to isolate articulation problems quickly, have the performers air their parts (without instruments in their faces) so you can hear what their air is doing. Also, mimicking is a great way to achieve desired articulations. You can describe it till you are blue in the face, but if you can perform it for them and get them to hear what you are wanting them to do, it will speed up the whole process.
Again, it all goes back to developing skills that are generalized. If your kids don't play one type of phrase correctly, I'm betting there are LOTS of phrases they are dropping. Do certain phrases need special attention? Absolutely. However, only teaching THIS phrase and THAT phrase will not help your students to develop a natural sense of musicianship, though it is a good start. Listening to good performances of the music they are trying to prepare, phrasing in your warm-ups, phrasing at all times will help with this. Never be afraid to take the time in sectionals to define exact breathing points and then practice them so they become part of muscle memory.
5) CORRECT NOTE LENGTH
Most students play the beginning and middle of notes perfectly fine, but the end of notes are usually a problem. The end of a note is where you get style, phrasing, etc. When your band is warming up, are you insisting they play a note for the full value? Do they know how long a whole note is? Not how many counts it's worth, but do they know where their sound actually ends? This is an issue that I encounter with 90% of the bands I work with. Concentrate on absolute note length and insist on it at all times, whether it be warm-up, repertoire, or exercises. For developing this skill, I like Essential Musicianship for Band by Green, Benzer and Bertman.
6) SCALES and NOTE READING
I'll keep this short and sweet. The most important scale your students can learn in the chromatic scale, up by sharps and down by flats. They need to be able to name and position all of the notes. Invest in this. Have your students learn the full practical range of their instruments. It will make learning all the other scales easier. Second to this, practice practical scales as well (most bands do this daily, but just in case). Don't underestimate the power of muscle memory.
Also, take the time everyday to review EGBDF/FACE and GBDFA/ACEG with your students. I know this may seem childish with high school players, but until you've asked a student what a note is and they say "first finger", you don't know how necessary this is for some of your developing students. Include some ledger lines as well. All music students should be able to read both Clefs. If you don't believe this, I'm not sure I can help you.
Don't skimp on the rhythm reading. Some students learn a piece by listening to those around them because their rhythmic vocabulary is so poor. Don't do just hard rhythms...included easier ones so we are moving the whole class forward, not just your first chairs. Another great idea is to have your students do rhythmic dictation. Sing or clap a rhythm along with a metronome and have your students write it down. Start easy and progress...this will enhance their understanding of rhythm over time.
Don't laugh, but ask yourself, do your students know HOW to practice? Not that they SHOULD practice, mind you, but HOW? Do they actually have a set of techniques and procedures that will allow them to succeed on their own? Once I started teaching practice techniques in my class, two wonderful things happened: we improved as an ensemble faster AND my students started practicing more. I believe that many students don't practice because they're not successful at it...help them with this. Practice procedures should be a part of every curriculum. The best resource for this is HOW TO MAKE FIRST CHAIR by Roberts. It is career changing.
If you are addressing all of these issues successfully, the repertoire (if chosen smartly and appropriately) will take care of itself. Your band will be able to sound good no matter what you play (again...CHOICES). If you are doing all of these fundamentals, then those two weeks before festival will be a beneficial time to make fine tuning adjustments. Don't get me wrong, no matter the band situation, I'm happy to help, as are a host of band directors/clinicians across the country...just remember...what we do in one day will NEVER have the impact of what you do every day in your own classroom. If I can ever be of service don't hesitate to contact me.
Randall D. Standridge, Composer/Educator; email@example.com
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