Monday, October 27, 2014

Picking Literature - My Contest Preparation Process
by J. West


Picking your contest piece is half of the battle. I start looking at lit months in advance. We are a 3A school, so we do grade 3 literature for contest. I use a couple of resources to help me make my decisions. I have a repertoire list from the various volumes of the book Teaching Music Through Performance in Band. The books are a great resource, because they have in depth analyses, and rehearsal tips for each piece. They also come with CDs, but I've had a lot of luck finding good recordings on YouTube.

After a lot of listening, I make a short list of pieces that I think fit my band and are good literature. This year we were pretty strong in the brass and woodwind sections, but we had a talented but smaller percussion section, so I was looking for something that would play to our strengths, in the brass and woodwind lines, but not have 8 or nine percussion parts. You need to know your kids, and your ensemble in order to pick the best music. If you have weak clarinets, don't do Rossini. If you have a smaller band with a couple of trumpets and one clarinet, don't do Grundmann (who typically writes independent and demanding lines for 3 cornets, and 2 trumpets, and will often will write polyphony and divisi in the clarinet lines.) Those pieces wouldn't play to your strengths, and you might not be able to cover all the parts.

I play the recordings from my short list for my band and we pick the pieces together. Yes, my kids pick their own contest pieces. If I've already weeded out the bad apples, the band is free in my mind to pick music they enjoy and are excited to play. If they have to live with it for the next two months they should have a voice in the choice. There is a hidden benefit here. My students and I have great discussions about music at this stage of the process, and by the time my kids graduate, they have a working knowledge of composers, and know a lot about how pieces are put together, and what makes great literature great. They have to; because it's the only way they can make a compelling argument if their favorite piece might not "make the cut." Once we have eliminated the pieces the band doesn't care for, we are usually left with 3 or 4 pieces that we can order, buy, or borrow (if we don't already own them). We read them in class. After we read the pieces we make our final selections and we are off to the races.


I do a formal analysis of the score for each contest piece. I identify the larger sections A, B, C, etc. Then, within each of those sections, I sub-divide into smaller sections, not by phrases and periods, but by where I see voicing changes in the instrumentation. For example, Section A may begin in mm 9 and end in mm 40, but the melody and accompaniment parts may be passed around to different sections a couple of times within that section. I identify where those voices "shift" in my analysis. This saves time on the podium when it's time to rehearse, because I won't have to hunt around in the score. This is especially true in polyphonic sections.

After I have my analysis completed, I then use it as a road map to go through the piece and do a couple of things. 1st, I write out performance goals for each section. "The clarinets will seamlessly hand off the melody line to the flutes." "The low brass will play with a bold marcatto style." "The upper woodwinds will play a balanced diminuendo in tune and in tone." Stuff like that. 2nd, I make a "hit list" which includes the passages and lines I know the band will struggle with the most. My "hit list" serves as my point of first attack and is the well from which I draw for playing tests and chair challenges.


Every year, our school district publishes a calendar that includes teacher work days, days off, school holidays, and "built in snow days". I take this and put it on a blank calendar and make what I call a Pacing Guide. We are also fortunate to have a central events calendar for the high school, that lets me see when they have all school assemblies, "spirit days," and other events that might take kids out of the classroom. I include these days in the pacing guide too. The pacing guide lets me have an accurate picture of the rehearsals available to me.

Using my Pacing Guide, I count backwards from the day before contest 40 rehearsals, Then I add in 5 rehearsals for snow, the surprise pep rally the principal and A.D. put together, the field trip the new yearbook teacher didn't tell anyone about until the day of, and any other unforeseen events which puts us usually somewhere in mid-to-early January. This date is the date I need to start contest prep. I like 40 rehearsals, because it affords me enough time to be well rehearsed, but not over rehearsed.


When I was first teaching, I felt overwhelmed and didn't know where to start. I came to learn that there is a hierarchy in place; a specific sequence to what you should work on first, and last. You can't tune bad tone. You shouldn't work on dynamics if you have a ton of note and rhythm mistakes. The hierarchy fits into a three-tier system that I call the first, second and third cleanings. Let me break them down for you:

First Cleaning: In this stage you should correct notes, rhythms and articulations, and fix bad tone. You should also balance the brass, woodwind, and percussion sections.

Second Cleaning: You should achieve balance, beauty and blend. This is the time to work dynamics, eliminate major intonation problems, and work tempo changes and style. You should also perfect the balance between sections and within each section. This is also a good time to work phrasing, and start shaping musical lines.

Third Cleaning: Every piece is different and so is every third cleaning. In general, eliminate minor intonation problems and perfect intonation across and within sections. Balance and refine all dynamic changes, releases and ends of phrases. Perfect all transitions. Decide what mood we are trying to convey. Perfect the phrasing and shaping of lines. Polish and perfect ensemble balance, and blend. Finally, you get the piece as close to the ideal in your mind as you can. If you have had access to a good recording, this can help.

It is important to note that you might be in the first cleaning in one section of music and in the second or third in another, and that's okay.

For the last few years, I have taken the performance goals from my analysis, prioritized and divided them into two documents that I shared with my kids. I titled these documents "first cleaning priorities" and "second cleaning priorities." They are just prioritized lists with the toughest, highest priority stuff at the top. I called out sections by name, and got very specific with measure numbers and where the problem spots were, so that kids could take these documents and use them as practice guides.

Now you might say, "Yeah, yeah my kids would lose that document before the bell rings at the end of the period." You might be right. I send it out electronically to student e-mail, and post it on our band website for that reason. I know that not every kid will follow the guides and practice what I tell them when, but none of them will if I don't at least try.


Back to the pacing guides! Now that we have our available time and our goals clearly identified, it is time to start scheduling and planning. Good things tend to happen in threes, and here is another three-tiered system to help me divide the time we have together into three portions; "read, rehearse and refine."

Read: In the "reading" stage, I give my band a little time to "read" the piece. We talk about generalities, and we give ourselves and opportunity to get acquainted with the material. I usually label four or five rehearsals in my pacing guide for reading; sometimes less.

Rehearse: After that, I like to block out the next 20-25 instructional days for the "rehearsal" phase. This is where we dig into the details of the piece, and I try to achieve my first and second cleanings within this time frame. I write into my pacing guide what sections I need to work when and, what the performance goals are for each section. I will sometimes try to fill in all 20-25 days in the "rehearsal" phase, and do my best to give adequate time to each section of music we must perform. Sometimes I find it more helpful to go week to week. The advantage to filling in all 25 rehearsals is it gives you a sense of how much time you should give to each individual section, and reduces the danger under-rehearsing parts of your music. The draw-back is that you have to do a lot of erasing to make adjustments. (Or a lot of cut and pasting if you are using an electronic document.) Earlier in my career, I filled in all the rehearsals, but as I have gained experience, I have started to go week to week.

I like the "bookends" approach to choosing what section to work first. I will start with the beginning section and the final sections of each piece, and work my way to the middle. I make an exception to this approach if the middle section is more difficult, or if the first and last sections are identical, or similar. I also chose passages from my hit list. I hit the toughest stuff early. At some point I start making weekly recordings.

Refine: In the "refining" stage we get into the "third cleaning," and I usually invite a guest conductor to work the band at the beginning of this stage. The guest clinician always gives us a clear sense of where we should go next. Usually we are 10-15 rehearsals out, and are ready to polish the final details and get "performance ready."

I make sure, when filling out my pacing guides, to give enough time to each element. If I run short on time, I go into the next week. I try not to hit something tough for 30 seconds on Monday, then leave it unrehearsed for 4 days and come back to it Friday expecting it to be perfect. I also try to give myself two or three rehearsals to hit goals all within the same section, so that we can put them all together into one run through. This lets us get closure, and solidifies that section or element so I can confidently leave it alone to work on something else.


When I have finished filling out my pacing guides, I have a day-to-day picture of what I should work on, and when. I refer to the Pacing Guides and make my daily rehearsal plan. It is important to keep long-range plans flexible, but for the daily rehearsal plan, I plan that out to the minute.

I keep a template on my computer, and I change it to fit what the objectives are in the Pacing Guides for that day. I usually plan 5 minutes for roll and announcements. 20 minutes for warm-ups and ensemble drills and sight-reading.

The final 25 minutes is divided off into a 15 minute primary and a 10 minute secondary rehearsal. I tweak this when I get closer to contest. I scale back the warm-up time and increase the rehearsal time some days (I think carefully however before I do this because. The warm-up is where the kids improve, and build skills)

I keep a copy of the daily plan on my podium, and write a version on the board along with the daily rehearsal objectives, daily goals, and what we will be working next time. This way kids will know exactly what we are working that day, and what they need to be practicing after school.


At the end of every rehearsal I make notes in my pacing guide about what went well, what didn't, and what we didn't get to rehearse that day. At the end of the week, I do a weekly review where I listen to the rehearsal recordings, first to eliminate old notes if we have fixed those problems, then to make new notes. I make a new "hit list" from the week's recording. Taking the new hit list, and the elements from the previous week that still need more time and attention, and I add to the pacing guide for the next week, along with the goals for the sections of music I want to work. Sometimes I look ahead and realize that I had planned to rehearse something that sounded great in the recording. Bonus! I eliminate it from the rehearsal time and find something else to work on. Having a well thought out rehearsal plan in the pacing guide, along with the weekly review, gives me confidence not only that we are rehearsing the right thing at the right time, but also gives me confidence in what we are choosing not to rehearse.


At the end of the process, my hit lists start getting shorter, and the piece starts sounding like it should. I try to take time out of the rehearsal to tell them what to expect on the day of contest. I also start asking the kids what they want to work on. Kids are smart, and I've had more than a few instances where a student will catch an error that I couldn't hear from the podium. Finally, when I lay down the baton at the end of my last rehearsal, I know that for good or ill, at least I have done everything that I could.

In closing, I would like to point out that almost none of these are original ideas. I have put this all together based on advice I have gotten from other teachers, clinics I have attended, and articles I have read over the years. I hope that it helps you in your rehearsal planning. Good luck in your musical endeavors!

J. West
Director of Bands - Hallsville, MO
[email protected]

J. West has been a band director for 14 years. J. taught for 7 years at South Callaway, and is currently in his 8th year at Hallsville. Mr. West received his BME from Central Methodist University in 2000. Mr. West is a member of the Missouri Bandmasters Association, and Phi Mu Alpha. Mr. West would like to thank his wife Anna for helping him with the grammar.