Lessons and rehearsals are most effective when you have a plan in advance regarding what you wish to accomplish. All too often band directors start at the beginning of a piece and take a “Clean as you go” approach, correcting things like rhythms and notes, balance, style, intonation, etc. While this approach does often reap good musical reward for you and your students, our time working with students is not always maximized and we often simply run out of time to refine all aspects of our performances.
We have all been to band concerts where the group starts out sounding great and is well-rehearsed with good attention to detail. Oftentimes further into the same performance, the band seems to lack that same level of refinement and care and attention in their performance. It is obvious that the band has the ability to make the music sound great but has not invested the same amount of time or care in preparing for the entire concert. It becomes a matter of needing more effective time management.
Lesson and rehearsal time is best spent when we can equip students with an understanding of the concepts we are trying to reinforce rather than just the “Clean as you go” approach. When we equip students with a better understanding of things like how to properly read and feel rhythms, how to apply key signatures and accidentals, how to play specific musical styles, how to balance melody and accompaniment, how to listen for good intonation, and a host of other concepts that good into strong musical performances, we empower them to apply this knowledge to other musical settings much more quickly. As a result, we are able to prepare music for performance much more efficiently.
In planning lessons and rehearsals be mindful of what you want to have your students learn or accomplish. Each class or rehearsal should have the goal of fostering student skill and understanding to ultimately create even greater enjoyment of music and music-making. Ideally we want to equip our students with enough skill and understanding so that they can take more ownership and apply their knowledge and abilities to other musical settings and challenges.
How you implement this approach is important. Kids want to play music and the majority of our time with them should be spent playing and learning new music. Having said this, just a few dedicated minutes of every class on technique-building pays dividends in the long run. When planning your lessons and rehearsals try to have your plans include four general elements:
- Listening and/or music appreciation
- Skill or technical development
- Announcements and administrative matters
- Rehearsing music
As a general guideline, a one-hour class could look somewhat like this:
Listen to Music (5 minutes)
Listening is so important and often neglected with the excuse that, “We just don’t have time.” Have students listen to and learn about great music, artists, and composers that they wouldn’t necessarily know. Students will appreciate quality music even if it is unfamiliar to them and in many cases they will seek out more. Listen to the repertoire you are working on with the students. There has always been an argument that by doing that we’re not teaching students how to read music and instead we are teaching them by rote. But if we make a point of teaching students how to read rhythms and develop their technical skills along with a basic understanding of keys and musical form, by listening to a piece of music they will pick up much more than, “This is how it goes.” Students will have a better sense of the style of the piece, the form and contour of the piece and the role that their part plays and how it relates to others’ parts. It also gives us an understanding or example of what generally what we’re aiming to sound like and the impetus on how to interpret it our own way.
Technique/Skill-Building (5-10 minutes)
While most students would certainly prefer to ‘skip the scales’, you are doing them a disservice if you do. ALL of the music we are teaching our students is based on scales and scale patterns. By working on increasing their technique on their instruments every class, students will gain skills that can be applied to more music and lead to even greater musical challenges. This period of working on technique should include working in a variety of keys and scale patterns. There are more keys than Bb Major and scales don’t always start on the root and ascend one octave and descend one octave. Be creative and have some fun as students learn to better get around on their instruments. Encourage students to play everything including scales and patterns with good musical intent and sense of phrase, as scales and patterns don’t need to sound mechanical. Be creative and encourage students to always play with musicality.
Announcements (As little time as possible)
While we hate to take any time away from teaching for things like administration, it is important to keep everyone informed on upcoming events and information. Separating working on technique and working on repertoire gives students a better understanding that increasing their technique is something that is an important aspect of their musical development.
Rehearsing Music (35-45 Minutes)
To be most effective, rehearsing music should include two main elements:
1) allowing students to experience the success of playing part of or an entire piece very well
2) having students really digging into something that needs work and a focused effort
In short, aim to reinforce and celebrate something and aim to improve something. If we only rehearse what we can already do, we’re not improving. If we only rehearse stuff that needs lots of work and nothing sounds good, that can leave students (and you!) frustrated, particularly if we’re trying to play something that is way too hard for the overall level of the group. Use your limited rehearsal time wisely.
The other thing worth noting about this four-part approach to planning is that by design you always start and end with music. Music is, after all, what got us teaching this rehearsal or class in the first place.