Band Directors have the wonderful, yet, difficult task of harnessing the energy, inspiring the talent and disciplining the skills of their students. The wide-range of desire, ability and experience that come together in their ensembles make this uniquely challenging. With the pressure of upcoming performances and competitions, a band director has to find the most efficient, effective and stimulating use of rehearsal time.
Over the years, I have been asked to give master classes for the flute sections in many school music programs. I consistently see the same general problems throughout (grades 5-12). Some band directors have the good fortune of developing and taking advantage of programs where the majority of students are in private lessons. Others may find themselves in a new or unsupported situation where private lessons are financially impossible or simply never promoted. I find that the most valuable ideas and techniques I can share with these students center around how to practice and develop their own playing in order to best serve the ensemble and thus, truly enjoy their music-making.
Some general student comments often expressed when I hold a master class in a school include:
1. I can’t hear myself in band.
2. It is all going too fast, so I just fake it. I can barely keep up.
3. I don’t know if I’m flat or sharp.
4. I don’t know what any other section is doing while I’m playing my part.
5. I can’t make it to that next breath, so I just breathe wherever I need it.
6. I know the Bb major, but none of the others. My band director has given me lots of great sheets of scales, but I don’t really do them.
7. I don’t understand this rhythm and how it fits with the other parts.
8. I never really thought about why I should be soft or loud or somewhere in between.
In talking with them about practice, I learned early on that there was little more to the students’ preparation than “playing through” their band music at home. There appears to be little understanding of how to work through a piece, a short passage or even a simple scale. Obviously, those benefiting from good private lessons are usually well on their way to understanding practice techniques. However, so often, the majority took their instruments home only once a week. When a student’s individual progress is slow and directionless, they become bored and discouraged. They don’t see how they fit into the overall ensemble and therefore, don’t know what to do at home. So, how does a poor band director keep this all in balance and move his students forward along their musical journey?
I see the same issues in my private students when they first come to study with me. I began to think about how the creative practice methods I encourage my students to use might be applied to a band rehearsal setting. Students will gain skills, understand musical language and build confidence in their playing as both an individual and an ensemble player.
Creative Practice is simply a method of taking something (i.e. a scale, a passage, a rhythm…) and reworking it in many different ways in order to gain greater mastery. The variety in changing patterns makes it a lot more interesting and fun to play things that students often find boring (like scales). It challenges them to think and be awake and active in their playing and listening. When my students apply even a few variations to a passage or scale…the results can often be immediate and alarming to them. I love to see the big smile when they can play a part that seemed unplayable just minutes before. The challenge is to get them to carry that feeling out of the band room and inspire them to practice that way at home. Continued reinforcement of these methods is the answer!
1. Provides variety and enlivens interest.
2. Highlights and “irons out” problem areas.
3. Strengthens weak beats by shifting the stress to an unexpected place with the use of variations on articulations and rhythms.
4. Exposes the different aspects of phrases and technical exercises.
5. Brings out the beauty of melodic lines and uncovers a hidden flow.
6. Increases the possibilities of mastering a difficult section usually attempted only by mindless repetition.
7. Expresses the musical line with spirit, direction and elegance.
A teacher of mine once told me that master cellist, Pablo Casals, would start his day, everyday, with a beautiful slow C major scale. When asked why, he would explain that it brought everything into focus: his finger placement, his ears, his bowing, his expression, and his intonation. He knew he was properly centered to begin his musical day, if he could play that scale with perfection.
I hope to inspire you hard-working band directors to apply some of these variations in rhythm, articulation, dynamics and tempo to your daily band warm-ups as well as to particular passages in the band pieces. Start simply and encourage students to be very awake to their sound and the sounds around them. Listening is the first and most important step to making adjustments and improvements. Until students have a chance to really hear themselves both alone and in relation to other instruments, they will always feel a bit lost or worse yet, oblivious to how their insensitive or inaccurate playing negatively affects the whole group.
Start with the scales that are appropriate for your grade levels. Set a daily, weekly and/or monthly goal as a group for learning your selected keys. Better yet, take the keys of your current band pieces and establish a short and simple routine to learn and drill that scale. Simple ideas like this can lead the students into terrific practice habits. Even high schoolers would benefit from a C major scale played in whole notes at a Largo tempo with a ppp dynamic. What an opportunity to develop tone, intonation, breath control and endurance. Do not underestimate the power and comfort of learning a new key at a non-pressured speed. It calms fears and allows the student to clearly “think” through each note of the scale. Have your members chant or sing the note names of the scale first to encourage the idea that if their brains can think it, and their voices can say it, then they are 90% closer to playing it. Provide manuscript paper and have them write out their scales (just one or two at a time). Again, keep it simple and “do-able”. Be positive and encouraging. Never underestimate the power of your energy and enthusiasm.
Be as creative as possible when it comes to varying the speed, the dynamic, the articulation and the rhythm of the scale and arpeggio exercises. Remember, you are teaching them how to listen, to be patient and to teach themselves. Give them this power and the results will be tremendous. Believe in them and reinforce these techniques on a daily basis. Do not let this be a one time “lecture” or exercise and send them off to continue on their own. It will eventually become an instinctive way of “learning” their music both in the ensemble and on their own. Learning these routines and practicing them together will build confidence.
At the end of this article I have included charts of a few articulation and rhythm variations you can apply to 4 or 8-note and 3 or 6-note groupings (depending on your scale pattern, you may need to add a note or two at the top or bottom of the scale to complete the rhythm). Get the students away from “reading” their scales on a page and into “thinking” through them so that the variation can be more easily applied. As I suggested above, start slowly to reinforce the notes and gradually add levels of difficulty as appropriate. Once they feel comfortable on some of the articulations and rhythms, you can then apply them to particular sections in their pieces. Take a difficult passage, use the notes but play them in different rhythmic patterns. Again, these practices techniques can work very well in sectional as well as whole ensemble rehearsals.
Start simply and with an achievable tempo and basic articulation. Once there is ease with this, ask for a different dynamic and/or learn a new rhythm. I also suggest teaching the rhythmic patterns on repeated notes of the scales first. As I mentioned before, take examples of rhythm, articulation, dynamics, keys and scale patterns directly from your band pieces. You can see it works both ways: apply variations learned on scales to passages in pieces and in turn, take rhythms… from music and apply to scale routines. Always start with one layer, get comfortable and add more as their skills grow. Use your chalkboards up front to have a visual for one or two patterns you will do for the warm-up. Demonstrate and explain. Better yet, assign this to one of your more advanced students as an opportunity to lead the group.
1. mf, lent, Bb major scale, half notes
2. mp, moderato, F major scale, 4-note groupings rhythm # 9, all slurred
3. ff, vivace, G major scale, 3-note groupings rhythm #10, 3-note groupings articulation #7
Another creative idea is to change how the band is broken into sectional rehearsals. Rather than the typical “flute sectional”, create “mini-ensembles” with one person from each section working together. It is truly enlightening to be a young flutist finally sitting next to an oboist, a clarinetist, a French horn player, a snare drummer, and a saxophonist…WOW! It is eye opening to hear your instrument in direct relation to those players. Suddenly you begin to understand how your parts fit together. The concepts of rhythm, balance, intonation, timbre, expression…will all come to life for them. That kind of direct experience with the other instruments is invaluable. A sense of individual responsibility also begins to grow when a student hears more closely why their accuracy (notes, rhythm, dynamic expression…) is so vital. The student starts to feel the importance of her part even if she is sitting at the end of her section.
Our creativity and imagination are limitless. We could go on giving example after example of variations and methods for practice. In the end, the idea is to build the technique, reveal the many layers of musical line and expression and give insight into the personal potential and discipline of each student. Use these ideas as a mere starting point to spice up your own methods of teaching creative and effective practice.
As I tell my students all the time, you must constantly challenge yourself by varying your routines and approaches to your music. You will find yourself learning more music, more quickly, more accurately and more enthusiastically. There is no time to get bored. The confidence that comes from hearing and feeling tangible improvements is a great motivator for future practice. Students simply practice more and better when they feel that they are truly improving.
So, if you are tired of your routines and tired of hearing the same old mistakes, unleash your creativity and inspire your students to do the same!