Following one particularly frustrating rehearsal, I asked my senior members as to why they believed that there was a symphonic band on our campus. The only answer that they could offer was “well, every school has a band”. Apparently in their minds, participation in the school ‘band’ had not been considered to be of any particular educational value outside of a ‘fun’ activity, meant in someway to provide a relief from the grind of the daily diet of academia and ‘homework’, or to encourage communal team spirit and the sundry benefits of ‘social participation’ in such ‘co-curricular activities’. To be sure, there was a certain degree of commitment to preparing for festivals, contests and the twice-yearly school concert. However, these events were seen as destinations that somehow became the ultimate justification for the existence of their school performance ensembles. And, it was also tacitly understood by most ensemble members that the actual preparation for these ‘important events’ was to be achieved solely within the actual rehearsal period, and certainly not through the process of personal home practice.
I wonder how often we engage in exploring, questioning and considering what it is our ensemble members understand, or believe as to the importance of their participation in school performance ensembles? I suspect that there are many and varied beliefs, and that we might be surprised by hearing their thoughts…
Upon reflection of my students' answers, I was struck with the urgent need and importance for school ensemble rehearsals to clearly reflect and promote academic rigour with systematic and sequential purpose in the pursuit of performance music participation. Indeed, if we are to secure the ongoing support and respect of our administrators, colleagues, students and parents alike as to the valuable educative assets and outcomes of music ensemble participation in the school community, our ensemble rehearsals will need to clearly demonstrate the acquisition, purpose and effective use of learning processes, which in turn lead to measurable, transferable skills, a useful knowledge base and identifiable outcomes.
Over the years I have often observed ensemble directors playing down the importance of the warm-up/training portion of their rehearsal, relegating it to something that one has to ‘get through’ so that they can get on to the ‘more important’ task of teaching our repertoire. Generally, these routine activities consist of a few minutes of playing through a couple of scales, (often the same ones each rehearsal) and a tuning exercise, maybe employing an electric tuner, a tuba, oboe or vibraphone: then, it’s quickly on to the ‘all-important’ repertoire. When the warm-up portion of rehearsal is seen in this light I believe, we are missing a great opportunity for sharing effective and imaginative learning strategies, and applications in acquiring the skills necessary for musically rewarding rehearsal and performance outcomes.
To be both worthy, and effective of the time allocated, the warm-up/training portion of the rehearsal has to have direct relevance and connection to what will follow on in the repertoire to be rehearsed. Ensemble warm-ups should be used for the process of introducing, preparing and shaping our ensemble’s knowledge and skill level necessary for meeting both the present musical demands, as well as for identifying and preparing for future learning goals.
In fact, our rehearsals should actually reflect our personal philosophy of music education, providing models and practical instruction on how ensemble members are to develop, organise and utilise their own personal practice routine. The main function of the warm-up/training portion is to provide basic strategies on mental focus and concentration, tone production, breath control/bowing/sticking, embouchure development, internal pulse, meter cognition, automatic responses relating to rhythmic and melodic notation, learning and practice strategies, phrasing, harmonic sensitivity and most importantly, independence. In fact, there should be specific reasons and attendant goals for everything contained in our warm-ups as they generally comprise the most precious time of our rehearsal structure: the first 15 – 20 minutes.
Therefore, everything that happens in those first few minutes should be systematically planned to address not only the repertoire which is to follow, but to also prepare our ensembles how to acquire and use technical and interpretive skills and knowledge. It logically follows then that both the materials and strategies used in warm-ups should be assisting in providing our ensemble with the tools/techniques/skills required to meet both the technical and musical demands of our present repertoire choices as well as for our student’s future learning strategies. Planning warm-up/training sessions then requires careful preparation and systematic planning, as to how one selects their material and arranges the various activities which will aid in achieving our educative goals by the end of the day’s rehearsal, the semester and the year before us.
The Edward Lisk “Alternative Rehearsal Technique” warm-up system is perfectly suited to forming the basis of developing creative and imaginative warm-ups as it provides endless exercise opportunities, based around the use of the Circle of Fourths. I personally have successfully used his concepts and exercises to great effect over the last 28 years with ensembles of all ages and experience levels. I also employ a wide variety of chorales, such as Frank Erickson’s “66 Festive and Famous Chorales”, Richard Thurston’s “Bach Chorales for Band”, and Leonard Smith’s “Treasury of Scales for Band and Orchestra”. Depending on the level of ensemble, I include the use of assorted standard method books such as the “Traditions of Excellence”, “Essential Elements” and “Sound Innovations”, etc. With more advanced ensembles I employ technical studies, such as Claude T. Smith’s “Symphonic Warm-ups for Band”, Raymond Fussell’s “Exercises for Ensemble Drill”, Ed Sueta’s “Rhythm Spectrum” exercise book containing 67 progressing rhythm charts and “Sound Innovations Ensemble Training Series”. (This is just a small offering as there are many more for consideration.) The most important issue, however, is to make use of a variety of exercises and texts so that the only routine is the actual time, and not the specific exercises.
An important factor in designing and delivering imaginative and effective warm-ups is found making sure that the material you use is related to addressing and developing both long term generic skills and also addressing specific skills directly contained in the specific performance repertoire you are presently engaged in preparing. It is also important to remember to avoid consistently using the same material and/or employing predictable training routines. This practice dulls the mind, often resulting in a ‘disconnect’, or mental withdrawal from the activity. The main thrust should always be to remind our ensembles that using the ‘learning process’ is their responsibility, not ours, and that they themselves own what they learn. It is our responsibility to model and introduce how to effectively use the time and material, while proving its value by demonstrating the success experienced when the strategies and material are used. The rest is up to them. We might be surprised if we asked an Olympian athlete to describe their outlook and philosophy on their warm-up/training routine.
The actual content found in method books, chorale books, rhythmic studies and technical etudes listed above is not as crucial as the learning process applied to the specific material, leading to successful outcomes. Instead, it is the actual learning process that is most significant and how it is applied to other musical (or non-musical) challenges. Why is the exercise there in the first place, how does it fit into the overall learning sequence, and how can we assist students in identifying the embedded targets: how will the students know when they have met and achieved the implied targets found in in each exercise? Who ultimately is responsible for setting the outcome criteria? How does the exercise sound when it is right?
If we do not share the effectiveness of ‘process learning’ during our rehearsal warm-up/training portion, we then miss a great opportunity to demonstrate the power of personal ownership found in independent learning. Why do we learn to master specific exercises if not to apply the process used in learning them to the technical and musical challenges? Do our students understand this principle? Mathematicians do not learn equations, save for their application and usefulness in the process of problem-solving.
The warm-up portion/training of our rehearsal should provide opportunities where invaluable performance skills are introduced, developed and perfected. If we agree that 70 % of our rehearsal time should be spent on music-making and 30 % to be spent on technique acquisition and mastery then it stands to reason that a majority of the technical skills needed to allow our ensemble to focus on music-making ought to be addressed separately from the repertoire. Composers of significant repertoire generally assume an ensemble’s command of a prior knowledge and skill base to be necessary for a rewarding, significant musical performance to take place.
If we also agree that educational ensembles give concerts because they rehearse, then at least part of the entertainment value should be derived from the communal joy of a successful progression from one level of performance to the next. School concerts, besides entertaining our audiences of friends and families, should also provide reality checks on the ensemble’s overall musical development and progress. Therefore concerts, festivals and contests should never constitute ultimate destinations, as we will be generally disappointed with ours and our ensemble’s overall results. Instead, we should endeavour to view these activities as vital stops on our ensemble member’s way to their final destination of assisting in producing independent, life-long learners and lovers of music.
Thank you for taking the to read my thoughts...