In a sense this period of enforced separation can also offer up some silver linings in our present dark clouds. With enforced interruption to our ensemble training just maybe we can do some 're-setting of how we will recover the lost momentum and revisit the neglected, but essential skill base.
To this end I would like to offer for your consideration the following article on addressing "Common Rehearsal Problem Solving Solutions"...
Here are a few reflections regarding thoughts and recommendations on common rehearsal concerns:
1. How to improve rhythm-reading skills
Assisting your ensembles in obtaining effective rhythm vocabulary acquisition seems to be a common thread from most ensemble directors I have worked with in the past. However, some of those with whom I have worked have mentioned the Ed Sueta “Rhythm Vocabulary” Charts as a great tool for gaining rhythmic acquisition of mastery and comprehension.
Some ensemble music educators use various strategies and combinations of rhythm-reading strategies, such as providing beginners, as well as advanced players with different levels of rhythmic challenges. After all, the book is only a book of exercises aimed at developing and employing the tool of rhythmic sub-division leading to accurate rhythm reading. It is how you use the exercises to attain your goals: with imagination and measurable outcomes! Ultimately what. rhythmic skills do you wish for your ensemble to master? Surely we wish for self-motivation and independence.
The main purpose of the rhythm charts is to:
- Introduce students to an effective counting system and the concept of subdivision in solving syncopation challenges.
- Provide for a systematic acquisition of a generic, automatic rhythmic vocabulary.
- Provide samples of various rhythmic combinations with which to apply and transfer the counting/subdivision tools for successful rhythmic acquisition and understanding to performance repertoire.
- Introduce a systematic counting system.
- Introduce the concept of .)subdivision (i.e. the measuring of note/rest length with the lowest common denominator
- Help students to see and celebrate the overall reading improvement.
- Use the Book sequentially; Chart 2 follows Chart 1, etc. (demonstrate in the training portion of your rehearsal how to apply the strategies drawn from the generic rhythm exercises in solving rhythmic challenges in their performance repertoires
- Poor reading ability is directly related to a limited rhythmic vocabulary and to their lack of a workable counting system or the use of sub-dividing skills.
- It is essential to demonstrate how to apply a recognised counting/subdivision system to each individual exercise.
- Students will generally engage in significant practice outside rehearsals when shown how to obtain successful outcomes and rewarding results.
- Method books provide for:
- A framework for a sequential, systematic approach to practicing/learning. (Scope and Sequence)
- Valuable source of general and generic information.
- A variety of exercises, utilising information and skills in easily digestible and achievable bites. (8 bar exercises – (‘5 minute’ goals).
2. How to select appropriate performance repertoire
As to selecting ‘appropriate‘ repertoire for a specific ensemble, there are quite a few factors to keep in mind.
The better acquainted you are with the available literature, composers and publishers the more successful you will be in meeting repertoire selection challenge. To this end I would suggest that you:
- Begin by personally visiting retail stores where possible and spend time familiarising yourself with the repertoire and by speaking with the in-store specialists. If this is not possible, there are several on-line stores which provide sample scores, and in many cases recording excerpts. Just keep an open mind, as these stores and the relative sites are more of a advertising exercise than a scholarly approach
- If the above are not possibilities for music store options are available, you can always make personal contact by phone or email for assistance.
Please refer to the Repertoire Selection and Score Study Process article, which should assist you in informing your selection criteria.
Our repertoire should always be considered a part of our teaching material, providing reinforcement for your training programme, as well as exposing our students to the art of music-making. For our concert repertoire serves many purposes beyond primary performance.
3. How to work with unbalanced ensembles
Unbalanced instrumentation within an ensemble often presents some fundamentally difficult issues:
- Repertoire selection: You need to search out what repertoire is available for your current ensemble’s instrumentation. (Consider works with flexible scoring; contact retail music specialists)
- How can I match my ensemble with the repertoire I wish to use? You need to specifically study the score, identifying aspects allowing for adjustments and substitutions.
- What instruments do I have, and can I/may I write out parts for the available instrumentation for the missing parts? It is important to see if you have sufficient instrumentation to meet the composer’s/score’s requirements. Depending on how much you need to substitute parts or change the scoring, you may have to seek the publisher’s permission. (Be sure to check AMCOS regulations)
- Dynamic balance. How do I balance the ensemble with little, or no bass line, or too many instruments in one section and not enough in the others? You may have to be imaginative here. Baritone Sax, Bass Clarinet, EEb Contralto Clarinet, Electric Bass or Keyboard. In the case of too many instruments in one section, try convincing students to consider easily facilitated instrument changes: Trumpet to Euphonium; Alto Sax to Baritone Sax; Soprano Clarinet to Bass, or Contralto Clarinet; Flute to percussion, etc.
- Instrumentation substitution. Can I substitute one instrument for another without defacing the composer’s original intent? This is difficult without seeing the score and knowing why the composer chose this instrument. Sometimes instruments in the same voice can be substituted: Muted trumpet, clarinet, soprano sax or flute for essential oboe parts; tenor sax for euphonium; alto sax for French horn, etc.
- What Instrumentation can I get by with and still preserve the composer’s original intent? Once again, this largely depends on how the scoring is laid out, how important parts can be sufficiently covered by other sections or individual players
However, in the end, answers to these questions only offer short-term solutions. You can work around each of the above problems, providing a temporary relief for your students with judicial choices, but without ever addressing the “Elephant in the room” of why we need to continually make these instrumentation adjustments.
I do not pretend to have the ‘correct’ answers for all of these questions. However, the essential question is, “Why are our ensembles unbalanced?” In a sense, these questions point to an overall administrative problem and one of attraction and retention. In the long run, participation in unbalanced ensembles is not particularly rewarding, or educationally viable for the average student. In fact, it often leads to greater problems, such as rehearsal engagement and overall retention.
4.How to effectively work with wide range abilities within an ensemble setting.
We are often faced with the problem of working with students of unequal abilities within an ensemble setting. Our academic colleagues face this issue too. How can we effectively engage our students when both their skills and knowledge base are often at odds?
I would like to suggest that we need to think communally with regards to this issue. Let us create a community of learners that is compatible with our educational philosophy, that includes a ‘student ownership’ component (students having a personal stake) in our ensembles:
Here are some points to consider:
- Does our ensemble programme require a basic skill level and knowledge base for entrance into, and/or advancement between ensembles?
- What are the basic Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) for each ensemble? (What should students know and be able to demonstrate, having completed a term/semester/year of membership in an ensemble?
- Generally, senior, or more experienced members will volunteer, or can be appointed to encourage, aid and assist younger, less experienced members when inspired, encouraged or given opportunity to
- The ensemble (community) is both encouraged and permitted to offer suggestions or solutions to the issue.
- Endeavour to choose repertoire that is mutually beneficial for both advanced and less experienced members, i.e. identify musical, versus technical challenges. Be sure to explain to your ensemble what you are planning to do and why. remember that training and skill acquisition enables suitable, rewarding repertoire choices.
- Introduce a systematic ensemble-training programme to lift the technical skill level of all members, especially for the less experienced ensemble members.
- Share your training strategies with the senior ensemble members and provide them with more advanced challenges contained within the training regime.
I believe that our rehearsals should not be perceived as overly ‘concert production’ oriented; Rather they are to be viewed as ‘Show & Tell’ opportunities, serving in part, as a gage of how well our ensemble is assimilating their fundamental skill and knowledge training. Rehearsal focus can then be directed to developing generic ‘learning-processes’ that leads to musical interpretation. This approach will, in turn direct students toward taking both responsibility and ownership for their individual learning and problem solving. This kind of rehearsal focus allows more time for music-making, and much less time and effort spent on technical rote-learning.
Rehearsals ought to be places where directors operate as guides and mentors, passionately sharing suggestions and proven strategies: Identifying achievable goals and demonstrating the effectiveness of employing strategies that lead to overcoming performance challenges, including; syncopated rhythms, fingering & bowing combinations, key centres, tone production and intonation issues, harmonic influences, phrasing and expression considerations. After all, in the end, we are but 'investment counsellors' sharing investment strategies!
All the while, our rehearsals should aim to both inspire and empower students to appreciate and enjoy the joy of music making on both a personal and corporate level. Ultimately this should lead to lifelong engagement with music enjoyment and music making. It is this kind of environment that promotes an effective pathway to ‘life-long’ learning."