Let’s start by asking better questions…

I am not one to make a new year’s resolution – the idea of self-regulation only once every 365 days is somewhat unsettling.  If you think that needs to happen only once every 8,760 hours, you might have some personal issues that no amount of blogging can ever fix – sorry to drop the hammer, just a personal view. That being said and out of the way, I hope to present an idea for consideration more than one day a year, and hopefully will be used more than 17 out of the 365.  It’s not so much about giving some answers or explaining a solution, it’s about finding better questions…

I don’t really know any directors who in some part of their career have not uttered a phrase akin to “Percussion you are playing too loud”, or “Clarinets the eighth notes were not together”.  The director’s role on the podium can become as repetitive as the scale and rudiment exercises that we select for our students to study.  It is easy to lapse into being in “error-detection” mode to the point where our rehearsals become anti-music learning and we simply gather the output from the ensemble, offer our assessment and corrective measures, and then move on.  Given enough time, enough “No, that isn’t correct”, and desire to have a perfect product, important development and learning will get lost in the process.

I recently read several articles in nationally published journals that point out that a director should offer more detailed explanations as to why he or she has offered some corrective solution to an ensemble issue of musicality, precision, or balance.  Perhaps the percussion need it pointed out that their dynamic level drops over measures 36 to 38, or that the clarinets did not release as a section off the whole note tied over the bar and that is why they did not ascend the eighth notes together.  The point of this blog is not to disagree with those views at all, as there is certainly a time and place that we as a trained educator and musician must make a musical decision in the best interest of the ensemble and the music.  My concern is the neglect for making the students aware of these issues – are we conducting this music for ourselves, or do we want the ensembles to be more engaged and connected to the process of creating this experience?

Rehearsal time is precious. Sometimes when we break a rehearsal down to rehearse a small section of music with just one section of instruments it breaks the flow (or cools “white heat” as Robert Reynolds would say).  The attention span of other students is momentarily interrupted, and parts of the collective whole become disengaged from the common goal.  Perhaps we need to address multiple problems across the ensemble with three different groups.  The obvious solution here is to give each group a quick synopsis of what the problem was, where you want to start, and what you want them to do while you are working with other groups (i.e. review fingerings, write in rhythm syllables).  That still leaves other sections disengaged from the process of making music.

Here is where asking better questions of our ensemble and students may begin to pay dividends moving forward through our rehearsals:

Percussion Example

Question to the section: “Percussion, what is happening to your part from a standpoint of musical expression at measure 36 through the end of measure 38?”

Question to the ensemble: “Band, do you feel that the percussion is making that decrescendo happen beginning at measure 36?”

Comment to the ensemble: “Let’s try that section again. Percussion be aware of your decrescendo, band evaluate their expression at measure 36, and percussion when we stop again tell the band why that decrescendo is important.”

Clarinet Example

Question to the clarinets: “Clarinets, is the rhythm problem with where the eighth notes start, or before the eighth notes start?”

Question to the ensemble: “Band as the clarinets play this section, would you listen to and identify what beat the eighth note pattern gets out of sync?”

Question to the ensemble: “Look at your parts, and listen to this section as we play it without the clarinets. Which section of the band could the clarinets listen to assist them getting a clean release off the whole note into their ascending eighth note pattern?”

If we want our ensemble to be engaged and invested in the product of the music we have selected for study, then it is upon us to involve them in the process of listening, describing, and evaluating (someone should make that a national standard…).  One thing I frequently stress to my own ensembles and honor bands that I have guest conducted is that “We need to learn to listen to each other – the world is a better place when we learn to listen”.  It is one thing to tell our ensembles, but it is better to tell them and give them a reason as to why they should listen.  Have the ensemble compare articulation of unison rhythm passages between the brass and woodwinds – who is playing with a better staccato? Have students listen to the breathing and phrasing by a section playing a unison melody – who is breathing in the wrong place? Where is the right place to breathe? Ask your students what they think is the right answer – you may be very surprised.

For those who may be concerned about the debasement of authority in the rehearsal hall, I would urge you to place your fears aside.  My experience thus far with students and this concept has been very positive, and for the most part they are appreciative of the fact their opinions and ideas may be voiced, can be utilized to hear the musical result, and provides them with a sense of ownership in the ensemble and the music making process.  The idea here is to give them reasons to listen and evaluate their own ensemble, give them an opportunity to assist in the interpretation process, and to understand how subtle changes in the attention to details of a group of people can make a large difference in terms of the musicality of an ensemble.  Calling on students to answer or play by name is a powerful reward and indication of their worth to the group – involving them by name into interpretation strengthens your reputation as a leader, educator, and musician.

I have found asking better questions and involving more student input in the process of interpreting, shaping, and performing music has resulted in more engaged rehearsals and meaningful performances.  It becomes paramount that we equip those students with the necessary tools (conceptually, verbally) to speak about the music they hear being performed.  This process has forced me to be a better musician on the podium – in terms of knowledge of the score, knowledge of terms, and personal performance ability. Critical reflection and self-evaluation using objectives concepts to evaluate an aural art form – I bet the educational authorities and policy makers who are trying to fix education with standardized testing had no idea that our best answers are questions.  Happy new year – now get out there and ask some questions!

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2 Comments

  1. What an insightful post, Travis! I couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of allowing students to make their own discoveries about the music they play, rather than being told what they need to do in order to be musical. I look forward to exploring these ideas as I begin student teaching in a few weeks!

    Happy New Year 🙂

  2. The error detection and prescription method of running a rehearsal is born out of a desire to get as many successful repetitions as possible into each session. Most ensemble directors understand that there is barely enough time to reach a level of proficiency, let alone excellence, with performing repertoire, especially in the U.S. where the vast majority of students do not practice at home or practice very inefficiently.

    Asking powerful questions gives the students ownership of the process, and it can be enlightening to the level of comprehension they actually possess. Asking deeper level questions, however, can bog down the process. There has to be a balance, because the trade-off of better educated music students is public performances with obvious performance problems. Having once had a parent of a 7th grader come up to my face and state “That was the worst band concert I’ve ever heard,” I have been on the other end of this topic before and tend to opt for more depth than flawless performances.

    Not every band program has the luxury of having a chamber music element to it, but my program is built around it. My students become stronger, more independent musicians because of it, and my larger ensembles benefit.

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