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Engaging Rehearsals to Enhance Music Making

by David Branson

The purpose of this article is to present basic rehearsal design principles that can improve student engagement followed by a description of practical rehearsal techniques designed to empower students to become an integral part of the music-making process.

Student engagement is the hallmark of a productive music rehearsal. Students need to be fully engaged in the rehearsal process in order to learn and grow musically. Learning occurs most effectively when students are actively involved in music-making which includes analyzing, problem-solving, and working as a team. Music teachers must strive to engage all students at multiple levels of learning during every music rehearsal.

The purpose of this article is to present basic rehearsal design principles that can improve student engagement followed by a description of practical rehearsal techniques designed to empower students to become an integral part of the music-making process.

There are several key principles that teachers should keep in mind when designing engaging music rehearsal sessions:

  • Plan for every rehearsal. Know what you want to accomplish and how you will help students meet each learning objective.
  • All activities in the rehearsal should lead to your objectives. The warm-ups, scales, and exercises this plan. Have a clear teaching plan for each piece of literature your group performs, and how that piece meets your learning objectives and standards.
  • Engage students throughout the rehearsal. When you are, there should be a learning activity for every student. If you are working with one section then the others can be air playing, singing their part in their head, listening to the rehearsal and then providing constructive feedback to the entire ensemble. (This also helps create teamwork) The teacher should provide each student with a rubric or check off list to guide their listening.
  • Check for understanding throughout every rehearsal, by assessing the entire ensemble and/or, section performance, and individual performance. Also prepare questions in advance to assess student understanding of concepts presented in the rehearsal. For example, Was the melodic line phrased the same way by the trumpets? If not in what measure did the trumpets not phrase together?
  • The duration of section work needs to be adjusted to meet the age of the ensemble. The younger the ensemble the less time when the entire ensemble is not actively involved in the rehearsal. Plan out your timeline in advance of the rehearsal.

Practical rehearsal techniques that encourage student engagement:

  1. Traditional rehearsal:
    This is the rehearsal where the conductor remains at the podium leading the ensemble. As we all know many of our rehearsals will follow this format. Musical communication from the conductor is of the utmost importance in this setting. This type of rehearsal is vital for developing high-quality ensembles, and communication between conductor and ensemble. This setting is where we really conduct our ensembles, using our hands and facial expressions to convey musical meaning. Traditional rehearsals do not necessarily have to be solely conductor led rehearsals. Even in a traditional rehearsal, conductors should provide opportunities for student feedback, suggestions, and assessment regarding the improvement of the ensemble. Students could have a rubric checklist in their music folder to refer to and use for a self-evaluation tool.
  2. Drill Practice:
    This is a very fast-paced rehearsal technique where the goal is to improve short musical phrases. The students will generally play 2 – 4 measures at a time. The conductor stops to give instruction in 3- 5 seconds and then has the ensemble plays the section again. It is most effective when you focus on one musical concept at time, (e.g. articulation, diction, or intonation). The conductor must know what they are going to say before stopping the group. This rehearsal is a very effective tool for classroom management (as the pace of the rehearsal keeps the students highly engaged) as well as drill and practice. This section of the rehearsal can run for between 7 – 12 minutes dependent on the age of the ensemble.
  3. Walkabout Rehearsal:
    In this type of rehearsal the conductor moves around the ensemble teaching from different locations around the room. This rehearsal technique requires the conductor to memorize his/her score. This will allow you to assess each section and player as you move around the room. You may offer individual assistance to a player as the ensemble is playing. One of the great benefits of this rehearsal technique is the ability to hear your ensemble from different perspectives, which can lead to some insights on how to improve the overall ensemble sound. As you move about the room you may also stop the ensemble on a pre-arranged signal and ask them how they would improve a certain section, and then have the ensemble or section try that idea. Requesting student input increases student engagement, strengthens musical judgment skills, demonstrates that you value student opinion, and builds ensemble rapport.
  4. Reflective-learning Rehearsal:
    Although this is a slower paced rehearsal technique, student engagement remains high since it requires a great deal of exchange between students and the conductor. In this rehearsal you work on large sections of music and then go back and ask for student observations, assessments, and evaluation of their performance (posted rubrics in the room could assist the students with this endeavor. Have the students give analysis on what needs to improve, ask for suggestions on how to improve and then work on the suggestions. The teacher will need to help guide the suggestions, while empowering the students to make decisions. This is a very powerful rehearsal technique that requires some prior training of the group and a period of trial and error learning to be completely effective. The rehearsal cycle is comprised of – performance-assessment-suggestions-performance-evaluation which is repeated as needed. In addition to ensuring student engagement, this rehearsal technique also improves students’ understanding of musical concepts, and the cohesiveness of the musical ensemble.
  5. Non-Traditional rehearsal:
    There are many possibilities in a rehearsal setting to rehearse ‘outside the box’. Try rehearsing in a circle, square, in quartets, small groups, facing towards or away from each other. These rehearsal techniques help students develop listening skills, musical independence, and individual technique. I have used quartets in band rehearsals where the entire band is seated in quartets around the room. This set-up encourages students to listen to other parts of the ensemble. Arrange the students in Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass instrument parts. For example I would group a Flute, Alto Saxophone, Trombone and Tuba together. Grouping students in this fashion helps students discover how their individual parts fit together. This type of rehearsal requires students to be well prepared on their parts since there is no doubling of parts. The conductor needs to carefully plan the objectives for this type of rehearsal and convey them to the ensemble.

Choice of which rehearsal technique to use should be guided by your learning objectives for each session while remaining cognizant of which technique is the best vehicle available to create independent musicians. After all, isn’t it each teacher’s goal to create independent, competent musicians?

The lowest level of thinking is simply recall of facts or ideas. In music we need to engage our students in the highest levels of thinking, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation/creation on a daily basis.

David currently serves as the Administrator for music/art for the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada. He is responsible for coordinating all music and arts activities for the school district. He is responsible to coordinate all professional development training for the fine arts program staff. Prior to his current assignment David taught at Clayton middle school, Edward C. Reed high school and other elementary schools in the WCSD. Before moving to Reno, David served as music coordinator for the Livermore Unified school district in California as well as teaching Band, Jazz, Orchestra, and Choir. He was also a part-time instructor at Chabot College in Hayward, California.

David is a past Western Division President for MENC; he has served as a state president in Nevada and has had various positions on section and state boards for the past 25 years. He is also an active adjudicator at music festivals and has been a conductor for numerous honor bands and music camps. In addition to his duties with the Washoe County School District, he serves on the faculty at the Truckee Meadows Community College. He is on numerous community arts boards and committees including the Reno Philharmonic Education Board, The Reno Arts Consortium, and the Nevada Arts Advocates Board. He has been called upon to speak to the Nevada Legislature committees on the benefits of arts education on student achievement.