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Four Ways to Know Your Part

by Michael Haithcock, Director of Bands, University of Michigan

Few conductors at any musical level feel as if they have enough rehearsal time. From the beginning class to the professional orchestra, all conductors are worried that there will not be enough time for each individual player to learn the music under preparation to the best of their ability. All conductors also know that the strength of any performance rest with the individual players and their motivation to accomplish this goal. When this motivation seems to be lacking conductors often respond with one of two opposing strategies. The first reaction is to add time to the process. The frequency and intensity of after school rehearsals and before school sectionals seem to crescendo as the performance draws near. While this is often an effective way of solving the problem, it also puts the burden for learning on the teacher and not the student. The second reaction is to change the musical selections and decrease the level of musical demand. While this strategy may result in an exchange between two good compositions, it is similar to the first reaction as it diminishes the responsibility of the student to meet the learning opportunity.

A common denominator between these two reactions is that both focus on short-term solutions rather than long-term learning. My experience in working with players at a variety of performance levels has taught me that human nature will often defer to the most stated objective. In many rehearsals, players are encouraged to learn their parts with little explanation as to what that really means. If goals are articulated, the conversation usually begins and ends with accuracy (EXECUTION). In the minds of performers at all levels, the time allotted between the beginning rehearsal and the performance is factored into their motivation and enthusiasm toward learning the part. If they are only encouraged to play the part “right” most will gauge their progress against the time allotted. This is often why the rehearsal before the concert reveals a “new ensemble” to the conductor.

Is there any way to alter this course of human nature? I think so! In fact, I propose a learning sequence designed to encourage students to learn their parts at a variety of levels. Variety in strategy has proven in my experience to motivate and educate players of differing abilities in ways that improves the short term process but also provides the players increased transfer from one rehearsal sequence to the next. Teach your students that there is not one way to know your part, but four ways. Let me explain!

I. Right Notes and Right Rhythms

We all want our players to play the right notes and the right rhythms. We demand that they play exactly what is on the page! But is that really correct? Are there subtle shades of truth that color what the player should expect from them as they work toward an accurate performance level? I think so! Perhaps we need to redefine what “right” is.

Teach your students to “tune the tune”. Melodies at any level of music are built on some harmonic system. A simple melody is in a key and derived from a scale. The acoustics of the scale require careful listening and tuning for the melody to be played with the “right notes”. While tuning each note to A440 provides a basic tuning reference it will not allow a student to play each note in tune within the tune. The flat third or sharp fifth in contrast to the tonic will add clarity to individual intonation and ensemble warmth. To teach these concepts ask your players play a familiar melody in unison. Show them where the notes tendencies fall on their instruments, guide them from the problem of the instrument to the pitch tendency of the note in the key assigned. This exercise will usually take them through the notes at A440 on their way to the “right note”. This flexibility will increase the players ability to match pitch at many levels but it will also give meaning beyond “pushing the correct button” to produce the desired note.

I often hear conductors say they work with their ensembles to get the piece right and then they revisit the composition and put in musical detail like dynamics and style. My experience has shown me that this often leads to neutral or blocked dynamics and seldom leads to the kind of dynamic contour that characterizes truly great performance. Teaching students to play the right note should also include the right dynamic. The intonation problems of crescendo and decrescendo are part of the learning process in getting the note right. A note that is too loud or too soft in relation to the composer?s instructions is not a “right” note even if the correct pitch is played. The flexibility and the aural skills required of a player to listen and respond to this concept of correctness may create a slower learning pace initially, however, like the interest in your bank account the rewards will increase exponentially as learning compounds. Remember that musical shape is determined by the airstreams of the individual player and the orchestration that combines players create color. The more players called for at any moment in the orchestration, the more flexible the individual player must be for the shape to change.

Articulation affects style. Articulation affects tone. Articulation affects rhythm. Articulation that alters any of these three things in a negative way produces a wrong note or rhythm. Shape and style put “meat on the bones” of the written rhythm and must be considered simultaneously with duration if the rhythm is to be “fleshed out”. Composers throughout history have always known that musical notation is limited. They expect good performers, conductors, and teachers to make independent musical decisions that bring the notes on the page to life. Lifeless rhythms are not “right” rhythms.

With a new view of what it means to play the right notes and the right rhythm, students now have the skills to add additional ways to their repertoire of “knowing their parts.”

II. Listen to match the music no matter the instrument

This concept might be called ?sectionals with a twist? and it will challenge players to listen to the music horizontally. In any orchestration there is seldom more than four to six different musical lines (parts) going on at any one time. It is important to illustrate to players their role in the orchestration by having them match the other players who play the same music. While there are many times this involves players on like instruments, there are an equal number of times where they can be matched with others. For example, in tuttti sections of most band pieces there are unison similarities between the flutes, oboes, clarinets, and trumpets. Create “chamber groups” within your ensemble by assigning quartets or trio of players who need to be able to match like music. This will go along way toward reinforcing the concepts of playing the “right notes”. It also gives the conductor any easy way to hear many players individually without taking a lot of time. Listening to four players perform eight measures, with each playing a different instrument, gives the conductor and players a chance to develop their listening skills. Creating an environment where students feel free to discuss what they hear and potential solutions also helps develop the player?s accountability to each other.

One of the most successful ways of initiating this process is to reseat the ensemble. After deciding how the lines in the score can be divided among your players, format the seating of the ensemble in such a way that the small groups you hope to hear are together. An ensemble of tuba, bassoon, baritone sax, and bass clarinet seated together usually open many ears to not only the problems of the music but also the difficulties of the individual instruments. Similarly, a quartet of flute, oboe, clarinet, and trumpet have much to gain from trying to match unison lines in close confines rather than spread throughout the seating chart. Use this flexible seating in creative ways to bring together or to emphasis your rehearsal focus for the day. Putting the percussion section in the front as in a concerto is not only a great way to keep an eye on the section but it often can solidify for the remainder of the ensemble the important rhythmic energy of a composition. Upper woodwinds can also hear very clearly the mallet parts they are supposed to match. Think of rehearsal seating not in terms of performance balance but of spreading EARS throughout the group.

An obvious requirement of this strategy is that the conductor must know the score. The role of the orchestration, the combinations of instruments, the actual pitches sounding all have to be learned prior to developing such a strategy. This kind of rehearsal preparation will have many benefits beyond the “knowing of the parts.”

III. Listen to matching others who play the same instrument

Playing as a section is never easy no matter what the level of musical performance. Given the goals of redefining the concept of “right notes”, players are know equipped to use their listening skills in a section and concentrate on aligning their notes vertically. The same tuning issues in regards to tonic apply to chords. Make sure your students understand the role of chord playing and are sensitive to adjusting for their “right note” in any chord. Lowering the third, raising the fifth, blending the tonic upper octave to the bottom are all crucial to playing the part right. Any player should always know which chord member they are being asked to play. While working with students on this type of chordal analysis may slow down the rehearsal process at first, the rewards will again outweigh the slackening of the pace. It also requires the conductor to analyze the score before the rehearsal and be sure of the harmonic information to properly instruct the students.

Often organized sectionals before or after school become remedial work. Players who do not practice on their own are given the chance to practice with the supervision of a teacher. The players who do practice are frustrated and often feel that their time is wasted while players who are unprepared are taught by rote. Sectionals that are focused on getting beyond correct take on a new meaning. This is true even when the sectional is a “mini-sectional” within the full rehearsal. Depending on the level of music and musician you are working with, establish a time frame for individual preparation. Let your players know when you expect them to be ready to do specific things. This will help them focus on growing instead of waiting for the performance event. Such a schedule will also help the conductor determine if the music selected is too difficult for the experience.

IV. Independence from the page

All conductors want to be watched! We all hope our conducting inspires our players to greater heights. A player who really knows the part is much more prepared to watch, perform, and read the part than is a player who is hanging on to the part in hope of not making a mistake. One of the best ways to determine if players really are ready to watch is to give them nothing to watch. Sounds odd but it is usually true. Often in our efforts to give our players everything we create a sameness that is similar to a lecture from a classroom teacher delivered in a monotone voice. Heads drop into snooze position in this classroom setting. A skilled teacher knows that when heads begin to drop one of the most effective ways to reclaim attention is to stop talking! Class participants are suddenly aware!!

Try this with your ensemble. Tell them to keep the performance going unless you give them a pre-arranged “stop sign”. Once you get the music started gradually withdraw from conducting. This will force the players to internalize the pulse, listen across the room, and determine their own level of dynamic production. While not conducting, LISTEN! Some times we conductors are so busy giving we do not ?take in? what our players are telling us. Listen carefully for things you wish to address in the rehearsal but listen for what the players do well without you. Compliment them and boost their self-confidence in the ensemble. Think about the things they do well. Think about how you can change your conducting to monitor those things while directing their attention toward the concepts you feel need improving.

This exercise will initially reveal some ensemble problems in tempo and dynamics. Be willing to understand that is part of the process. Think about the benefits to the marching band when the music is memorized. Think about the distance players in marching band are spread from each other often without being able to see a drum major. The same collective ears and eyes who play together outside on the marching field will gradually emerge in the rehearsal and concert hall if it is expected.


Intonation, Interaction, and Independence all begin with I. Teach your students that each of them is Individually accountable to their peers, their teachers, and the composer for how they play their parts. Give them specific time frames and goals to meet within the overall rehearsal sequence. Like faculty meetings, the time it takes to accomplish the goal will usually expand to the time allotted. Focus on the student?s ability to recycle what you teach them from one sequence to another. Constantly reinforce what you determine is the best way to play the right notes and rhythms.

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