5-Minute Read: “Er-ror! Er-ror!”

This week’s 5-minute read is for the younger, especially first-year, band directors out there.  In many visits to work with directors early in their careers, there is one recurring theme which consistently presents itself: younger band directors have trouble dissecting their ensemble’s sound to detect pitch, rhythm, and intonation errors.

It’s amazing when one considers the human brain’s ability to sift through dozens of sounds simultaneously.  A concert band not only has more than 14 different wind sounds alone, but multiply those voices by all of the individual performers and your ears are absorbing dozens of concurrent timbres and lines at once.  But like any mental feat, focused listening requires training and experience.  And in addition to developing hearing acumen, young directors must cultivate the self assurance to stop and correct incorrect sounds the moment they’re heard.

Dissect the Ensemble

When trying to find and correct errors in your ensemble, try some pre-planned ensemble dissection.  In the area of the score you plan to rehearse, find all of the individual lines.  For example, find the melody instruments, the countermelody voices, the block harmonic voices, and the bass voices.  Then, listen to those instrumental groups as their own individual ensembles.  Now, instead of trying to pick apart an entire band’s worth of musical lines, you’ll be listening to simplified, often-unison motives which will be much easier to examine for errors.  This will also assist your student performers in hearing and self-correcting their own errors.

This technique is also helpful for unifying style in repeated motives across the ensemble.  If clarinets have Theme A at measure 12, and the trumpets have Theme A at measure 37 (even at a different key level), then have those two sections play that theme simultaneously.  This will help them unify style while correcting pitch, rhythm, and intonation errors.

Record!

We are not the multitasking machines that we like to think we are (see the multitasking research of the late Stanford University professor Clifford Nass for more on this subject).  Even the most experienced director is a less effective listener while conducting.  Add non-musical issues like bathroom passes, permission slips, and band fee collections into the mix, and our brain is awash in non-audible stimulation on the podium.  Therefore, make sure you record your rehearsals as often as possible, so that you can sit and listen to your band while studying your scores.  Focusing on sound alone, without external concerns and feedback, will allow you to hear things you’re missing from the podium.

Self Confidence

Even when younger directors hear errors, there is one non-musical concern that often prevents them from correcting them.  I have been told often by these young people that they are worried about “stopping too much” because “the kids will get bored” or “frustrated.” To these directors who are just beginning their careers, be assured that your students are far more frustrated by uncorrected errors than by stopping. Yes, it’s important to balance the rehearsal to “keep things moving,” but a blend of careful error correction, mixed with play-throughs of large portions of the music, will provide more satisfaction for you and your students alike.  Try these ideas at your next rehearsal!

It’s Olivier Messiaen’s Birthday!

Today in 1908, French composer Olivier Messiaen was born in Avignon. A professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatory, his special compositional voice was made all the more intriguing by his interest in birdsong. Transcribed birdsongs appeared in many of his works. Wind conductors should check out his 1956 work Oiseaux exotiques (“Exotic birds”). Written for solo piano and orchestral winds and percussion, this avant-garde composition weaves together various birdsongs in bright, crystalline colors. Check out this recording online!