Yes, we’re all incredibly busy and on the go, but score study and preparation are essential elements of our roles as band directors and music educators. Not only does score preparation lead to clearer, more concise visual information from you as a conductor, it also gives you personal insight into how to best interpret the composer’s desires for balance, color, line, and phrasing. Equally important, demonstrating good score study to your ensemble is a wonderful way to model a practice-what-you-preach approach to their rehearsal preparations. Here are some tips that can focus your efforts in this area!
First Listen, Study, and Mark
Before you practice any conducting, gestures, or singing, I strongly suggest you sit down with your favorite recordings of the work and the score in front of you. Listen several times to different recordings as you follow along in the score. What are you looking for specifically? Entrances. Musicians young and old, novice and expert, want more than anything to know when to come in and play. If you take time to mark the entrances for different voices in your score, then you’ll be much more capable of turning and looking at those performers a couple of beats before they are to play. This becomes more important the younger, weaker, or more interior-voiced those players are! Your soloists and first chair players are your strongest, most focused performers, and therefore need the least amount of help from you. The 3rd clarinets, the 2nd trombones, the timpanist with so many rests to count – these performers need your cues far more. And here’s a tip: very often, important entrances occur right after page turns in the score. Look there carefully and mark those in the margins on the preceding page!
Don’t Blindly Trust Recordings
The wealth of recordings available to us online is a wonderful resource compared to what was offered less than a decade ago. However, don’t blindly trust recordings. Whenever possible, always listen to more than one recording. Just because a college or professional ensemble has a recording of your programmed work, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out other recordings of ensembles similar to your own. That way, you are hearing multiple interpretations of the score markings, and can pick and choose those that you prefer. Or you might decide they’re all wrong and you have your own ideas! Finally, be careful of trusting any recording too much. Does the recording follow the composer’s prescribed tempo? Sometimes professional recordings are taken slower than the tempo indicates to ensure a “perfect” recording. Therefore, beware and do your own musical thinking!
Sing, Sing, Sing!
Now that you’ve developed an awareness of the entrances in the work, and you’ve considered your interpretational choices, it’s time to practice. Practice just like you ask your students to do. But don’t practice to a recording. Recordings force someone else’s interpretation on you, and recordings don’t respond to your tempo changes. No, what you want is to sing the composite line of the score, while speaking the cued entrances for each entrance. For example, click or tap on the score image at the top of this post. Notice that the prominent line moves amongst the trumpets, horns, and baritones. This sort of movement of line amongst your instrumental voices is what you want to communicate to your ensemble. So practice singing this section by conducting while singing the composite blue marked lines, and by turning to the imaginary section one beat before their entrance and speaking their section name (you can see where I’ve marked the section names before their entrances). Actually saying the section name “baritones” will ensure you remember how the composite line is shared, and it will encourage you to look at that section to give them the confidence to bring out their important moment.
Always Model Good Note-Taking
We always tell our students to write things down in their music: missed notes, alternate fingers, etc. But we should be modeling the exact same behavior from the podium with our scores! When a section misses an entrance, tell them you’re making a note to give them a better cue, and then actually write the note in your score! If you make a mistake in your conducting (missing a meter change for instance), then make a point of stopping and showing that you too are writing a clear note to yourself in order to prevent your mistake in the future.
Your students will appreciate the fact that you’re practicing what you preach, and you’ll be a better conductor for the notes you make. With these score study techniques, you’ll find that your students respond so much more to your visual communication on the podium, and you’ll be far more confident and informed in your choices to interpret the composer’s indications. Give them a try today!