5-Minute Read: Score Study

We’re always after our students about being prepared by practicing before rehearsal.  We also continually emphasize the need for them to write in their music all of the important information we give them from the podium.  But do we model the same behavior with our own rehearsal preparation and note-taking?  Unfortunately, the answer is often “no.”

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!

5-Minute Read: Sight Reading Strategies

Ask every college music teacher on the planet what they wish their incoming freshmen can do better.  Though there will be a variety of responses, the majority will likely give you this simple answer: “read music.” That’s not to say that vast numbers of incoming college music students can’t read music.  They just don’t read it that well unfortunately.  More complex rhythms, sharp-or-flat-heavy key signatures, accidentals, style markings: handing a young musician a new piece of music that contains these elements will often stop them in their tracks as they attempt to make their way through a first reading.

Like all difficult performance areas, practice is the key to improving this facet of our students’ musical skills.  Unfortunately, sight-reading is often pushed out of the picture in the daily rehearsal curriculum of many school band programs.  This occurs for a number of reasons, but mostly for one reason: Bands often have less rehearsal time now than they a generation ago, and in our rush to present a finished product, we fear giving up precious time to sight-read.

However, there’s always time to work sight-reading into your curriculum.  All it takes is some planning and discipline, and you’ll see that the time spent developing sight-reading is paid back in spades as your band becomes much more adept at assimilating new music.

Use Rhythm Sheets

Students think they’re too advanced to play them, and you often don’t enjoy them yourself as the director.  But using rhythm sheets that you clap, count, and play can be the greatest tool for developing rhythm reading in your band.  There are excellent published rhythm methods, dozens of free rhythm sheets you can search for on the web, and you can always make your own.  Focus on actually counting and clapping them before playing them.  Then add scale walking exercises that your students travel through on each note of the rhythm exercises.  If students think they’re too advanced to read rhythm exercises, have them play individually at sporadic intervals; they’ll discover that there’s plenty of challenge in a daily rhythm regimen!

Play in Every Key

Learning to perform and sight-read in sharp/flat-heavy keys relies on playing in every key signature.  So make sure you tackle the “one scale per week” plan with your band (see my post regarding warm-ups in every key), and keep going back to review older scales.  By the time you’ve rehearsed E major up and down, a sight-reading exercise in Db major is a breeze!

Do it Everyday

Make sight-reading an everyday occurrence.  Remember, one side of the folder can be works you’re rehearsing for performance, while the other side can be filled with sight-reading music.  In addition, as I pointed out earlier, some of the sigh-reading works can be compositions that you’re evaluating for a performance later in the year.  And remember, you don’t have to sight-read the whole piece!  You can choose 1/3rd of a work to sight-read.

Start Small and Easy

If you sight-read everyday, then you can start with small parts of easier works, and slowly work your ensemble into more difficult literature as they progress.  Think of how much music your band could read if they sight-read everyday for six months!  And by starting easier, your students can be held to a higher standard with less initial frustration on their part.

Have a System and Don’t Stop!

The best sight-reading bands always have a system in place.  My favorite is the S.T.A.R.S. method outlined in the Essential Elements 2000 method book +:

  1. S – Sharps or flats in the key signature
  2. T – Time signature and Tempo markings
  3. A – Accidentals not found in the key signature
  4. R – Rhythms; silently count the more difficult notes and rests
  5. S – Signs, including dynamics, articulations, repeats and endings
For every sight-reading piece, set a timer for yourself and your students to work through this system before attempting to read it down.  By the time festival judges see your band sight-read, they’ll be absolute pros!

Every New Piece is Sight-Reading!

Every time your band is handed a new piece, treat it with the same sight-reading plan.  Be it marching, concert, or chamber music, be it parade, stands, half-time, or holiday concert works, don’t change your approach.  If you follow this plan, you’ll find that your students become proud of the amount of literature they can absorb, and you’ll experience a lot fewer headaches in teaching your band to perform new works.  Good luck to you!
+Lautzenheiser, Tim, Paul Lavender, John Higgins, Tom C. Rhodes, and Charlie Menghini. Essential Elements 2000. Book 2. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation, 1999.

5-Minute Read: Festival Programming

Music Performance Assessment.  Large Group.  Festival.  Contest.  Whatever you call it, we are entering the season when we prepare our concert bands to be evaluated and judged at regional and state-wide events.  At the center of that process is the ever-present question we face annually: “What do I play?”

Before I tackle this question, let me first give a caveat.  Like all of my blog articles, these are my educated and informed opinions developed through experience.  Festival programming is an issue about which many directors feel very strongly, and I’m certain that many would disagree with the suggestions below.  I’m aware of this, so let me remind you that these are only suggestions, and that there are many alternative answers to this question.  That being said, if you are a younger director, or if you have had difficulty in achieving success in your concert band performance evaluations, then I hope these ideas can help guide you in the coming weeks and months.

Don’t Compromise on Quality

If you saw my 5-Minute Read article “What to Play,” you know that I’m a firm believer in not wasting our time rehearsing and performing literature that we don’t value musically.  The same holds true when performing for an adjudicated festival.  Don’t play something at festival just because “it’s a great festival piece,” or “the judges love it,” or “everyone else is playing it at festival.” There are many wonderful pieces for which all three of those items are true, and you should program them.  But program a work because of its musical and educational value to you and your students, not for any other reasons.  At the same time, however…

Don’t Overreach

I’ve done it myself, and I’ve seen many a young band director do it: don’t over-program difficult literature at festival.  There are many opportunities for you to really “reach for the stars” in your concert programming: at your spring concert, or in the music you perform on spring trips.  Just remember that judges will always judge you and your ensemble on what you do, not what you’re trying to do.  I can honestly say, and I’m sure there are many other judges who would agree with me, that I’d rather hear a beautifully crafted, fluent, comfortable performance of Grade 3 music than a “hold on for dear life, I hope they make it” performance of Grade 4 music.  Of course, you need to select music at the appropriate level as defined by your state’s bandmasters association, and there are lists of music to be followed in many locales.  But we all know there is a wide range of difficulty within a given “grade,” so don’t let your eyes get bigger than your stomach when you’re programming for festival!

Don’t Be Too Hasty!

Resist the urge.  Don’t do it.  Don’t pick your music for festival on January 3rd and then spend every rehearsal from now until your performance rehearsing it.  I know it’s hard to resist, but I promise you that there’s time to find the right pieces for your ensemble before you commit to them.  The best band’s I’ve ever heard and observed spent the first 2 to 3 weeks of the spring semester sight reading multiple pieces of music that were a possibility for their final festival program.  This process has so many benefits:

  • You and your students are working on sight-reading something new everyday!
  • You and your students don’t get bored because there’s something new everyday!
  • You and your students don’t get miserably tired of the festival music because you aren’t going to be rehearsing it everyday for 8-12 weeks!
  • You get to test out works you’re considering, and see if they showcase your band’s talents, or see if they expose some major issues you don’t want heard by a panel of judges!
If you wait to commit to a festival program, your students will be better and happier musicians for all of the sight-reading and literature to which you’ve exposed them.  And you’ll be much happier because you know you’ve done the hands-on research to find works that highlight your band’s strengths.  Good luck to all of you preparing your bands for spring concert assessments!