5-Minute Read: Shake Things Up with a Silent Rehearsal

By now, you and your bands have probably settled into a comfortable routine of warm-ups, sight-reading, and rehearsal of your pieces you’re preparing for upcoming festivals and concerts.  Maybe even too comfortable of a routine.  While process and habit are certainly key to successful teaching, there’s no doubt that things can become a bit stale and you can experience reduced response from your student performers. So shake things up with a silent rehearsal!

A silent rehearsal will not only be a nice change of pace, but it also has several other advantages, including heightened listening by both performer and conductor, increased response to conducting cues, and improved classroom management.

Carefully Plan

A silent rehearsal won’t be successful on the spur of the moment, so plan ahead.  Carefully lay out a written plan of the warm-ups, rhythms, and musical excerpts you want to rehearse, in order, with approximate times.  This plan should include the goals of each rehearsal region (i.e. “improve dynamic contrast in measures 24-26”). Then copy this plan onto your whiteboard/projected classroom lesson plan so that students will see it when they enter the room. This way silence can be established from the beginning, with simply pointing to the board serving the purpose of announcements.

Work on Your Non-Verbal Communication

Silent rehearsals aren’t silent just for your students, they’re (nearly) silent for you!  Though it may seem like a challenge, requiring your students to intently watch you and pick up on your non-verbal communication will translate into a much greater connection and response to your conducting and gestures.  Go ahead and have some non-verbal cues at the ready, such as:

  • Reserving finger pointing and other aggressive gestures for disciplinary and classroom management situations
  • Stopping the ensemble, waving to the section(s) you want to engage, then pointing to your baton. Rather than telling that section what you want changed in style and dynamics, show them with your conducting. Make sure that your conducting style and gestures truly reflect what you want to hear! Get them to exaggerate their response to your conducting style and cues, and when you get the appropriate response give them a smile and a thumbs up!
  • Show fingerings and slide adjustments to your wind players who are playing wrong notes.
  • Walk back to the percussion section to personally demonstrate technique, such as proper grip, more open rolls, or appropriate positioning for playing the cymbals or triangle.  This is a great chance for non-percussionist band directors to do some YouTube research on proper technique!
  • Shake your keys at the ensemble when they aren’t playing within the marked key signature.
  • Clap your hands in the rhythms with which your ensemble is struggling, then point to them and have them clap it back.  Once the rhythm is correct and fluent, then mime them into playing the rhythm on their instruments.
  • Show them a pencil and mime marking things down in the score.  There will probably be reminders for yourself to mark in your score, so make sure to point to yourself and make a show of writing things down!
  • Have them sustain chords or individual unison parts and point to your ear to improve intonation.  If they need to focus even more, have them sing through instrument on an “ah” while fingering the appropriate note. This can all be readily communicated with signs and gestures.

Leave Time for Reflection

Make sure you leave a brief interval at the end of class for a quick discussion with your ensemble.  What did they hear in this silent rehearsal that they never heard before? What did you notice now that you were silent and intently listening? What lessons on focus and non-verbal communication can be carried from this silent rehearsal into future situations? This brief discussion can truly focus your student performers on their capabilities of focus, and limitations in multitasking.

While it’s not something you’d want to do everyday, silent rehearsals can provide a boost to you and your students’ listening and communication skills.  The change of pace is fun for everyone, and the response to your conducting will be noticeable.  Finally, you’ll notice issues with your band’s playing that you’ve become deaf and blind through the daily classroom grind.  Give it a try this week!

Thanks to Yahama “SupportED Magazine” for Featuring Me

Thanks to columnist Elizabeth Geli at Yamaha “SupportED” Magazine for including me in her article “Musical Marvels: Dynamic Brass.” I was honored to be included amongst so many great brass educators across the country, and the article had so many great tips for music educators.

You can find the article on page 20 of the Fall issue, available online at https://www.yamaha.com/US/tmea/supportED/SE_Fall2016.pdf.  Thanks to Yamaha for their great support and products!

In-Depth Read: “The Visual Airstream”

Air.  It’s the fundamental fuel that allows your wind performers to clearly communicate their musical lines to the audience.  Great air flow is needed to produce a quality, characteristic sound. It’s needed to play with great intonation.  Proper presentation of breath control is needed to accurately attack and release notes as an ensemble, and to do so with clear sound and technique.  The airstream is life! And boy are we bad at using it.

We’re not bad at using air because we’re bad people, but because we simply aren’t attuned to the physical processes that our bodies use to control and direct the airstream.  Breathing is completely automatic for us, and we don’t give a single moment’s thought to our breath as we speak.  Because of this automatic nature of breath, we are not normally perceptive of how we are using the lips, teeth, tongue, and throat to control and direct airflow, and this lack of perception bleeds into our wind players’ performance. Throw in the fact that air is invisible, and it becomes a tough proposition to diagnose and improve your students’ airflow issues.  But making the invisible visible can go a long way towards improving airflow! Here’s how.

Use Visual Monitors

Look at the picture in this article, featuring the West Seneca West High School Wind Ensemble in West Seneca, NY, as it demonstrates the following technique.  This works great, especially for brass players.  Have your students take a simple piece of paper and fold it in half (either way will do) and then hold it in front of their faces, about 6 inches in front of the lips.  Simply have them blow a stream of air onto the paper, but tell them that the paper must bend as far from their lips due to the airflow.  This will establish the strength of the wind column they must produce and sustain.  See how much they can make the paper move and how long they can sustain that distance.

Now, have them put their mouthpieces (works for woodwinds too!) to their lips and blow silent air at that piece of paper (no buzzing or vibrating reeds).  See if their papers still move the same distance, or at all.  You and your students be astounded to see that some of them already have a major decline in airflow, and lips and reeds aren’t even in the way yet!

Finally, have your wind players buzz (any pitch will do) and vibrate their reeds through their mouthpieces at their piece of paper.  This will be the most telling moment of all, as you’ll see over half of that paper in front of their faces barely move at all.  You have made their airstream visible and the results will be sobering for your students!

So where is the air going? Why isn’t it getting out of their lungs and through those mouthpieces. The next steps will help you diagnose and improve this issue.

Do It Wrong!

There are three places that the airstream can be impeded:

  1. Lips
  2. Teeth/Jaw
  3. Tongue/Throat

As mentioned earlier, we as humans aren’t very good at being self-aware of what’s happening in these areas.  So help your students learn what it feels like to control and properly use these areas of their wind column by doing things intentionally wrong first!

Lips

Let’s start with the lips.  Have your students clamp their lips tightly and try to blow through their mouthpieces at that piece of paper.  While it seems obvious, lips being too tight, especially in the center of your brass players’ embouchures, is a common air impedance for wind performers.  Now that they can feel what it’s like to do it wrong, have them loosen their lips and blow air onto the paper through their mouthpieces.  Not only will their eyes show them the difference as the paper moves a significantly greater distance, but their eyes will be able to tell a change in the sound of the airflow.  Highlight these differences for them.

Teeth

The teeth/jaw is another common blockage for airflow, so let’s help open it up.  Have your wind players grit their teeth as they blow at their paper monitor.  Again, highlight the sound quality of the airstream as well as the (lack of) movement in the paper. Now have them pretend to chew a big piece of gum their back teeth as they politely keep their mouths closed.  Have them freeze with their jaw open and then blow their air.  Not only will the teeth be out of the way, creating lots more motion in the paper monitor, but once again there will be a marked change in the sound quality of the exhale. Once again, highlight these differences for your students.

Tongue/Throat

This is the most insidious place where air is stopped.  The placement of the tongue in the mouth directly affects how open the throat is to airflow.  Again, we’re not good at knowing where are tongues are inside our mouths at any given moment, so let’s learn what it feels like to have incorrect tongue placement. First, have your students take their left hands and place it around the tops of their throats (see image). Now have them move their tongues backwards and upwards inside their mouths. They’ll be able to fill their throat filling as the tongue expands and blocks the larynx.  Have them hold the tongue in that position as they blow on their paper monitors.  The sound will be hissing and anemic and the paper will not move very much. Now have them do the opposite, moving the tongue forward and down, resting behind the lower front teeth.  With their left hand, they will feel their throats open.  Have them maintain that tongue position as they blow on their paper monitors, and the sight and sound will be very different!

With all of this newfound awareness of their air column, your students will have a far clearer and more powerful wind stream.  Have them apply this newfound knowledge as they buzz their mouthpieces and reeds and then move to their instruments.  The improvement in volume, tone quality, intonation, range, and more will instantly improve your experience and that of your student performers!