5-Minute Read: Unison Chorales to the Rescue!

If we got a dollar every time we said the words “intonation” and “balance,” we’d be fondly remembering our band directing days from our private island in the Caribbean.  We are constantly striving to get our performers to listen to the prevailing ensemble balance and pitch center.  And one of our best tools in the ongoing battle is the warm-up chorale.A four-part chorale teaches so much about balance and tuning across an ensemble, and when they’re done well they are just plain fun to play and listen to.  However, sometimes the richness of a four-part harmonized chorale can mask pitch and balance issues from our care and attention.  So try simplifying with unison chorales!

Ready-Made or Do-It-Yourself?

There are plenty of chorale books that have a variety of chorales in every key, and that show your musicians every single part of the arrangement.  Therefore, you can always use the techniques described here by simply telling your ensemble “everyone play the soprano part in exercise 7.” However, let me lobby for the Do-It-Yourself variety of unison chorale, for several reasons that will be made apparent below.
You can easily create a unison chorale with any legato melody.  It could even be a melody from your current performance folder (even better!).  For example, if your band is playing Holst’s First Suite in Eb, take the opening chaconne phrase and plug it into your notation software of choice for every instrument in your band.  Like so:

Now your warm-up is also helping your students practice a phrase from their music, and they’re having to tune to every other instrument in the ensemble.  You can have them play it, sing it, brass buzz it, you name it.  In fact, you’ll find it very useful to actually mix and match these techniques mid-phrase.  Just play up to a certain chord, cut off the ensemble, and have them sing the next pitch through their instrument, or have the brass buzz the next pitch.

Every Key Signature!

There are more advantages to this do-it-yourself chorale method.  Since you’ve plugged this into your notation software, it’s now very easy for you to transpose this into every key.  You’ll have to adjust some notes that go out of the practical range for your players, but you’ve got a simple method of teaching your students to listen and play in every single major key.

You might find it useful to focus on a single major scale each week, using the unison chorale in the matching key signature.  Because the melody always remains the same, your students can focus entirely on balance, intonation, and quality of sound throughout all ranges of their instrument.
These techniques of unison melodic warm-up in all keys, mixed with singing and mouthpiece buzzing, can vastly improve your concert or marching band’s ability to tune and produce a balanced sound.  Give it a try!

It’s Darius Milhaud’s birthday today!

It’s Darius Milhaud’s birthday!  Born on this day in 1892, Milhaud grew up in Aix-en-Provence, France.  It’s not too late for you to program some of his works with your ensembles!  Wind Ensembles can always enjoy revisiting his Suite Française. And chamber groups will relish tackling Symphonie de chambre No. 5 “Dixtuor d’instruments à vent”, Op. 75; Le bœuf sur le toit, Op. 58; or my favorite, La création du monde, Op. 81.

5-Minute Read: Metronome Games!

No sound is as dreaded by director and performer alike as the piercing click of a metronome. We’re all ambivalent about the humble metronome; we love it for its contributions to a solid performance, but we hate the frustrating process of playing to an immovable, uncompromising pulse. But there are some techniques and processes that we can employ with the metronome to both help our bands, and make the metronome a little less misery-inducing.  Please note that the following notes can be complicated by asymmetrical and/or mixed meters, so use your best judgement for the musical passages that apply in your own show.

“Subdivide, subdivide, subdivide!”

Most of us have have had this mantra preached at us, and then we’ve preached it to our own ensembles.  And it’s true!  Student performers must learn to subdivide for rhythmic accuracy, maintenance of pulse, and to properly execute marching fundamentals.  However, simply turning on the metronome, with 8th note subdivisions banging away, may not be the most effective way to get your group to internally subdivide.  For one thing, if the metronome is subdividing for them, they don’t have to.  True, the ensemble must fit their performance into the regular pulse the machine provides, but it’s doing the work.  Therefore try this technique in music and field rehearsals.  Let’s assume you’re playing a chart in 4/4 at MM=148
  1. Start by setting the metronome to double the metronome marking, in this case MM=296.  Yes, you could simply turn on the 8th-note subdivider if your metronome has that function.  Rehearse to that tempo to find areas where rhythmic and pulse imprecision occur.
  2. Once you know the areas that need to be firmed up metrically, set the metronome to the marked tempo (MM=148).
  3. Now we begin making the students really do the subdivision themselves.  Set your metronome to half the marked tempo, or every 1st and 3rd beat (MM=74).  Now the performers have to provide the internal subdivision themselves to ensure they arrive at the major downbeats as an ensemble.  This also works well because the marching performers will have their left foot lining up with each metronome click.
  4. Finally, provide the ensemble with only first downbeat of each measure by setting the metronome to 1/4th of the marked tempo (MM=37).
Using this method can truly improve the subdivision skills in your ensemble members.

Empower your Field Conductor

The technique of placing an audible metronome at the back of the ensemble is sound and effective.  It allows the ensemble to listen to the back so that the audience hears a unified sound beyond the sidelines.  However, sometimes it can encourage so much listening that students come to rely on what they hear and cease watching the field conductor or drum major.  So mix it up a bit by giving only your conductor the metronome!
Once you’ve solidified your field show enough, try putting some good earphones over your drum major’s ears and connecting them to a metronome.  Now, only your drum major has the audible pulse, and the band is forced to completely trust their hands.
Want to up the ante even more with this technique?  Ear plugs.  They’re cheap (check out this box of 200 pairs at less than $20 on Amazon) and very handy, especially if you’re preparing your band for an indoor performance where echoes and acoustic concerns impede listening across the field.  Regardless of venue, placing a metronome on your drum major’s ears and forcing your band to only march to their conducting hands can really dial in your ensemble and take your performance to the next level!

5-Minute Read: Cleaning Your Halftime Show? Work Backwards!

Have you reached the “cleaning” phase of your halftime show?  If so, you know that it can be hard to keep students, and yourself, focused on that task.  We all love learning new things, be it music or drill.  But getting into the nitty-gritty details of cleaning can be grueling and frustrating.  One great tactic to shake up this process and get more done? Work backwards!

The Diminishing Returns Trap

We all face the law of diminishing returns.  Students and teachers alike get mentally fatigued over time, and later parts of our rehearsal/season can become less productive as a result.  But there’s another part of the law of diminishing returns that we don’t always notice.
Think about learning drill or music.  Typically, we tackle those tasks in a linear, chronological order.  Like so:
  • Set 1
  • Set 1 – 2
  • Set 1 – 2 – 3
  • Set 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
  • Set 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5
  • Set 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – etc.
Or like so:
  • Opener introductory phrase
  • Opener introductory phrase – theme 1 phrase
  • Opener introductory phrase – theme 1 phrase – bridge phrase – etc.
Notice how often “Set 1” and “Opener introductory phrase” occur?  While it’s only natural for us to teach music and drill in chronological order, it does result in the students getting far more repetitions on the earlier material than the later material.  Thus, as the music and drill proceed to their conclusion, the students become less familiar with the task at hand.  That’s diminishing return!

Work Backwards!

So, we can combat this diminishing return by cleaning our music and drill from back to the front.  Take music memorization for example.  If you do group memorization (“play phrase 1 with your music, now without, etc.”), try working from the end of your last show tune, to the front.  Like so:
  • Closer: Measure 51 to the end with music
  • Closer: Measure 51 to the end without music
  • Closer: Measure 43 to the end with music
  • Closer: Measure 43 to the end without music, etc
Or with drill like this:
  • Set 45 – 46
  • Set 44 – 45 – 46
  • Set 43 – 44 – 45 – 46
  • Set 42 – 43 – 44 – 45 – 46 – etc
Now the longer your rehearsal goes, and the closer to the end of the music or drill your group gets, the more repetitions they’ve had on that material.
This tactic not only focuses your group’s limited time on material they know the least, it also shakes up what can be a repetitive and monotonous process of cleaning.  So remember: when cleaning your halftime show, try taking a step backwards!

5-Minute Read: Improving Your Marching Band’s Intonation

As we pass the middle of August and our marching band shows are beginning to take form on practice fields across the country, we’re all looking for ways to improve our band’s sound.  After all, we want the best possible product for the ears of audiences and judges alike.  However, the challenge of developing a superior ensemble intonation, already a challenge in climate-controlled indoor settings, is a massive undertaking in the marching band arena.  Extremely loud dynamics, extreme temperatures, extreme physical demands on performers: everything is so extreme! To overcome these obstacles, here are several techniques, strategies, and routines that we can employ to improve the intonation of our marching bands.

Check the brass equipment

It can be difficult and downright annoying to find the time to monitor the workings of every instrument in the band.  But more often than not, the valve slides of your brass instruments have frozen in place, and without them, your students don’t have a prayer of playing in tune!  Take a moment in rehearsal to check the mobility of the brass valve slides, and make note of those that are stuck (this includes the F trigger slides on trombones!). Have your local instrument repair them at their earliest convenience.  Often, this repair is as simple as using a cloth or leather strap, looped through the valve slide, to pull it out.  The slide can then be cleaned and greased.  Once those slides are moving, your trumpets and mellophones will be free to use their thumb saddles and 3rd valve slides to adjust many notes that are typically out of tune.  As for the other brass instruments, use this handy tuning exercise to get their valve slides adjusted to the correct length.

Warm-up your winds in the shade

While we all like to develop a certain physical toughness in ourselves and in our students, sometimes doing some activities in a cooler environment can really pay off.  When you warm-up your winds, consider leaving them inside or in the shade to reduce the temperature of their instruments.  The increased heat in direct sunlight pushes all of the wind instruments much sharper as their bore shrinks, and not every instrument is equally affected.  Getting your ensemble to settle down closer to A440 will darken your ensemble’s sound and certainly won’t hurt your center of pitch on the field.

Consider your tuning note

While tuning to F-concert provides a note that’s comfortably in the range of every instrument on the field, it can present many issues.  F-concert is slightly sharp on every brass instrument on the field except for F-horns or F-mellophones.  In an ensemble already pushed sharp by extreme volume and high temperatures, this can confound your attempts to settle pitch in your ensemble.  Consider tuning your trumpets, trombones, baritones/euphoniums, and tubas to Bb-concert (middle register).  This note is a fundamental tone on those instruments, and therefore can more accurately calibrate instrument length.  F-mellophones and horns can tune to their middle C (F-concert), as that is a fundamental pitch on those instruments.  While you’re tuning your mellophones to F concert, feel free to have tenor saxes and clarinets play their G, as that provides a good tuning pitch on those horns. Piccolos, flutes, alto and bari saxes (and double reeds if you have them) can be well-served by tuning to A-concert.  This note puts the pitch a good distance from the mouthpiece and should be free of major tuning issues inherent on all instruments. Once you’ve presented these individual tuning notes, the entire band can tune to Bb-concert to make their final adjustments.

Focus your ears and energies on the 2nd and 3rd parts and on the larger instruments

It’s only natural that our ears are drawn to the stronger players and the leading voices in our ensemble.  They’re our most accomplished performers, and their higher pitched instruments and melodic lines are more prominent in the ensemble sonority.  Indeed, the higher-pitched sounds carry more energy and therefore are more intense to the audience’s ears.  But as a result, we often end up with very hollow-sounding bands, dominated by piccolo, flute, alto saxophone, and first trumpet parts.  The more you can encourage, isolate, and develop the lower voices in your ensemble, the richer and more in tune your band will become.  An excellent strategy in this effort is to reduce the volume of all first parts and first chair players while increasing the dynamics of the inner voices.  Second trombones, third trumpets, tenor saxes: you name a larger or lower-part voice in your band, and you can bet that focusing more energy and attention on those students will improve the sound and tuning of your band.  During music or drill rehearsals, try cutting out your best players, even cutting out all of the first part players, and listen to your ensemble perform.  You’ll hear where weakness in tone production and intonation are hurting your band’s center of pitch.

Don’t give up!

The long term, physically demanding nature of marching band means we all get fatigued, students and teachers alike.  But don’t ever stop warming up, tuning, and listening to your band with an ear towards improving their intonation.  An in-tune band will be a much louder band, as the overtones and sound waves align to reinforce and scale up before they reach your audience.  I hope that using these techniques will provide you the rewarding experience of just such an ensemble.  Good luck to everyone on the field this year!