Last weekend I had the pleasure of directing the North Carolina Western Region Honor Middle School Jazz Band out at Lenoir-Rhyne University. The students worked extremely hard for me, were very well behaved, and improved remarkably over the two days. Here’s a video that was taken during the performance.
The whole concert was taped and can be viewed here.
Clinic situations like this can be particularly challenging for the brass students. With only a short time to put together 4 tunes or so it’s difficult to get the music sounding good without doing a lot of playing, but the more the brass students play the harder it will be for them to have chops left for the concert. There are some strategies that you can use to help pace your students through rehearsals and let them save their faces for the performance.
Take Frequent Short Breaks
While this might seem like a no-brainer, it’s really easy to keep the band playing more than you realize. The rehearsal schedule I had with the middle school band was 6 1/2 hours on Friday and 3 hours on Saturday before the afternoon concert that same day. Personally, I would have trouble having chops left by the end of that rehearsal schedule so there’s no way I would expect a group of middle school or high school students to be able to have the endurance to make it through that much playing. I scheduled some longer (10-15 minute) breaks about every hour, but even within the rehearsals I made sure to let the brass players take the metal off the mouth for a bit.
Working out challenging rhythmic passages and fixing articulations can be done without playing by singing. While doing this it’s not necessary for the students to worry about the pitches, just have them sing the rhythms with the proper articulation and style. Not only does this save the brass players’ chops, but it also helps them focus on what you want to fix (the correct length of that short note, the exact rhythm, swinging hard, etc.) without the students’ attention being pulled away by worrying about playing their instrument correctly.
I’ve heard this rehearsal technique called different things, but one of the common terms for it is “tizzle.” Similar to singing, this is where you practice a passage by asking the students to hiss the rhythms with very crisp articulations. Sometimes this works better than singing, depending on the situation. For example, some students are a little self conscious about singing but find it easier to tizzle. Also, when a group is hissing the rhythms it becomes more obvious when someone isn’t getting the releases together. It works great to have a group tizzle a phrase, then sing it once the tizzle is happening, and when they can sing it accurately have them play it.
It’s easy to feel like you’re not really rehearsing the group when you play recordings for the students, but I feel this is one of the best things directors can do with their student ensembles. If you can find a recording of the exact arrangement the students are performing this will help them learn how to play certain passages. If you’re working on sight reading have them play the piece first and then listen to the recording. Contrary to what you might think, this actually improves their sight reading practice because they get the immediate feedback of how the music actually goes and then they learn to make the associations of the sound with the visual notation.
Even if you don’t have a recording of the exact same chart they’re playing it’s very helpful to play different arrangements of the same piece or even just a piece in a similar style. Younger students especially haven’t spent a lot of time absorbing non-pop music and really can benefit from some focused listening. Be sure to get the whole band quiet and focused while you play the recording and then ask some targeted questions afterwards about what they heard and liked.
Let Your Brass Take Things Down During Rehearsals
I try to make it clear to my lead players that during a long rehearsal schedule just before a performance that it’s OK for them to just drop down an octave to save their chops, particularly when we’re focused on a particular section. If I need them to play it as written I’ll ask them to.
This is actually a good strategy in certain situations during performances too. On unison passages the lead player can drop the line down an octave or even just lay out to save the chops for the shout chorus later. Just make sure that the whole section understands that this will happen and plays strong enough to cover for the missing player.
Pass Around Lead Parts and Solos
In an educational workshop I think this is important anyway. Yes, the students have auditioned to earn their particular chair in the ensemble, but when I asked my middle school honor band trumpet section what part they played in their school ensembles I think 4 out of 5 said they normally play 1st. Not only will it spell your lead player a bit to have someone else cover the 1st part on one or two tunes, but it also gives another student some valuable experience.
Passing around the solo parts a bit is similar. I also like to take solo sections and open them up for additional choruses or extra soloists. Having an extra 16 measures or so to rest before a shout chorus can really help a younger student nail the lead part. Not to mention it give more students an opportunity to play. This can be overdone, of course. I prefer to not have dozens of soloists on any particular tune and try to program so that I can spread the eager soloists out over the whole concert rather than just on a single chart. That said, honor band performances are for the benefit of the students (and the family members who come to hear them) and I’m fine with having a couple too many soloists on a chart to give the students the opportunity to be featured on the concert.
Get Intonation and Balance Together
It is so much easier to play when the ensemble is blending and playing in tune. It’s worth taking the time to individually tune every player, even in large ensembles. I always have them tune by ear first and have them practice tuning themselves, then go around with a tuner so that they can get feedback on how close they are getting.
Balance is closely related to intonation. A properly balanced chord will sound more in tune and be easier for the students to adjust out of tune notes. My preference is to build balance up from the bottom end, with the lowest parts being just a bit more prominent than the higher all the way up with the lead parts resting on top. Since in student ensembles we usually place the strongest players on top and higher pitched instruments tend to be more popular than the low ones it’s worth taking the time out of rehearsals to get the lower parts to play out stronger and the upper parts a bit softer. Not only does this sound better, in my opinion, but it also helps the lead players pace themselves easier.
Curb the Competition
This wasn’t a problem with my middle school band, but I have directed some bands where the brass players (usually the trumpet section, go figure!) will be competitive with each other and want to outplay the rest of their section. While a little competition is healthy and useful to push your students, in a situation like the honor band weekend it can end up being destructive to brass players’ chops. Save the high note contests for another time after the concert.
Drink Plenty of Water
Lastly, I encourage the whole band to drink plenty of water throughout the long rehearsal schedule. Some of the value of this is built into simply resting the players while they go to the drinking fountain and some is probably placebo. However, I feel it’s easy to get a bit dehydrated with these long rehearsal schedules and drinking a lot of water always makes me feel and play better.
With a little care you can rehearse your student ensemble and get a lot accomplished without ruining your brass players chops. Keep an ear on how your students are playing and ask them periodically if they’re feeling a bit tired. Help them learn to pace themselves and they’ll have the chops to go all out for the concert, when it counts.