Tag Archives: concert band

Recruitment and Retention

Chris BernotasBy Chris M. Bernotas

Spring is coming and that is certainly welcome here in the Northeast!  Along with fresh air, spring also brings many exciting events in the world of education.  We are all enthusiastically preparing our ensembles for spring concerts, spring trips, spring community events, and many other performances.  The other school event that occurs around now is student course scheduling for next year’s classes! Kids are excitedly running to their counselors, looking ahead to the new and unique opportunities that await them (I can dream, can’t I?)  Of course the first thing on their list to register for is band!  That, at least, is the scenario we all hope and strive for.

Recruitment and retention are always on the minds of music educators.  Some goals in music education are to help students learn to be independent thinkers and problem solvers, as well as cultural contributors.  Without students studying music, it would be hard to achieve that.  We also want to share our love of music and our passion for working together in creating emotional performances and lifelong memories with as many students as possible.  Actively recruiting is essential in our quest of filling the sea of chairs in our room with fresh young minds that are eager to learn.

One way to encourage students to continue their study of music in band is to host a District Band Festival.  Many of us facilitate a district concert. Usually, we have all the different level bands perform a selection or two for each other and perhaps end the concert with a massive group performance. This is a wonderful concept and, while it can present a few challenges to arrange, the end result is often well worth it. How would a district festival work differently? First of all, the District Band Festival isn’t necessarily focused on holding a concert performance—it is about student-to-student interaction.  Let me explain.  The concept is to host a side-by-side day.  Seat the younger students next to the older students within the ensemble and run a workshop. Teach them a new piece of music!  What I love about running a festival day is that it allows the younger students (even at the 4th and 5th grade levels) to experience making music together with the older students and not just observe them.  The older kids are their heroes, their rock stars, and now they get to sit with them and even play music with them! That exciting opportunity alone creates a lasting impression on them.

The side-by-side experience is also wonderful for the older students. I encourage them to look at those little legs that don’t quite reach the floor, and think about when they were that age and what that music meant to them.  They love the reflection and gain an appreciation of how far they have come, and I bet that some of them feel wonderful about how they are making an impact on an impressionable young mind.  Not to mention that those younger kids get to see you, the director, in action doing what you love!

Adults can tell younger students that band is wonderful and how music is a lifelong passion and while we do need to impart that wisdom, words from student-to-student are incredibly powerful. Between their experience performing alongside their heroes, seeing a teacher that loves what they do, and hearing from older kids about how they love band, continuing to study music is a no-brainer.  To complete the day you may want to include a performance of the new piece for parents, teachers, administrators, and community members.  It is even a great idea to alternate between having a District Band Concert and a District Band Festival each year.

Music is an easy sell.  If we create memorable experiences that kids enjoy and connect with, when that day comes in the Spring and that student gets set to select his or her course schedule, they may just smile and remember that special day.

Know Your Series

By Patrick RoszellPatrick Roszell

The Belwin Concert Band Series Guidelines have long been the industry standard in music educational publishing. We at Alfred/Belwin are constantly honing the guidelines to keep them contemporary and to best meet the needs of today’s ensembles and directors.

When arranging popular music for Beginning Band (Red Series: Grade 1 – 1 ½), writers are employed to reduce or eliminate syncopation down to quarter notes or dotted quarter notes that are written out with the use of a tie. Choosing a key that suits the song (B-flat, E-flat, F) that can fit within the range for beginning players is also a very important factor. This series always includes a clarinet part that does not go above the break.  An “easy” low brass part, which often constitutes doubling the trombone/baritone part up an octave with the tuba, can give you many options if your ensemble is lacking a tuba player. However, for the upper end of this series, an “easy harmonic” trombone/baritone part may be written for the arrangement. Typically, percussion can be written up a grade level to include sixteenth notes and an optional drumset part may be included to allow for a more authentic performance.

Arranging for Young Band (Green Series: Grade 2 – 2 ½), gives writers a bit of a larger score including two clarinet parts (with the second part still below the break), two trumpet parts, and separate trombone and baritone parts, however, the parts are still considered “easy.” The key signatures of the beginning series, B-flat, E-flat, and F, are still the main choices, however, the ranges in this series are expanded to suit second and third year players. A main goal in this series is to give every section a chance to be featured. The syncopation and rhythm difficulties increase slightly and offer an opportunity for more “pop” rhythms. Easy eighth-quarter-eighth rhythms and sixteenth notes are included in this series. Again, percussion can be written up a grade level for this series, and an optional drum set part can be included to allow for a more authentic performance.

The Concert Band (Blue Series; Grade 3 – 3 ½) presents full instrumentation for concert band along with the inclusion of “color” instruments, if the arranger chooses, such as electric bass, synthesizer, or a piano part. This series expands the key signatures to include A-flat and C. The time signatures start to include alla breve (cut time) and compound meters such as 6/8 and 12/8. The ranges in this series are again expanded to suit players from year three and beyond. This series is also very popular with community bands.

Last but not least, the Symphonic Band (Purple Series; Grade 4+) is all stops out with expanded instrumentation, ranges, rhythms, and extended material. Or as noted in the Belwin guidelines, “as necessary for musical content.”

Personally, I find a great deal of benefit in teaching popular music in the classroom. It presents an opportunity to work on breath control, tone, balance, blend, and intonation, often times without having to intensely teach rhythms, because the students quite possibly already know the songs. All that needs to be accomplished is to turn off the radio and play the notes on the page. My intent is that this quick overview of the Belwin Concert Band Series will help you find where your ensemble fits. I hope you and your students enjoy the New 2014 Belwin Pop Music Promo.

Building an Encounter with Excellence into Every Lesson or Rehearsal

By Scott Watsonscott_watson

Perfection is a standard that – in almost every case – can never be met.  How many lines can really be drawn “perfectly” straight?  And for those of us working in the arts, what exactly does “perfect” mean?  Can an oil painting, or a musical performance, be considered “perfect”?

But it’s a term I use when teaching music fairly frequently.  A while back I was working with my 2nd-year (5th grade) alto saxophone section.  I was rehearsing a small gesture, just a few notes, and it sounded rough.  Each time we repaired a performance error another one emerged.  Someone missed an accidental.  Another held a note too long for the staccato articulation.  Then another rushed the rhythm… and so on.  I explained that there was no reason that we – as a section – shouldn’t be able to play this small phrase perfectly.  One of the more insightful girls in the section asked aloud, “Isn’t it impossible to play it absolutely perfect?”  This was the perfect (excuse the pun) time to launch into a favorite pedagogical sermon of mine!

Perfection – I pointed out – is not the point, but rather the striving for perfection, or for beauty, or for excellence.  I drew two horizontal lines on the board, one very high near the top of the board and one in the middle.  The top line represented perfection; the lower line represented being average (or with older kids, mediocrity).  If we strive to play our saxophones perfectly but (and here I drew an “x” just shy of the top line) fall a little short, you can see we’re still pretty darn good… some might call it excellent.  But if we only strive to be average (and here I drew an “x” just shy of the line in the middle) and fall short because we don’t care enough, then we’re not even mediocre.  You see, there’s no shame in aiming for a model of perfection.

Those saxes and I played a few more times and eventually they all played together in a way that was really excellent, especially for such young players.  All seven played the right notes, were rhythmically tight, and used the correct articulations.  It was only a small phrase, and frankly I don’t have the time in a 30-minute group sectional to always lead them to an experience with such excellence, but I strive to do just that at least once in every group lesson or rehearsal I lead.

This idea of bringing students into an encounter with excellence at least once each rehearsal isn’t original.  I first heard it from my college mentor and good friend, Ken Laudermilch.  Ken led the Wind Ensemble and taught trumpet at West Chester University when I was an undergraduate Music Education major there.  When he was still teaching, Ken allowed me to use his university wind ensemble to record a piece I had recently written as a commission for a middle school band.  In return, he asked me to talk to the students about teaching in the schools.  I rehearsed my piece for about 15 minutes.  They more or less “nailed it” when they sight-read it!  After polishing a few spots, I told Ken I was ready to record.  Ken gave the students a five-minute break and pulled me aside, saying, “I don’t want them to get off this easy.  Do you mind if I work on the piece a little bit?”  Returning from the break, Ken proceeded to tear apart and put back together every phrase I had thought was fine.  Nothing was overlooked – phrasing, attacks, releases, dynamic contour, subtle tempo shifts.  When he finished, the piece sounded truly glorious!  And better still, these fine university players had an encounter with musical beauty even with a middle school band piece because a master teacher led them there.

Years later, when I read Peter Boonshaft’s Teaching with Passion, I found the same principle.  I think of Peter as one of the preeminent wind band conductors on the planet at this time. He’s also one of the authors of the Sound Innovations instrumental method. In his excellent book Boonshaft suggests that, “in every rehearsal we need to make one beautiful pearl.”  In addition to serving as what he calls a “beacon” of perfection, Boonshaft points out that these moments give our students an example of our expectations, and they encourage progress as students realize they can produce something (no matter how small) that is truly beautiful.

I think it’s no accident that two of the most talented music education professionals that I know – Ken Laudermilch and Peter Boonshaft – both employ this technique of leading students to an encounter with excellence in their rehearsals.  Whether it’s a university wind ensemble or young saxophone section, doesn’t every one deserve to bump up against something truly beautiful, revel in it, and know that he or she is responsible in part for creating that beauty?

In each meeting with your instrumental students at any level, I’d like to recommend you find something, however small, to give them an “encounter with excellence” to serve as a model, a “beacon of perfection,” for all their music making!

Classics from One Generation to Another

By Douglas E. Wagner

Douglas WagnerIf there ever was a blast to the past in my life, it happened this past spring when I began to write concert band and string orchestra arrangements of The Who classic single, “My Generation.” That day, it was 1965 and I was 13 again.

While not fitting the mold as the stereotypical angst-ridden, anti-establishment teen of the time, the words didn’t hit me as strongly as they did some of my friends. For me it was all about the beat — that driving, pulsating forward motion and unrelenting call-and-response pattern. I remember hearing it for the first time, being jolted to a new awareness of the world around me, of life, of the freedom that only music can bring. And so it has been I’m sure for millions through the decades whose lives have been forever affected by this quintessential British Rock standard.

My five-year-old granddaughter happened to be in the house when I was listening to the playback. She exuberantly came running up the stairs exclaiming: “Papaw, Papaw, what is that?” “My Generation, Alex … and now it’s yours.”

Hope you and your students like the charts!

Playing Melodically: A Different Approach to Teaching Phrasing

By Todd Stalter

During my first semester in college, my studio teacher gave me what seemed like an insurmountable amount of technical studies to prepare for every lesson which, frankly, I enjoyed in a perverse sort of way—being able to play rings around everybody else was certainly on my mind as an ambitious freshman trumpet player (as if that was all there was to it).  During second semester, however, he tacked on some simple melodies in the back of the Arban Method for each lesson as well, saying, “I think it’s about time you learned how to play a melody.”  Of course, I thought I already did…boy, was I in for an education.  Thanks to him, I was initiated into my first truly detailed study of music.

One of the most important concepts we try to teach our ensembles is to play with good phrasing, but we often become frustrated when we don’t hear our groups playing phrases consistently.  I believe that part of the reason for this can be traced to our students’ first experiences with full ensemble music. They may be unconsciously making a distinction between that music and the material in their lesson books, which is naturally almost 100% melodic in focus.  You can’t really blame them; it’s hard to convince a young trombone player playing whole and half notes all day long, or alto sax and French horn players with an awkward middle voice part that sounds weird, that they actually have a melody of any kind.  And, to be honest, if we’re not careful, we directors can relegate phrasing pretty far down our priority list when rehearsing (guilty as charged).  After a few years of playing Grades 1 to 2.5 ensemble music with little or no attention to melodic playing, it becomes even harder to get good musical phrases out of them when they are in an ensemble capable of playing Grade 3 music and above.

We all know that for an ensemble player of any age, playing a good phrase requires knowing what the melody actually is, who plays it, and how their part relates to it.  I think too many directors get caught in the “melody vs. non-melody” trap while teaching phrasing, and are in fact unwittingly telling their students that when their part is not the melody, they should play “non-melodically,” which is exactly the opposite of what creates good phrasing in the first place.  I believe part of the answer to effectively teaching phrasing lies in convincing EVERYONE that their parts are melodic. Realizing that sometimes they may have the “primary” melody, a “secondary” melody, or even a “background” melody of some sort helps them find their place in the musical texture.  Using this approach, every member of the ensemble is focused on melodic playing, and is instinctively trying to phrase it musically, which gives the director something audible to work with, as in “Hey trombones, did you hear how the euphoniums played the part you share?  That’s how I want you to phrase it.”

Not only does this approach foster better individual and ensemble musicianship, but it teaches students to be more creative musicians and “think it” before they play it, which is a far more gratifying artistic result for both the director and their students.

Back to School, Back to Basics!

By Chris M. Bernotas
Sound Innovations Authorbernotas

I am a firm believer of reinforcing the fundamentals of music every day, all year, not just at the beginning of the school year. However, let’s face it, many of our students have taken the meaning of SUMMER BREAK to heart and likely have not played as much as we all would have preferred in the past two months or so. As teachers, we have the wonderful benefit of hitting the ‘reset’ button with the beginning of each school year. We can truly start fresh while continuing with last school year’s successes. Our sights can be set on what we want to improve in our own teaching as well as setting goals for your band program. Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Band is a comprehensive resource that you might wish to consider as you set goals for your band this year.

The ensemble warm-up can be one of the most exciting parts of rehearsal. I know it is for me. During the warm-up I can truly allow my students to take ownership of their learning. Simple warm-up exercises help not only to train students to play as ensemble musicians but they serve to teach students to become self-sufficient decision makers. Let me explain. A teacher can discuss tuning with all the correct ideas and concepts and the band may still play out of tune. Students hear the teacher talking and often understand logically what he or she is saying, but until they experience playing in tune they really do not get it. To me, tuning is as much a feeling as it is measurable with a tuning device. I find it much more enlightening for a student to sense “in-tune-ness” than to be told that they are in tune. This requires experimenting on the part of the student. For a student to match pitch in an exercise like “Passing the Tonic,” he or she needs to truly listen to their note, evaluate or compare it to those of other students, and decide what to do if it is not the same as those around them. That is the exciting part to me; the STUDENT is the one directing their learning. When they experience playing in tune it is much more powerful and memorable because they are the ones that made it happen. Then when they turn to their performance music they can reflect upon that experience and implement the strategies they used in the warm-up as they work to achieve a meaningful musical performance. Almost all of the exercises in Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Concert Band are similarly dependent upon student growth and understanding.

Flexibility and variety are also quite important when working on the “FUNdamentals.” The exercises in Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Concert Band are simple and clear for you to work your magic with. That’s right, YOU will be working the magic. That is the beauty of this book – it is to be used however you see fit. You may decide that your band needs to focus on matching pitch, so you may want to choose a Layered Tuning exercise in the key of the piece you are planning to rehearse. Perhaps you will want students to sing their notes or hum them. Or maybe you will want half of the band to play and the other half to sing. Maybe you would like the woodwinds to play and the brass to buzz on their mouthpieces. It is all up to you and we provide you with many exercises and chorales (412 to be exact) to work with. The variety is also so exciting. These are not copied exercises, you know, written in one key then just transposed to all the others. They are all different, which allows you and your students enough material to choose from to keep the warm-up and focus on fundamentals fresh.

With Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Concert Band you will be able to plan a 10-minute warm-up that will be engaging, prepare students for their literature, and seamlessly prepare them to perform their repertoire with a wonderful, musical sound. As well, Sound Innovations for Intermediate Concert Band is now available on SmartMusic, adding the dimension of that wonderful teaching/learning tool. And guess what, I will let you in on a little secret… Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Advanced Concert Band is right around the corner!

If you are already using Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Concert Band, let us know how it is working with your program and let us know some of the innovative ways you are using it! We hope you are enjoying the variety of exercises and wonderful chorales by some of your favorite composers. I wish you and your students all the best this school year.

Chris M. Bernotas

Incubation Period – Training Beginning Music Instrumental Students on Flute, Oboe, and High Brass

Thomas J. WestThroughout my career as an instrumental music teacher in American public schools, I have had the opportunity to start a lot of students on a new instrument. My approach to starting beginners is typical: I begin with mouthpiece and embouchure formation, basic playing position, and so on. Where I diverge from tradition is in my approach to teaching basic playing technique, which I will discuss in a future article.

In training these beginners, I typically find that there are a handful of wind instruments that require a longer period of time for most students to become proficient at basic tone production. Until a student can reliably produce the tone of the instrument, it is difficult to move forward into technique building or music reading. I call these instruments ones with longer “incubation periods”.

Tone Production on the Trumpet and French Horn

While most beginning students are fairly successful early on in buzzing the lips and producing their first sounds, all brass instruments, and particularly the high brass, require the students to work on embouchure building and flexibility with a great deal of consistency over the course of several months to be able to produce an octave’s worth of pitches.

To produce an air stream that is compressed enough to play mid-range pitches, players must build the musculature of the face to a point where the aperture (portion of the lips that actually vibrates) can vibrate freely while the muscles hold back the resulting internal air pressure. As I tell my students, it literally is “weight lifting for your face”.

The French horn has the additional challenge of having their typical tessitura in band literature written for the middle to upper part of the instrument’s playable range, requiring not only strength, but enough control to accurately find partials that are as close together as a whole step. Because of the strength and conditioning required, trumpet and French horn students must put in consistent practice time on a daily basis in order to develop this control.

Tone Production on Oboe

Oboe students typically do not have difficulty producing their initial tones on their instruments. Refining that tone and playing in extended ranges, however, can take consistent work that lasts at least a year, a fact that applies to bassoon as well. The initial sounds made by oboists are jarring and strident at best, and the quality and adjustments made to their reeds can be a major contributing factor.

If oboe or bassoon is not your primary instrument, dealing with double reeds may be a bit perplexing. If you have the luxury of having your double reed students study privately or work with a double reed clinician at your school, many of these issues can be addressed. If not, everyone, director and students alike, will have to exercise patience as the oboe students continue to work on improving the total quality and range of their instrument.

Tone Production on Flute

The instrument with the longest incubation period, perhaps, is the flute. There is little about producing the tone of the flute that is intuitive. It is quite literally a trial and error process, and because of the nature of the Hemoltz resonator effect being produced, students often find themselves in the early stages becoming light-headed from hyperventilation. Once the initial sounds become more consistently produced, they still remain breathy and unfocused.

Once tone can be produced reliably, the next challenge for flutists is developing control of the air stream to become capable of changing octaves reliably. I wrote at length about this topic, including some useful exercises, in this article. Even after gaining control of the low, middle, and lower portion of the high register, it will take more time and experience for the flutist’s tone quality to go from the breathy, intermediate stage to a purer, more rounded flute tone.

Tone Production Is Essential for All

Even for instruments that do not need extensive work to produce a good tone in the middle register, such as clarinet and saxophone, good tone quality must come before nearly every other aspect of performance. The saxophone embouchure is fairly forgiving, but players still need to apply the mouthpiece firmly against the top teeth and use the correct amount of reed tip opening to produce the correct pitch on the reed. Many sax players are producing the wrong pitch on the mouthpiece well into high school, leading to perpetual intonation problems and strident tone quality.

Clarinetists, because of the downward angle of the instrument, must have a firm lower lip, correct angle of pressure from the jaw, and must position the tongue correctly to direct the airflow to produce the correct pitch and tone in all registers. This is especially true at the intermediate level as they venture into the register above high C.

Low brass performers are under the same kind of regiment as their high brass counterparts; there is simply less need for muscular development at the earlier stages of learning. Breaking through the “high F ceiling” is a tough process for many intermediate players.

Little else can fall into place for a wind instrumentalist until they are using the correct embouchure formation with the right amount and quality of air stream. Good tone is a prerequisite for tuning, intonation, articulation, and even simply getting the instrument to respond in time for the downbeat. Many secondary level band directors are guilty of taking tone production for granted, not revisiting tone concepts enough to continue to help each section of the ensemble develop as individual performers. For the highest quality performance of the full ensemble, however, revisiting tone production needs to be a periodic checkpoint that is part of every ensemble’s routine.

Thank you  to Thomas J. West for letting us use his blog!
Check out Thomas J. West’s blog: http://www.thomasjwestmusic.com/

Students That Keep Us Teachers Going

Robert Sheldon
By Robert Sheldon
Alfred Concert Band Editor

Jeremy was a very shy high school junior when I met him. Although he had no musical experience, he was aware of the band activities of some of his friends and really wanted to join the band. He chose tenor sax and signed up for marching band. The marching part came easily enough but he did not know how to read music. Once he learned a handful of notes, I wrote him his own part of half notes and whole notes which he played with great enthusiasm! By the following year he had improved enough that he was able to play the “real” music. It was always a joy to see how much he loved playing his sax and being part of the band family.

“Doctor” Jeremy is now a veterinarian and president of his twin daughter’s band booster organization. Music has no greater supporter. It’s students like Jeremy that keep us teachers going, and that’s why we know you do everything you can for your students – and that is why we are here to help!

Thanks for considering Alfred for the next concert band performance!

Listening Sideways (or the Art of Playing Together)

Jonathan Glawe
By Vince Gassi

Listening sideways is the second of three essential steps toward developing a more musical ensemble. As music educators, we attempt to teach our students how to practice properly so that 1) they are constantly improving their technique. The more control they begin to have over the instrument, the more they can 2) direct awareness outward and listen to what is happening around them. This leads to 3) the stage where your ensemble is ready to work on expressiveness.

Here is a simple but essential exercise to help develop the ability of your young musicians to “listen sideways.”

1. Have your ensemble play a concert Bb scale (or insert key of your choice). They can play four quarter notes (all tenuto) on each pitch of the scale (ex. 4 Bbs, 4 Cs, etc.). Play the final note of the scale as a whole note.

2. Encourage all players to listen to each other. Actually use the phrase “listen sideways.” It will be your unique code for them to understand what you are expecting of them. This may be challenging but stick with it.

3. Now have only the first chair players from each section play. Direct them
to play the same scale together in quarter notes as before. Players must
listen to each other and match volume, tuning, note length, style, etc.

4. When the section leaders can do this, have the rest of the ensemble join in. The section players must “listen sideways” in an attempt to match their section leader exactly. If they cannot hear their leader, then they, or others, are playing too loudly and must adjust. This may take several attempts, so be patient.

5. Now have only section leaders play the same scale (or a different one if you choose) but this time, instruct them to play it in a staccato style; remember, 4 quarter notes on each pitch of the scale. Do this until the leaders can match each other. When playing staccato, students may often become impatient and start to rush ahead. Start over if you have to but keep them to the indicated tempo.

6. Now have the rest of the band join in with the instruction that they must once again listen to their leader and match them exactly. The goal is to have each section sound like one player.

7. And now for the real challenge. Have the whole band play the scale again, starting legato (4 Bbs, 4 Cs, etc.). Ask each section leader to switch at a time of his or her own choosing, from tenuto to staccato. Yes, you’ll have different sections playing different note lengths at the same time but, since this often occurs in your repertoire, it will be excellent practice. The section members may not switch at exactly the same point as their leader, but keep at it until they can. This is what the ensemble is working towards.

Keep at it each rehearsal until it happens, until the section players switch together with the leader. Even when they achieve this goal, keep doing this exercise at each rehearsal. It is a great way to reinforce this essential listening skill. This is the way athletes train. Baseball players work on the basics before each game of the season, taking ground balls, batting practice, etc., just to stay sharp. I’ve heard it said when the first player player makes a mistake, a well-trained section will make it with her.

8. Try having just one section do this. The other sections will learn much from hearing just the flutes or just the trumpets try this exercise a few times. They may be eager to prove that their section can do better. So let them!! A little healthy competition can be a good thing now and then.

Don’t give up after one or two attempts at this exercise. Keep at it until the ensemble really starts to hear what is going on. It will be at this point that you (and they) will start to notice how much cleaner the ensemble sounds.

You can also do this exercise using chorales. Through regular practice, your students will become conditioned to listen (and really hear) what’s going on around them. This is one definition of a good musician: someone who is aware of what is occurring musically and responds accordingly. Remember, your students don’t come to rehearsal to learn their part, they come to learn everyone else’s part. This is why developing awareness through directed listening is so important. If practiced regularly, you will notice your ensemble maturing as the weeks go by and expressive playing is the inevitable result.

Don’t forget – all this time, you, the conductor – need to be indicating style and tempo. Your students’ awareness should include responding to you as well. So try the same exercise but instruct them to change style when they see you indicate such. You are the ultimate section leader!

Listening sideways is an essential skill which, if practiced on a regular basis, will empower your musicians to mature. Eventually, your ensemble will begin to transform. Your students will become players who are aware of their musical surroundings and will respond appropriately. It is so much more fun for them when they play together. Similarly, it is so much more fun to conduct an ensemble that responds expressively in real time to each other, the hall, and, most importantly, you the conductor. Expressive performance is what all of our hard work is ultimately about. From this point on, the sky is the limit.

How Do I Tune Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Chris M. BernotasBy Chris M. Bernotas

Playing in tune is one of the most important concepts of ensemble performance. It is also one of the most challenging to teach and accomplish. There are many ways to tune as an individual performer and as an ensemble member. Tuning presents a challenge because there are many variables that affect the performance. Some of those variables include the level of development of the student, the quality of the instrument, types of reeds and mouthpieces, the temperature of the hall, and even the harmonic voicing of the music.

Awareness. I find that the most valuable tool in teaching students to play in tune is to simply make them aware of the concept. I rarely, if ever, tell a student if they are sharp or flat.  If I tell them, how will they ever be able to figure it out on their own?  Simply telling students, or better yet, asking them, “Does that sound in tune to you?” or phrasing it differently, “Does your pitch sound the same as….” I also like to use other descriptors when bringing a student’s attention to tuning, “Does this sound clear or pure to you?” Coming up with words to describe what sounding in tune means is helpful for students.

Tuner. The electronic/digital tuner is a wonderful tool. Directors are fortunate to have tuning aids available at their fingertips with many tuning apps. They are terrific for finding a reference pitch or for having students use with their individual practice to find out their particular instrument’s tuning tendencies. As terrific as they are, I encourage students to look away from the tuner while they are playing a note and then look only after establishing their natural pitch.  If students are staring at the tuner immediately as they play, they often adjust to the visual element and aren’t developing their aural analysis. Once a student establishes a quality, natural sound they can then look at the visual meter and make adjustments to center the pitch.  In an ensemble setting, beyond the reference pitch, I rarely use a tuner. Encourage students to listen, analyze and adjust. Encourage them to listen to pitch horizontally (as in a melodic/intervallic way) as well as vertically (harmonically).

How? Often we tell students to “adjust the tuning” or “fix that note” and many times that student will empty their water key, push and pull slides, or look at their instrument like there is something wrong with it. Part of learning to play in tune is learning what to do when you are out of tune. I like to give students a partial list of options: for example, a brass player may need to speed up the air, or slow it down. Maybe a clarinetist or other reed player needs to use more mouthpiece, or less, etc. I find that the tuning slide should be adjusted from time to time, but that is not always the first course of action.  Giving students several options will again encourage them to take an active role in their tuning. Encourage students to individually experiment with their tuning adjustments. Let them try to figure it out–they are either sharp, flat or in-tune.  Sometimes the right adjustment is no adjustment.

Reinforcement. Constant reinforcement of the concept that tuning is an ongoing process is important. I have found that by maintaining a consistent focus on in tune playing, there is much less need for having a student play a note and having the ensemble then match as with the familiar tuning procedure. Ways of reinforcing tuning would include spot-checking unison/octave pitches by sections and instrument families, checking chord tuning, passing notes from section to section. I also vary the timing of tuning reinforcement, if we only talk about tuning at the beginning of the rehearsal students may think that after that part of rehearsal tuning is over.

Student awareness of tuning concepts, understanding appropriate ways to use an electronic/digital tuner, sharing the knowledge of how to fix tuning issues, and consistent reinforcement that tuning is a never-ending process will help your students be active participants in your ensemble that is performing at its best.