Thomas J. West
In the traditional American public school band, chorus, or orchestra program, 90 to 95% of available class time is spent preparing the large ensemble for the next public performance. This in and of itself is a noble pursuit that is a valued experience for the majority of the students involved. In my instrumental music program, however, we spend most of the first marking period building basic independent musicianship skills and addressing basic concepts in tone production, rote technique work, basic music theory, and solo repertoire study. Marking period 1 concludes with a series of in-class clinics focused on performing major scales and excerpts from their solo pieces.

In marking period 2, we begin preparations for the winter concert, which occurs just before winter break. This program is abbreviated – only about an hour’s worth of material, and it features both chamber ensemble and combined class performances. The repertoire performed is technically less demanding. My classes are “leveled” somewhat in middle school, with my more experienced 7th and 8th graders getting their own class period. My other middle school classes contain a wide mix of experience levels from raw beginners to students who have been playing their instrument for four years.

Because there are beginners involved, I have to teach the basics of ensemble performance and rehearsal. I give demonstrations in basic conducting patterns, introduce concepts like balance, blend, and ensemble intonation, and provide students with strategies for playing with rhythmic integrity and finding their place if they get lost during a performance.

I also teach the basics of rehearsing as an ensemble. Efficient, effective use of time is paramount, especially since we have less time to prepare the repertoire in class. Ensemble rehearsing concepts that the student must follow are:

  •     Performing assigned excerpts as instructed – stopping at the end of the assigned section without going on
  •     Understanding directions for repetitions the first time they are given, including which instruments will be playing this time, where they start, where they end, and what the goal or emphasis for that repetition is
  •     Simply performing excerpts for successful repetitions multiple times with little or no feedback given
  •     Practicing fingerings while the director is rehearsing another section, or critically listening to the rehearsing section and offering constructive criticism when called for
  •     Developing the mindset of improving some aspect of performance with every rep, or building consistency

All of these concepts are addressed verbally and reinforced by the teacher experientially. Rehearsing efficiently becomes the standard operating procedure that makes it possible to produce a quality public performance in a shorter amount of class time. As middle school students matriculate up to the high school, they bring with them foundational knowledge basic to intermediate tone production, rote technique, scale and chord theory, ear training concepts, basic melodic compositional skills, and effective, disciplined individual and ensemble practice methods.

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.