Tag Archives: orchestra

Balancing the Physical and Musical Aspects of Instrumental Music

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By Thomas J. West

Most public school music ensembles spend 95 percent of their classroom time preparing for public concerts. It takes many hours of repetition of the music in order to program the body to perform the music accurately. Band and orchestra directors basically run rehearsals for a living and become very good at providing the repetitions necessary to program the physical movements required to perform the music accurately.

When I began writing articles for my website, I focused on sharing music practice tips. The majority of these were strategies designed to help maximize practice routine efficiency, garnering more successful repetitions of the music. What I have only recently realized, however, is that the majority of time and effort spent practicing a musical instrument has more to do with programming the mind to physically control the instrument accurately and reliably. There is more “physical education” involved in instrumental music making than actual “music education”.

In most traditional high school bands and orchestras, the vast majority of rehearsal time is spent drilling the music in order for ensemble members to develop some level of physical proficiency in performance. Teaching basic musicianship concepts like reading notation, understanding pitch, and so on, is left to the elementary music teachers to handle. High school ensembles focus primarily on ensemble techniques such as pulse control, section and group intonation, balance and blend, and so on. Those concepts are touched upon and then drilled, drilled, drilled until the ensemble can perform them accurately.

The Marriage Between Physical and Aural

One of the amazing things about studying music performance is that it elides the physical skill of operating a musical instrument with the mental skill of perceiving and instantly processing and reacting to sound. Singers do this as well, but the need to physically train the body is quite different. Instrumentalists spend a great deal of time simply becoming proficient at manipulating the contraption that makes the musical sounds happen.

Students of music have to not only become proficient at the physical movements, they also have to use their aural skills to assess their own physical performance. The actual musical part of instrumental performance is all mental, and it requires training and skill building just like the physical training of operating the instrument.

Over-Programming the Physical Part of Performance

Because it takes so much time and repetition to program the body, musicianship and listening skills often take a secondary role in many school performing ensemble classes. This is compounded by the fact that many high school band and orchestra directors choose repertoire that demands a high level of technical proficiency on the part of the performers. Technical wizardry (those fast sixteenth note runs, screaming high notes, rapid tonguing or bowing passages, and so on) are engaging and exciting to listen to, and many directors want their students to have the experience of performing exciting works with a lot of technical fireworks.

The trade-off, however, is that technically demanding repertoire often consumes the majority of available class time simply to get the ensemble performing proficiently. Even then, traditional band and orchestra programs lean on the students with the higher music aptitude and skill development to carry the weight while their peers hang on for dear life or fake their way through the difficult passages. Add to that fact the more important consequence—the students rarely have time to improve their musical skills in favor of improving their physical skills.

Audio Gym Teacher?

If ensemble directors, for whatever reason, continue to program technically demanding works that constantly stretch the boundaries of what the students are capable of, they are providing their students with more of an “audio physical education” than a “music education.” Technical ability is only part of what makes up an effective musical performance. It is far better, in my opinion, to choose repertoire with easier technical demand that can be mastered in a shorter amount of time, leaving room towards the end of the preparation period to work on ensemble playing techniques, expressive phrasing, and communicating the intent of the music to the audience.

Quite simply, if by concert time students are not able to look away from the sheet music for more than a brief glance at the baton in order to be able to perform the piece, the technical demand is probably too high.

There certainly is a need for repertoire that “pushes the envelope” and gets students to reach for a new level of technical ability, but I have seen too many band and orchestra programs that try to stretch the ensemble with every single piece they perform. Slaving away on demanding parts is enjoyable for only a minority of students—most are turned off by such hard work, especially if that level of demand is constantly upon them.

Physical training in the band and orchestra is a major component of instrumental performing music and is constantly being addressed. There needs to be a balance, however, between the physical aspects of instrumental performance and the mental aspects of listening, audiating, and understanding music as an art form.

TomWest

Thomas J. West is an active music teacher, composer, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. He has eighteen years of experience as a concert band director, marching band director, jazz improvisation instructor, choral director, orchestra director, private instructor, and marching drill writer. Learn more about Thomas at www.thomasjwestmusic.com. 


 

Pick Your Side in the Star Wars® Saga

Pam Phillips
It’s coming and the excitement is building. The epic Star Wars story has proven to intrigue all generations. Alfred Music has many settings of this great music that are performed many times every year. In honor of the new movie, a new arrangement titled “Star Wars Heroes” (string orchestra, grade 2½) was just released in January. However, if you are looking for something to work on after the holiday concert/recital, when everyone is a bit excited about the upcoming vacation, try out the classic Star Wars arrangements listed here for everyone from soloists to full orchestra.

There are play-along books perfect for private lesson fun or gifts!

Star Wars: Episodes I, II & III Instrumental Solos for Strings

Star Wars Instrumental Solos (Movies I-VI) for Strings
Classic Movie Instrumental Solos for Strings

For young players, the books titled Pop Showcase for Strings include a very easy setting of “Star Wars (Main Theme)” set for flexible instrumentation for solos players, small ensembles, and string orchestra.

And, last but not least, check out these arrangements.
Star Wars Main Theme—Full orchestra, Grade 3½
Star Wars Main Theme—String orchestra, Grade 2½
Battle of the Heroes—Playable by strings alone or any combination up to full orchestra, Grade 2½
Suite from the Star Wars Epic Part I—Full orchestra, Grade 4
Suite from the Star Wars Epic Part II—Full orchestra, Grade 4

Good luck this season, and may the force be with you!

Pam Phillips
Managing Editor, Suzuki Acquisitions and Strings Editor
Alfred Music

Teacher New Year’s Resolution

Chris M. Bernotas

Happy New Year! What an exciting day of the year January 1st is! Everything is new again. We have a new outlook on life and we set new personal goals in an effort to better ourselves. We look at the prior year, consider the highs and lows and try to address anything we would like to improve upon. So why am I talking about New Year’s now? As a teacher we celebrate New Year’s twice a year. The start of school (August or September) is our New Year! At home, we have our resolutions—you know, I am going to lose weight, go to the gym, eat healthier! Sadly, those usually last about a month—okay, a week—then it is back to buffalo wings and professional couch sitting. As teachers in school we have an opportunity to look at our previous school year and wipe the slate clean with a fresh start. Each new school year we have the opportunity to hit the “reset” button. How exciting is that? It is a part of the profession that I just love, and by approaching each year as a new opportunity for personal and professional growth—and sticking to your resolutions—you can avoid the dreaded burnout.

That doesn’t mean that your prior year has to have been a disaster to take the New Year’s Resolution approach. By reflecting on even the most successful year you will find that there are areas that could have been better in some way. Maybe the collection of uniforms could have been more streamlined or maybe your attendance taking skills could use a little brush up. Or maybe there are specific concepts that you would like to focus on with your students. The exciting aspect I find is that there is never a lack of ideas on how we can improve the classroom experience for both our students and ourselves. I would like to share three of my own personal improvement goals, or School Year’s Resolutions with you. Perhaps you will be inspired to think of your own. I am excited for this school year, my 25th as a teacher, and I wish you all the best in your year!

  1. Play more, talk less. This simple phrase is so important. Everything I have to say is so incredibly important! I am sure this is true for you as well. We have all the answers and want to share those answers with our students. Many times the best education happens when you say nothing at all. Students discover the answers as we guide them. The play more, talk less approach keeps that concept in mind. It is also a wonderful tool to help with classroom management. When students are actively engaged (or have an instrument on their face) they will be less likely to talk to their neighbor!
  2. Don’t Say It. Do you ever yell over the ensemble? “BASSOONS! YOU ARE TOO LOUD!” Ok, you’ve never said that one. How about this, “TRUMPETS TOO LOUD, TROMBONES ARTICULATE, PERCUSSION WATCH ME!!!” Me too. It is so easy to just tell them with our voice, and it works in the short term. However when we do this, we are taking away from our ultimate goal of communication from the podium. We want our students to watch us to understand our interpretation, but if we yell instruction at them, why would they watch? So, my goal here is to not talk (or sing) over the ensemble as they are rehearsing.
  3. K.I.S.S. We love analogies. I know I do. They are so effective when trying to get kids to understand concepts. When a student gets a concept through an analogy it is like a beautiful ray of sunshine beaming through the darkest of clouds. (See what I did there?) I would never say to not use a wonderful analogy or share a great pun—just be sure to not overuse them. Many times we just need to keep it simple. Give a short direction with simple and direct instruction. How about saying, “Alto saxes, there is a wrong note on beat 2 of measure 5,” instead of, “Alto saxes, there is a criminal lurking in the shadows of measure 5. You need to swoop upon it to eradicate the musical world of this eternal evil.” Use your analogies, I used one this morning and it really connected with my students, but also keep it simple.

I wish you all a Happy New School Year and hope it is your best yet! If you have a resolution to share, please send me a note (cbernotas@gmail.com) and perhaps I will compile them and share them in the future. Until then—be active, maintain a healthy weight and eat a balanced diet!

By Chris M. Bernotas
Alfred Music Composer & Sound Innovations Author

Planning a Concert with Your Audience in Mind

By Jan Farrar-Royce

Jan Farrar-RoyceWhen my ensembles play at a concert, I want to hear a band parent say they enjoyed listening to the orchestra’s performance! I think that when we are choosing pieces for our presentations, we should consider not only the educational aspect of the program but the entertaining aspect as well.

Familiar pieces, especially those with lyrics, allow every listener to become invested in the performance. If you decide on a familiar piece for a concert, you might even include the lyrics on an insert in the printed program. Maybe members of your audience will want you to play that piece a second time so that they can sing along!

You can also monitor your students’ research of pieces and composers to create program notes for the printed program or, better still, have different students speak to the audience before each piece. Talking to the audience puts a friendly and accessible face on your performance, and you may discover that one of the players from the back of a section may be a wonderful researcher and/or speaker!

Another way to encourage your audience members to be active listeners is to tell them an interesting musical or historical fact about each piece or something the musicians learned by playing this piece. John Feierabend of The Hartt School calls this approach to performing an “informance.” Pointing out something in the music that the audience might listen for can be a lot of fun. Plus, it is good education for everyone, great PR for your string program, and a more fun approach to performing!

You Want Me to Teach What? Transitioning to the Elementary Music Classroom

By Mari Schay and Michael TolonSchay

You’re a secondary instrumental or choral specialist, newly assigned to the general music classroom. What now? First, take a breath, calm down, and then read this book. Two experienced teachers who conquered this challenge offer practical advice with great care and wit. Chapters of the book address attitude, school environment, classroom management, curriculum and assessment, and student performance. Read on for an excerpt from the opening chapter.

Director/Conductor vs. Teacher

Many middle and high school music educators refer to themselves as “director” or “conductor” as in, “I’m a high school band director” or “I am a middle school choral conductor.” When you move to elementary school, though, you become a teacher. The key difference between a director/conductor and a teacher is that a director is refining existing skills and working toward beautiful performances, while a teacher is developing new skills so a director can eventually take over.

Elementary music is not just pre-band, pre-orchestra, or pre-choir training. Your primary job is to instill a love of music, as well as to develop musical skills, in kids who may walk in the door with no musical experience whatsoever. Singing a simple song may be a completely new experience. Keeping a steady beat may take time. This can feel overwhelmingly slow to a teacher used to conducting nuanced ensemble literature; however, if you plan well and deliver lessons with joy and enthusiasm, the kids will love music … and, as their music teacher, you will begin to see the necessity of a great teacher in the early years.

The importance of professional development cannot be stressed enough. I will admit that as a high school band director, I did not seek out colleagues or attend my state music conference often enough. I learned the hard way that by skipping professional development opportunities, my effectiveness as a teacher was lessened. Not only did my skills suffer, my standing with my fellow directors was hurt. My sense of isolation was of my own doing.

The ability to attend a conference, find professional development opportunities, or simply sit and share with another colleague will become vitally important in helping you gain new skills, sharpen old ones, and meet fellow music teachers. Ah! Yes, young grasshopper, you are not alone in the universe. Inspiration will come in many, many forms.

The Value of Summer Study

Pam PhillipsBy Pam Phillips

Summer workshops, camps, and student orchestras all share one thing in common. They are more laid-back, informal, and fun-oriented than study during the school year. Maybe it’s the warmth, or not wearing big coats, hats, and gloves. I’m not sure, but I am sure of the value of summer study.

Summer orchestras not only keep the students playing and give the parents a reason to pay for instrumental rental in the summer, but they often provide the basis for orchestra memories and friendships. It’s also a time to explore fun repertoire without pushing the limits of the technical expertise of the ensemble. We give ourselves permission to play less difficult music, allowing the chance to work on musicality, or to just allow for all the days that students will miss because of vacations. The same goes for camps—we play fun and good music, though often more challenging music than is possible at a school summer orchestra. After all, the kids are on campus so they tend to be at rehearsals.

Summer teacher workshops follow the same pattern—fun, music, and challenge—a chance to remember why you do what you do and learn to do it even better! After attending these events, running them, and presenting at them for many years, I firmly believe that they are well worth the time and money.

The May e-mail included fun, summer orchestra-friendly tunes for browsing and a link to summer workshops presented by Alfred Music authors. Enjoy!

Creative Concert Concepts

Bob PhillipsBy Bob Phillips

Many of us use all sorts of music over the course of a school year to build creative, interesting concerts. I highly recommend a varied program over time. This can be done with great classical pieces, eclectic styles, pop tunes,  guest artists, side-by-side concerts, and so on. It can also be done with quirky, unusual, or novelty pieces that just make players and audience smile. A few pieces that might fit that category are featured in this e-mail. These are definitely worth checking out!

The new 2014 catalog has a few that fit this category as well. Be looking for that promo in your email box in April!

A Note from the Suzuki Editor

By Pam Phillips

As the Suzuki editor for Alfred Music, let me first thank all the Suzuki committee members who invest hours of volunteer effort on behalf of the Suzuki Method. It is a pleasure to work with all of you!

It is an exciting time with new technology available for books and recordings, along with other news. Just recently Violin Volume 1, Viola Volume 1, Cello Volume 1, and Bass Volume 1 became available on iBooks®. The violin book is in English with the other languages to be released soon.  The long-awaited release of mp3 downloads of Suzuki materials is getting closer. The Violin Committee is working on the revision of Volume 7 and the plan is to release that by the end of 2014. New print volumes now include what we call an AMPV number above the copyright. This number allows the reader to identify the version of the book. This applies to volumes printed or revised since 2010 but not to earlier books. Later this winter a list of the most recent AMPV numbers will be available.

One last news item – Alfred Music is once again able to accept submissions for supplemental books. Remember, if your book submission includes Suzuki material, it must first go through the ISA approval process which can be found here.

I look forward to seeing many of you at the SAA Conference in Minneapolis in May!

“In the Zone” with Sound Innovations: Sound Development

By Kirk D. Moss, Ph.D., 
Sound Innovations Author

Remember the day when a student blurted out, “I wish this class would never end?” Students may forget the name of the piece they played, but they will remember the “in the zone” moments of music making for the rest of their lives.

Psychologists refer to “in the zone” experiences as “flow.” Achieving a flow state requires a balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too difficult, flow cannot occur. A state of anxiety occurs when challenges exceed the skill level, adding stress and causing uneasiness. Both the skill and challenge levels must be matched at a high level to experience “flow,” and that’s why I’m so excited about Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate String Orchestra and Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Advanced String Orchestra. Both Sound Development books help ensure that students have the necessary skills to meet the challenges found within the intermediate and advanced level of repertoire that they perform.

Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate and Sound Development for Advanced
 String Orchestra emphasize playing with 
a characteristic beautiful sound. Intermediate or advanced technical skills are presented in four levels, consistent with the revolutionary Sound Innovations structure: (1) Sound Tone, (2) Sound Bowing, (3) Sound Shifting, and (4) Sound Scales and Arpeggios. The levels can be used in the order that is best for your students, as individual warm-ups, structured units, or as dictated by your repertoire.

Each level presents a unique set of skills. Level 1 offers a systematic approach to developing right-hand technique through teaching sequences that refine the most important variables of sound: bowing lanes, bow weight, and bow speed. Following in the Galamian tradition, Level 2 introduces the bow strokes, including collé. Using collé to develop your students’ right-hand finger flexibility can make a noticeable difference on every bow change and in every attack stroke. In Level 3, new positions and shifting are thoroughly presented using finger pattern logic and guide notes. I especially like the clear and uncluttered page layout of the scales and arpeggios in Level 4. The innovative format is flexible, allowing teachers to differentiate instruction among a wide range of student ability levels.

This year, use the Sound Innovations series to help your students acquire the skills they need to get so absorbed in performing music that they can hardly stop playing. In fact, all four volumes of the series are on SmartMusic allowing even more opportunities to play! Match your teaching to the level of repertoire with exercises and routines designed for intermediate and advanced string players. Prepare your students to produce a signature sound as they gain access to the entire fingerboard. Make “in the zone” experiences a way of life in your classroom.

Have a terrific year, and remember: kids can do anything; we just have to teach them how!

The Development of a Piece

By Dr. Andrew H. Dabczynskidabczynski

Not too many years ago, my wife and I took our children – as have so many other American families – on a pilgrimage to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, certainly one of the most venerated shrines to our nation’s ongoing quest for freedom. We explored the hills and valleys of the bucolic landscape trying to envision the scope and sequence of the terrible events that transpired there, attempting to fathom the staggering loss of life, seeking to understand the very personal and yet broadly national meanings of the battle’s outcomes. We stood on Little Round Top, and in the field that was Pickett’s Charge. We took pictures of monuments dedicated to the brave regiments, and honored the grave of an ancestor who died there. Our experiences were profound and unforgettable.

This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. And along with this anniversary, we honor that great leader whose words – delivered to the nation just a few months after the battle – gave meaning to the towering heroism as well as the unspeakable horrors that were endured there. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has become perhaps the most iconic speech in this nation’s history, never to be forgotten.

With these things in mind, I sought to create an opportunity for string students to experience for themselves, and to express to others, the meaning and importance of this turning point in our great national struggle. And so I wrote Lincoln at Gettysburg for string orchestra, percussion and narrator (published by Alfred Music, 2013). The piece combines an original musical score with a narration describing Lincoln’s labors to compose his address. Lincoln at Gettysburg begins in a somber and reflective mood conveying Lincoln’s own deep sense of sadness over the catastrophic loss of life in the battle. Themes borrowed from several famous Civil War era songs are heard, including “Kingdom Coming” by Henry C. Work, and “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” a poignant parlor song by George F. Root. As the piece builds to a patriotic finale, additional melodies join in, first from the marching tune “The Battle Cry of Freedom”also by George F. Root – and finally “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by William Steffe. Lincoln at Gettysburg conveys Lincoln’s successful struggle to find the words that would reassure a grieving nation, and would live on to inspire and unify generations of Americans to follow.

As with our family’s experiences visiting Gettysburg – and perhaps like yours – I hope that both students and listeners will never forget their own encounter with Lincoln at Gettysburg.