Tag Archives: sound innovations

Listening vs. Hearing: Developing Your Students’ Ensemble Skills

Listening vs. Hearing: Developing Your Students' Ensemble Skills

By Chris Bernotas

Listen up! Listen down, listen in front of you, listen behind you, and listen all around. Critical listening is one of the most important aspects of learning to play as an ensemble member. Do we really teach our students how to listen? It is one thing to hear and another to listen, evaluate, and adjust. Learning to listen and react is as important a skill as learning the fingering for a concert Bb! Listening, as a member of an ensemble, is a new and challenging skill that students need to practice, like a scale. It might even be odd for students to realize they often need to focus their attention around the room instead of on themselves. I have found that by merely bringing a student’s attention to the fact that they need to listen to those around them often yields great results in improving the sound of my band. But what are they listening for? And what should they do about what they hear? This is where the teacher we are imperative and irreplaceable. We need to tell them. I always like to encourage teachers to share our secrets!

I want to share a quick lesson plan with you. Let’s focus this sample lesson on developing characteristic tone. Using “Passing the Tonic” as an example (excerpt below), you can help students develop a number of listening skills, but for this we will focus on characteristic tone. This exercise type uses the tonic note of a key and hands it off to different sections of the band. Direct your students to focus their listening on other instruments and to also be prepared to describe what they hear as it relates to the quality of the tone students are producing. Applying this simple lesson will encourage your students to hear other instruments in the band other than their own as well as practice using words to describe sound (it actually addresses listening, analytical and verbal skills.) Ask them to go beyond basic descriptions like, “the trumpets sound bad” or “the bassoons are ridiculously loud. Gross.” Share a few examples of how words can describe characteristic sound. Tell students to explore the ‘why’ part of their answer and provide that along with their analysis. For example, “The trumpets have a nice sound, they aren’t playing too loudly or too softly.” This is a first step in teaching students to listen critically around the room. This same exercise could be used for developing pitch matching as well. The overarching skill involved is critical listening and that skill can be applied to any number of ensemble concepts we teach in band. It all starts with learning to listen with purpose.


There are many skills needed when students transition from learning to play their instrument in individual or small group lessons and playing as part of a band. Tone, Tuning, Technique, Balance, Rhythm, Dynamics, Articulation and Expression are a few of those skills. Many times we try to develop ensemble skills on the fly, with their concert music in hand. By identifying each specific ensemble skill, teaching them to students and reinforcing them, students will more effectively connect to and perform their music. They will have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a musician in an ensemble and to experience the expressive elements that sometimes elude them.  Focusing on one or two ensemble concepts at the beginning of each rehearsal and applying them to a beautiful chorale, your students will more quickly advance in not only their musical ability, but in their ability to think, evaluate and make decisions.


Being part of a musical ensemble teaches students true-life skills that extend far beyond their school years.  Just as students are taught about posture as an individual, they need to learn what it means to be part of the team. These skills can begin to develop in their first year.  Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Young Concert Band may very well be the resource you have been looking for.



chris bernotas

Chris Bernotas is co-author of the revolutionary Sound Innovations series. An active composer and arranger of concert band music, his music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and has appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists. He was recognized as “Educator of the Year” in 2005 and has been listed several times in Who’s Who Among American Teachers.


“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!

Encourage Students: Scale to New Heights

Chris M. BernotasBy: Chris M. Bernotas Why do we place so much emphasis on scales as band directors?  Well, that’s a silly question – to help prepare students for the challenges that arise in their music!  Specifically, we help our students learn their scales to help prepare them for technical passages and to help them attain the muscle memory skills necessary for performing music.  Scales aren’t just for learning fast music, but that could be a whole other article topic. I could continue to list the wonderful benefits of learning scales; they are so exciting and fun! Well, they are fun once you have them mastered.  There is one thing that does bother me about scales though.  You know the scale pattern we are all familiar with?  Think about it; sing it in your head.  It goes like this:

Major Scale

If you are really fancy you can double the speed, or triple it to show off at parties.  I love this scale rhythm; it is nice, neat and fits in a box.  It is such a great rhythm for teaching the skills associated with learning scales.  What, then, is my problem?  Glad you asked.  My experience with students has been that once they learn and memorize their scales with this pattern, they have trouble deviating from it.  Ask students to play a scale from the top note down and then back up, in a dotted eighth and sixteenth pattern.  Can they do it?  How about a pattern like this for some variety:

Scale Pattern

Or what about a “non” pattern, just to keep things interesting:

Changing Scale Rhythm

One of the beautiful things about music, both in performance and in composition, is that it is limitless.  There are an infinite number of possibilities of what can be written or how a single piece can be performed.  Learning scales is simply a gateway for opening up the creative and interpretive power in music. Practicing scales in a common pattern is a fantastic idea; it provides stability for the learner and a common vocabulary for teachers. I will continue to use this well established pattern with my students as well as incorporate different and innovative patterns to challenge them. I believe it is not only important for us to encourage students to accept the wisdom that mastering scales can provide, but to also encourage them to try new things with their new scale friends.  Play them backwards, start in the middle and go up then down, swing them!  Most of all encourage students to have fun!

Teaching Tone With Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate String Orchestra, Level 1: Sound Tone

Kirk D. Moss, Ph.D.

Kirk D. Moss, Ph.D.

Without sound, there would be no music; and without the right hand, a string player makes no sound. A string player’s right hand shares similarities with the voice of a singer. Many string teachers compare the bow to the singer’s breath. Just as a singer vocalizes, a string player needs to “tonalize” or produce sound by a planned design. Designing a signature sound requires more than simply playing a warm-up scale, and that’s why I’m excited to tell you about Level 1: Sound Tone within the new Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate String Orchestra.

 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. Teach your students to change bowing lanes for added dynamic contrast, release bow weight to feel the natural spring of the bow stick, save and spend bow length by varying bow speed, and use different sections of the bow by dividing the bow into thirds. Imagine how refined your students will sound when they vary these variables to produce a more characteristic beautiful tone in their repertoire. Remember: Students can do anything; we just have to teach them how.