Top 10 Tips for Creating Effective Ensemble Rehearsals

By William W. Woodworth IV, D.M.A., Emporia State University, Director of Athletic Bands

As a vaccine is finally on the way, we may soon be looking at a return to our classrooms to rehearse once again in person with our students!  I realize that there are some of us that were hired in August that have yet to have all their own students in their rooms with them for even one full ensemble rehearsal.  In hopes that life will return to normal soon, and especially to help our new educators, I feel that this is a great time to give a list of my favorite tips for creating effective rehearsals for your music ensemble. 

1 – Room Layout 

Maximize your rehearsal time by organizing your room ahead of time. This may mean adjusting the room first thing in the morning or during passing periods.   Be sure to set up the chairs and stands exactly how you want them, and to allow ease of access to get around the room to help individual students quickly as needed. If time does not allow for you to preset the room, train your students to do it quickly and efficiently.  Also, take care of your room and your students will follow your lead.  

2- Utilize Technology 

As you are setting up your room, consider setting up a “control panel” for all your technology right next to, or part of your podium. I recommend setting up a simple PA system and for you to use a lapel microphone to help your students hear your instructions.  I know many music directors that have a powerful and booming voice, but some of your students may still need the added clarity that a PA system can provide.  This is especially true if you are wearing a mask while teaching.  In addition to the microphone, have a metronome attached to the PA.  Save your fingers, hands, and batons by allowing technology to help keep the pulse as needed during your rehearsals. Aside from having all of your instruments available, I also recommend having a synthesizer at your constant disposal. My personal keyboard of choice is a Yamaha “Harmony Director.” This keyboard allowed me to play a transposed line at a click of a button, tune the ensemble to equal or pure intonation, has several preset instrument sounds, and is also equipped with a built-in metronome.   

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3- GoalsObjectives and Rehearsals 

Be mindful of the differences between goals and objectives.  Your ensemble goals are long term, such as being able to play a selected set of achievable literature for each performance.  Your objectives, however, are the processes each day that should lead you successfully to your goal.  Rehearsals for each concert cycle should begin by focusing on the big picture, larger sections of your literature.  Over the next few weeks focus on the smaller details of each piece, smaller passages of music, and concepts such as balance, blend, intonation, articulation, phrasing, and musicality.  As you get closer to the concert return to rehearsing larger segments, transitions, and being able to play through the entire piece several times before the concert.  Your objectives should be planned weekly and daily to achieve your goals for each concert cycle.  

4 – Score Study 

It is imperative that you take the time to study and mark up each score in-depth and I personally recommend doing this before the school year begins.  Your score study will allow you to know where problematic areas will be in advance to anticipate problems your ensemble will have.  Knowing your scores will help you plan and build your objectives to achieve your ensemble goals.  Ultimately, your preparation and understanding of the musical score will translate directly to the instruction of your students and to the quality of their eventual performance. 

5 – Lesson Plan 

At the beginning of my career, I would commonly pick up my scores, head into the band room, and that was the extent of my lesson planning.  I knew which musical works I wanted to play during the rehearsal period, and I believed that I could stop and correct mistakes along the way.  One day, I was observed by the head director at our program and after the lesson she asked to see my lesson plans.  Unable to provide my plan, she asked me to write up a detailed lesson plan for the following day.  On reflection, 18 years later I still look back on that following lesson as one of the most positive turning points as a music ensemble director.  The ensemble that I instructed with the detailed lesson plan was incredibly productive. The students were engaged throughout and we accomplished more in that one lesson than we had in the last several weeks.  Never allow yourself to teach your students without knowing your objectives.  Take the time to write them down in as much detail as possible and build in extensions for your class in case you achieve your objectives quickly.  Your students and your audiences will thank you. 

6 – Talk less, Instruct More 

Simply put, the more time you spend talking, the less time your ensemble gets to rehearse.  Keep your comments short and avoid the litany of corrections after cutting off the ensemble. Believe me, your students will stop listening to you after too many corrections are given. Also, at the beginning and the end of rehearsal, and between pieces, make sure to keep your comments short and relevant to the task at hand.  I agree that it is good to build a rapport with your students, but if you spend too much of your rehearsal time talking with your students about items not directly relevant to your ensemble you are simply losing valuable rehearsal time.  A good way to visualize this, if you spend 15 minutes of irrelevant discussion over 180 days of a school year, you will have lost 45 hours of rehearsal time.  

7 – Assess, Evaluate and Analyze 

Take the time in your lessons to evaluate your students, each day.  As educators, we spend hours learning of different formative and culminative assessments during our undergraduate degree, and it is important that we use these evaluation tools.  This could be as simple as having the students give you a thumbs up/thumbs down as a simple form of self-assessment. The assessment could also be as complex as conducting sectional, cross-sectional, or individual playing tests. I do recommend utilizing smart music, or a similar program to have students submit individual playing tests outside of class to save your rehearsal time.  You should be able to use the analysis of your student assessment to help develop your daily objectives.

8 – Phone a Friend 

Invite a clinician to come and work with your ensemble to offer your students a fresh perspective.  I also recommend that you move around the room and listen to your ensemble from different vantage points.  Having a guest conductor work with your ensembles will benefit everyone in the room.  Contact your nearby college ensemble director and schedule a clinic or two. Speaking from experience, we all truly love to come and work with your students any chance that we get! 

9 – Record the Rehearsal 

As an extension of my control panel, I had set up microphones above and behind me aimed at the ensemble to capture the ensemble sound.  I then connected the microphones to the PA and sent the audio out to a computer and used Audacity to record the ensemble.  The audio output from the computer was then sent back to the PA system and I was able to quickly replay the rehearsal segments and/or performances to the ensemble.  This is a great way to allow the students to assess themselves.  Lately, due to rehearsing in different locations, on the field, or in different venues, I have also used the audio recorder on my phone and even handheld digital audio recorders for this same process.  

10 – Reflection and Evaluation 

Take the time to reflect on your teaching. If you have recorded the ensemble during a rehearsal, I recommend going back after a few hours and listen to the recording with a refreshed set of ears.  Listening to the rehearsal can also help you plan for tomorrow’s lesson as sometimes the microphone will pick up mistakes that you might have overlooked or simply did not hear during the rehearsal.  At the end of the concert cycle, again take time to listen to the recording of your performance and evaluate yourself on the quality of your preparation for the ensemble performance.  Finally, I would also recommend having your students give you an evaluation of your teaching at the end of each semester.  I always had built the student evaluation as the last page of their semester exam, and the students would detach it and fill it out anonymously. Some of the biggest lessons that I have ever learned as an educator and ensemble director came from honest student evaluation comments.