Best Large Ensemble Practices: college and high school
In a previous college teaching position I held at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY, the band director asked me for some feedback on best practices for large ensembles in college. Below are his questions and my replies, which I composed in 2010 but I think are still relevant.
What expectations do you have for your students coming in to the first ensemble rehearsal of the semester?
For the first rehearsal of the semester (or the first in any new series of music, for that matter), an ensemble member should be in complete control of notes and rhythms for each piece on which he or she is playing. If there is a recording available, you should listen to it. If you can get a score, you should study it. If there is an important solo line, you should consider playing it for other people before you get to the ensemble. Email the conductor with any tempo or style questions that may arise during your practice.
What about subsequent rehearsals?
Subsequent rehearsals are to accomplish a number of things:
- learn everyone else's part, and how your part complements theirs (NOT how their part complements yours)
- clarify phrasing, articulation, intonation, and style in your own section
- clarify the above with other instruments in your family (e.g. brass, winds, percussion)
- Above all, subsequent rehearsals are for musical development of the ensemble as a whole. This is guided by the conductor, but you can contribute by communicating with the conductor either outside of rehearsal, or when your section specifically is being rehearsed. Always defer to the conductor, though.
After how many rehearsals is it unacceptable to be playing wrong notes and rhythms?
After the first rehearsal, you should have every note and rhythm nailed. In the Real World, your "first rehearsal" is often the gig itself, so that's your only shot. Change your perspective from rehearsals being about learning your part to being about learning how the piece fits together. This only happens when you have everything down cold ON YOUR OWN TIME.
What do you expect of your students in terms of rehearsal etiquette?
At its best, being an ensemble member is a study in humility, selflessness, and teamwork. The most important thing to remember in rehearsal etiquette is that you and your opinion do not matter more than the group and the group's development as a whole.
What items do they always need to bring to rehearsals?
For brass: all mutes, all music, a pencil, an eraser, a functioning instrument, and a cell phone that is TURNED OFF, not on vibrate, but OFF COMPLETELY.
When is it OK to talk?
1. When you need to address any of the following with your section mates:
- intonation (do this quickly)
- articulation (do this quickly)
- dynamic/balance (do this quickly)
- releases/entrances (do this quickly)
2. When you have a question for the conductor.
I'll add that it is NOT OK to talk when:
- you think you have a funny joke
- you are sick of the <fill-in-the-blank> section always messing up
- you disagree with the conductor
- you are bored
What do you do if someone in your section is making an obvious error that the conductor has yet to address?
If you are the assigned principal player, you may address the issue before or after rehearsal, during a sectional, or in rare occasions, during an actual rehearsal as long as it's done quickly and quietly.
If you are not the principal player, do not address it during an actual rehearsal. Do it before or after, or during a sectional.
If you have addressed it and it is still wrong, bring it up outside of rehearsal to the conductor or your applied teacher.
Above all, remember these facts if you are the person doing the correcting:
- be polite
- be clear
- be concise
- be friendly
...and remember these facts if you are the person being corrected:
- it is not personal
- it is not an insult to your talent
- it is business
- being in an ensemble is a study in humility, and you should be prepared to correct a mistake to make the ensemble better.