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Adjusting to the Ensemble in Front of You

Stephen Mayo ·

So you’re coming up on the holiday performance season, and you’re in full prep mode. This can be a stressful time of year, especially if your rehearsals haven’t been going the way you anticipated.

By now you have already purchased or planned out your selection of pieces to have your students learn for the winter performance. You’ve also had the first part of the school year to get to know your students. This means that you’ve had a chance to get an understanding of their performance level - what sort of pieces they’d be able to play or sing at a comfortable level, and what would be a good challenge and stretch them as artists.

With this in mind, take a look at your anticipated holiday performance lineup. Are the pieces you’ve selected for the performance the best fit for the group that is in front of you, or is it time to adjust expectations? Or better yet, are there some changes you can make to better prepare your group for success?

Here are some ideas for next steps on how to either “pivot” from your original plan or to redefine what success looks like for this performance season. We want students to be and feel successful, and it's up to us to set them up for success however we define it.

Making Your Strategic Teaching Pivot

  • Be Flexible. Don’t be so “set in stone” on your initial plan that you can’t adjust. Plans rarely work out the way you expect, so having more of an “outline” of what you hope to accomplish will take some of that weight off your shoulders. Having a back up plan ready to go, and even some “tricks up your sleeve”, will be helpful to have in a pinch.
  • Give Informal and Formal Assessments. Use formative assessments in your group to collect data and hone in on the source of your problem areas. This could be something as simple as asking questions of your members; “can my altos count this rhythm for me out loud in measure 4?” Or as complex as a full playing test that has real implications on their grade. Formative and/or formal assessments on fundamental skills can be highly motivating for your students to really learn their scales. This often requires persistence on your part to make sure students don’t just settle for mediocre, but trust us, it’s worth it!
  • Use Games. You could also transform exercises into fun games related to rhythm, intonation, intervals, etc. to practice areas that are giving them trouble - and the best part is, they’ll have fun while they do it!
  • Try Targeting Warmups. Maybe all it takes is implementing additional warmups at the start of your rehearsal to really build their “muscle-memory” of some of the trickier parts of the pieces you’re about to rehearse. Never underestimate the power of practicing something everyday, even if it’s just for five minutes! You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the change you will see over time.
  • Incorporate Sectional Rehearsals. These can also be an invaluable tool to break down what sections they are having a little more trouble with. Perhaps you just need to have them play one chord at a time and work on intonation, or maybe they need extra repetitions on a particularly tricky rhythm. The tedious work done in sectionals will likely help make your time in the full ensemble rehearsal more efficient.
  • Take Great Notes. Keep track of their progress by capturing detailed notes during your assessments so that you can begin to form a game plan for the next performance season. Think about what concepts your group still needs to work on, and begin looking for pieces that could help them practice and conquer these problem areas.
  • Set a Soft Deadline. Mark out a soft deadline for when you make your final decision for the concert/show lineup, and have a “run through rehearsal” for one final assessment.
  • Be Intentionally Bold. Don’t shy away from songs that would challenge your members and help them face the areas that they struggle with. This can be a very rewarding experience for your students to know that they were able to tackle pieces that were more challenging than the last concert cycle. Their future music teacher will probably thank you for diversifying their musical ability and familiarizing them with more challenging pieces. That being said, be intentional with the challenges you choose; we don’t want to pick battles that aren’t worth the fight!

Think Beyond the Holidays

Now that you have some ideas on how to tackle your upcoming holiday performance season, make sure to leverage these insights and strategize for the Spring season too. Hopefully, having a flexible approach, sound back up plans in place, and some options for drilling the problem areas will give you a little bit more peace of mind for what’s ahead.

As you are conducting your rehearsals in preparation for the performance, be ready to make those adjustments; pivoting as needed from your original idea on which pieces or how many you will be performing. And driving home the musical or performance concepts your ensemble needs is essential for success in this performance season and for their fine arts education.

Don’t be afraid to try new things and exercises, and don’t feel discouraged if your expectations on how this performance season was supposed to go didn’t go “according to plan”. Part of the reward of teaching is being flexible enough to provide what your students need help with the most.