The life of a band director is incredible; there is nothing quite like it. Every week seems like the craziest week of your career until you finally perform that concert… and then you are already behind on the next one! How do you keep the bigger picture in mind while ensuring that you address the small stuff? We have found that creating and sticking to a clear Concert Cycle Roadmap is extremely helpful, not as a strict schedule to which we are forced to adhere, but as a general guideline for what we should spend most of our rehearsal time addressing! Here are five valuable insights that helped us trust the process and breathe a little easier.
1 - Balance Your Short-Term Focus with Long-Term Goals
First, from a long-term perspective, navigating an entire concert cycle can feel like a daunting task, leaving you wondering where to start or what to focus on. Keep these two things in mind:
- Prioritizing Your Focus: Concentrate on the aspects that are most pertinent at each stage of the concert cycle. For example, if you emphasize phrasing and musicality while your students struggle with key signatures, that might not be the best use of your time. Conversely, if you obsess over a single missed note when your ensemble lacks a sense of musical direction that might set you up for a lackluster performance.
- Chart your Course throughout the Concert Cycle: Ask yourself what you should be addressing 10 weeks, 5 weeks, and 2 weeks away from the concert date. While it's crucial to refine specific articulations or nurture your students' appreciation for a musical line, it's equally vital not to become fixated to the point of neglecting other elements. Remember, the pursuit of perfection in one section shouldn't hinder your ability to shine elsewhere in the music.
Next, while long-term objectives are undeniably crucial, cultivating a sense of short-term urgency is perhaps even more pressing. Two more things to pay close attention to:
- Rehearsal Pacing: This skill is the anchor that maintains both student and teacher engagement with the material. I remember a bad habit I once had — investing an excessive amount of time on the first piece listed in my lesson plan, which led to a loss of my students' attention midway through the class. Make a plan, and STICK TO IT; if you have to set alarms like I did, do it!
- Avoid Prolonged Focus: Overextending your focus on a single piece or section for an extended duration almost certainly transforms your classroom from a haven of music education into a room inhabited by wandering minds and potential mischief-makers. The optimal duration varies based on the ensemble, but personally, I don’t remember a time where I accomplished much of anything once my timer ventured into double-digit minutes.
2 - Make Time for Fundamentals!!
You might feel like there's no room to work on fundamentals. There are certainly exceptional cases where skipping fundamentals makes sense, but those are, of course, exceptions. How fundamentals are included will, or should, evolve throughout the concert cycle. Before delving into the specifics of sight-reading, it's essential to recognize that sight-reading serves to measure your fundamental skills. While you can teach skills to encourage wisely using your prep time, you can't make a band with underdeveloped fundamentals sound good with any number of witty acronyms!
Here are a few points to consider:
- Flexible Fundamentals: The search for the "perfect fundamental packet" can sometimes be a lost cause. While it's helpful to have resources that guide students through the fundamentals, much like a student investing in the "best" mouthpiece but buzzing with their teeth closed, the value lies in how you use it. That begins with you engaging with the fundamentals.
- Diverse Approaches: Playing a scale in the same way 200 times a year teaches exactly one thing: how to play a scale when I ask you to (if we’re lucky). If your goal is for students to truly understand scales, teach the scale 200 different ways! It’s so easy to be, as some of my colleagues say, “lost in the wonderful land of the conductor,” and totally miss the point of some of these exercises.
3 - Teach the Individuals to Teach the Group
While standing in front of the entire concert band is often deemed the most critical aspect of our role, working individually and in small groups can sometimes be the most effective means of enhancing your overall program. Here are some strategies to consider:
- Individualized Attention: Assign every student a solo or a small ensemble. Create a schedule, allocating 10-15 minutes per week for each individual or group to receive personalized tutoring on their music. Grouping students by skill level, with similar solos, can allow you to work with them collectively, maximizing efficiency.
- Leverage Auditions and Competitions: While the prospect of auditions and competitions carries both advantages and drawbacks, they represent an excellent means to elevate your band's skill level. In my first year with a Junior High band we had two students make the All-City Band and doubled that number the next year and it kept growing. As the number of successful individual students increased, so did our ensemble's ratings, ultimately achieving top marks in all events by the fourth year.
- Encourage In-Class Performances: Create opportunities for your students to perform individually within the classroom setting. While it may come naturally for your star players, even those with less experience should be encouraged to participate. A creative approach, like my friend's "Bucket of Joy," can be implemented. This container contained slips of paper bearing the names of every student in the band, each name appearing seven times. Daily, four or five names were drawn, and those students performed a designated excerpt, typically a scale or a section of their audition or solo piece. Concerns about students becoming nervous should be reframed as opportunities for them to acclimate to performance anxiety, a skill they will need in auditions, solo assessments, and on-stage during live performances.
4 - Pay Attention to Sight-Reading
As we dive headfirst into the intense preparations for our upcoming performances, it's crucial not to overlook vital skills like sight reading. Our ensemble's sight-reading abilities hold the key to conquering more intricate musical pieces and achieving a higher level of performance. Moreover, it amplifies the students' enjoyment of music when they feel self-assured during their initial reading, even if it falls short of perfection. Here's a structured plan to elevate sight-reading proficiency within your ensemble:
- Initiate with Unison Lines: These lines can be drawn from band method books or accessed through online platforms like SightReadingFactory.com. One or two exercises daily can have a significant impact on sight reading proficiency.
- Graduate to Accessible Band Repertoire: Once your ensemble demonstrates consistency in their reading, introduce accessible band music from your library.
- Explore Published Sight-Reading Materials: Invest in a set of sight-reading books available from publishing companies.
- Create a Sight-Reading Folder: Some directors assemble a sight-reading folder brimming with a diverse selection of pieces.
- Leverage Previous History: If your state follows a standardized sight-reading plan with compositions created for annual evaluations, purchase music from previous years, encompassing varying levels of difficulty.
By implementing these strategies, you can systematically nurture sight-reading competence, unlocking the potential to tackle more challenging music and elevate performance levels.
5 - Bringing in Help (Do it EARLY, do it OFTEN)
I cannot emphasize enough how invaluable it is to have a support system in this profession. The most useful realization I have had is the fact that I needed help, and a lot of it. If you are fortunate enough to have a willing colleague or mentor who can observe your teaching or instruct your students while you observe, I strongly encourage you to seize this opportunity as soon as possible. It is natural to feel hesitant about showcasing your band's current state or having someone scrutinize your teaching methods. It can be scary! This is precisely why you should embrace the opportunity for mentorship from someone who can help you get to your best teaching self.
Embracing help and seeking feedback can be transformative for both your teaching and your student's learning experiences. Make your own development part of your Concert Cycle Roadmap. By doing so, you’ll convey a powerful testament to your students about a lifelong commitment to continuous improvement. That lesson is as important as any performance.
Original article published November 10, 2023 on Band Director's Talk Shop