On creating a wholesome program

I approach this topic with fear. The more I reflect on this topic, the more I find that the methodology of rehearsal cannot be divorced from the rationale of rehearsal. Through a conductor’s rehearsal, the way he thinks about music will eventually affect the musicians’ thoughts positively or negatively.

With that, and with previous articles written in mind[1], I wish to spend the last month of this year thinking about this big topic of rehearsal. My fear is my inability to exalt music in a rehearsal. It is saddening when band students quit without seeing the value of music. Unfortunately, in Singapore, this is the true condition of many graduating wind band students in the last few years – they are simultaneously more equipped, yet less interested in band music than before.

For the rest of this article, I would like to share ideas through the categories of the musician, the music and the conductor. Depending on the band, some of these ideas may be more applicable than others. I hope that through these ideas more hearts will be fired up, and more minds will be convicted of the value of music.

The Musician
Create self-discovery opportunities for musicians

  • Create opportunities for musicians to listen to their playing

Many times, young musicians are not used to hearing their own sound in relation to the rest of the band. Often, they end up playing too soft or too loud. Letting them play in different scenarios (alone, with certain people) helps them to hear (i) their own sound in a big room and (ii) their own sound in the context of everybody else. A useful exercise is to occasionally reallocate students to sit at different places in a room (trombones first row, clarinet last row, etc). Usually they are taken aback at how acoustics can greatly alter what they hear[2].

  • Create moments for musicians to sing

Singing connects the mind to the music and helps students to physically feel sound production in a very direct way. It teaches breath usage, tone, dynamics, vowels, etc in an experiential manner, and also brings a smile to the rehearsal. Singing collectively effectively teaches the concept of blending.

  • Create chances for musicians to teach

Understanding shows itself through explanation. If the musicians, especially the section leaders, are able to teach, they (i) gain confidence in problem solving for others and themselves, (ii) take ownership of their learning. When students own their learning, teaching them becomes a joy. After all, it can be quite attractive not to give answers all the time.

  • Encourage musicians to sight-read voraciously

Anime music, movie soundtracks, pop songs are made accessible in the form of piano scores in many shops like Takashimaya – they are a great source of motivation for sight-reading. Otherwise, instrumental etudes offer challenges to the more competent musicians. For the very competent players, there is always the option of doing a solo concerto for band. Band camps are good platforms for performances of such nature to take place. 

  • Encourage musicians to listen widely

Out of all the different aspects of training, listening is one of the most important musical skills. They will use their ear throughout their lives. We need to introduce students to various concerts; play students different recordings of a piece; play back their recordings to them; ask them to talk intelligently about what they hear.

After time, if students proactively initiate band pieces to play, or individually research the pieces that were practiced, it will be wonderful news. We have succeeded making music part of their everyday lives.

The Music
Reflect on compositional processes of each piece

As their interest in music grows and their playing improves, it is helpful to deepen their musical understanding. Every conductor has his own unique ways in teaching music; for me, I tend to think of music in a systematic manner. Below are some steps I find useful:

  • Teach musicians to think about musical structure.

After playing a piece through once or twice, ask musicians questions like, 

  1. How many sections are there in the piece? Why do you say so?
  2. Where is the climax of the piece? What are the dynamics?
  3. How many key changes are there in the piece?
  4. Are there differences between repeated materials?

Asking the right questions is more important than answering correctly, as the questions act as tools to help understand the piece. Through modeling such a thought process for students, we hope that they eventually learn to do the same on their own.

  • Teach musicians to think about the different roles of musical materials

Professor Onagawa, Conductor of Osaka Music College, was giving a masterclass to NJC Band 2 weeks ago. He rehearsed by asking for musical roles instead of instruments. “Can I have the accompaniment at bar 23?”, then students responsible for accompaniment will play. What was amazing was that throughout the rehearsal, no matter how complicated the piece was, he could always categorize the composition into isolated musical roles to rehearse.

I found this particular process to be a helpful practical analysis session. By spelling out musical roles instead of asking for specific instruments, musicians have to think about the role they are fulfilling before playing the music. They have to listen beyond their own parts and understand what is going on.

  • Rehearsing the piece through the lenses of different musical elements

Some pieces can be too complex to work on productively in its entirety, initially. Directing the attention to various musical elements can be very helpful in simplifying the rehearsal process. For example:

  1. Day 1: Work only on articulations of fast sections
  2. Day 2: Work on difficult rhythm patterns
  3. Day 3: combine 1 and 2, and work on the musical gestures intended by the composer via the articulations and rhythms

Or

  1. Day 1: Work on correct notes and tone
  2. Day 2: Work on intonation
  3. Day 3: combine 1 and 2, and work on the musical balance needed

Through this process not only the music is rehearsed with greater clarity, but musicians will also learn about the varying degree of importance of musical elements for different pieces.

  • Rehearsing the piece musically

Grasping the overall structure of the music, the role of different instruments and the details of the notation are crucial to understanding the music. With these building blocks, a masterful interpretation can be made. When we can interpret the music accurately, then we can rehearse musically.

A skilled conductor learns to ask interpretation questions, such as:
Why is there an accent on a weak beat?
Why is there suddenly a 5-bar phrase here among the 4-bar phrases?
Why does the brass enters only at bar 100?

These questions should always lead up to the point the composer is trying to make. There is always a musical message(s) to be found, whether simple or complex. Conductors then try to make the music work by drawing out the important elements.

The bad news is experience and insight is needed in this step. Daniel Barenboim’s “Beethoven Masterclass” is a classic example. On many instances, because of his depth of understanding of musical structures, he highlighted inconspicuous details that brought up Lang Lang’s clean playing to a different level of artistry.[3] Sadly, there are not many Daniel Barenboims among us.

The good news is we can all interpret, despite how feeble the attempt might be and often interpretation grows with experience and practice. Occasionally, we will even arrive at a musically convincing performance. That will make all the rehearsal efforts worthwhile.

The Conductor
Recreate the music

The conductor must carry out the important duties of time beating and cueing entries. But above all, the conductor must look like the music[4].

  • Build up a vocabulary of conducting gestures

Timothy Reynish says there are 50 shades of forte. I suggest just 10 different gestures for soft and loud entries. Practise phrasing the music by the each hand; practise in front of a video camera, etc.

 One possible exercise: Try rehearsing without saying a single word. If necessary, say only keywords like “articulation” or  “rhythm”; leave the rest to conducting[5].

  • Build up knowledge on composers and band repertory

A possible approach to a band music syllabus is to incorporate 2 to 3 pieces of the same composer in one semester. If the composer is skillful, his compositional works tend to be substantial enough to warrant some study. Valuable insights may be obtained from leading short discussions in the rehearsals.

Felix Hauswirth, Wind band professor of Basel Music Academy, challenges his conducting students to suggest music under specified themes. For example, he will specify the theme “War”, and they are expected to name titles like “D-Day” by Poelman, “Holocaust Suite” by Gould, “In Wartime” by Tredici, etc. almost instantaneously. Over time, conductors learn to see works of art not merely in isolation, but in larger categories. Such connections deepen understanding and promote interest in the music itself.

Let us embark on the journey of a better rehearsal, where there is much more poetry to be found, more insights to be shared with our fellow musicians, which I believe, will make music making a delight.

[1] Why Band Music is Important
[2] Adapted from my colleague Ewa Strusinska.
[3] Barenboim on Beethoven – Masterclass on the Sonatas
[4] A paraphrase of Nikolai Malko’s words, found in the pedagogical DVD of Ilya Musin.
[5] Taught by Conducting Professor, Mark Stringer in a masterclass in 2013.

Seow Yibin
Written By Seow Yibin

Yibin Seow is a Singaporean-born oboist and conductor, and currently conducts the Junior National Junior College Symphonic Band. His previous appointments include the conductor of the Junior Royal Northern College of Music, Principal Guest Conductor of North Cheshire Wind Orchestra, UK and Conductor of Musikgesellschaft Harmonie Büsserach, Switzerland. He was awarded the Brierley/Kershaw Conducting Prize by Royal Northern College of Music. Yibin studied the Oboe at the YST Conservatory of Music, Singapore, before furthering his studies with Emanuel Abbühl. Following that, he studied Wind Band Conducting with Felix Hauswirth and Orchestral Conducting with Clark Rundell and Mark Heron.