We’ve hit the time of year where many of us have settled into routines and (probably) feel pretty comfortable with what we’re doing. This is often when we ask, how can I make rehearsal more interesting? How can I ensure the students are engaged? How can I mix things up? While there is comfort in routine, after a while it can also get stale. It’s understandable. That’s why it’s up to us as directors to keep things fresh and interesting.
First, look for the cause of the problem. Are the students confused about the material, and that’s why they are disengaged? If that’s the case, think about how you can teach the students in front of you. It might mean re-teaching certain concepts (even if you think they should know it) or explaining things in different ways. You may need to slow down and temper expectations. This is okay! It’s more important for students to grow from where they are, then struggle to reach goals that may be unrealistic or even arbitrary.
If the students understand the material and are just looking for something new, then it’s time to shake things up! Here are some strategies and activities you can use during rehearsal to ensure everyone is having fun and being creative, and even gives students some ownership in the process.
Ensemble directors spend a lot of time planning lessons and rehearsals, and many would agree that well-planned rehearsals are the most successful. That being said, is it always necessary for the director to create the plan? Consider opening this up to students. Ask students, what are the next steps? What should we work on during the next rehearsal? Encourage them to come up with a rehearsal plan, and then put that plan into action next time you meet! Students can do this individually or in small groups, planning the entire rehearsal or just a portion of it. Be sure to tell the class whose plan you’re using and encourage that person to explain their decisions. The students will be more interested in what’s going on, since one of their classmates planned the rehearsal, and you’re giving them ownership of the learning process.
Consider having students lead part of the rehearsal. Start by finding an activity or exercise that you do frequently in class and ask a volunteer to lead the group. Volunteers could also choose what to do with the ensemble, maybe picking a warm-up or a specific part of a piece to lead. Similarly, if you know you are introducing a new skill or technique soon, ask if anyone would be interested in teaching it. Often there are students who take private lessons or have previous experiences and already know the skill or technique. This is a great opportunity for them to put their knowledge into action and teach the class! It’s a good idea to give the student teacher time to prepare what they will teach, so this might be something you schedule a few days in advance. Students enjoy being in front of the group, and the rest of the ensemble is often more attentive as a result. If you’re looking for more ideas surrounding student leaders, check out this blog post: Use Student Leaders to Empower Your Ensembles.
Often during ensemble rehearsals, we spend the majority of the time re-creating someone else’s music. If this is the case for you, consider where you could incorporate more student creativity. Start with the skills and techniques you are already working on. If students are learning the F major scale and to play in the key of F major, you could have them improvise melodies in that key. Or, if students are learning about articulation, you could have them create a melody using the various articulations they’ve learned, or find a well-known melody and add articulations to it. There are infinite ways you could incorporate creativity to enhance the skills you are already working on in class. For some additional ideas about creativity, check out this blog post: Another Way to Think About Creativity.
Creativity: Musical Pictures
When Kathryn Finch and I interviewed Marissa Guarriello for the Pass the Baton Podcast, she shared a fun game she does with students called “musical pictures.” First, the class decides on a category, such as colors, animals, or weather. The students are divided into small groups and must come up with a topic that fits the category. For example, if the category is colors, a group might pick the color red as their topic. Finally, the students work with their groups to create music that sounds like their topic. After a specific amount of time, the groups share what they created.
The musical pictures game is a great way to get students thinking and using their instruments (or voices) creatively! Students may need some guidance the first time. It could be helpful to model thinking about what something might sound like, and how we transfer that idea to an instrument. For instance, what does the color red sound like? Students might suggest it sounds angry, loud, or aggressive. Then you could discuss how to make those sounds on an instrument. For another variation, you could have the class guess each group’s topic, based on what they hear. To hear Marissa talk more about musical pictures, check out Episode 7 of the Pass the Baton Podcast, Creativity and Improvisation in Ensembles Part 1.
Here are some other ways to mix things up during rehearsal:
- Allow students to choose different seats for a portion or all of a rehearsal. This makes things more interesting, and requires students to be independent, since they can’t rely on the people next to them playing the same part.
- Choose a section of a piece and find a new way to play it. Can you play it backwards? Make it sound spooky? Play it in slow motion? Make it sound like a robot? You could even have students suggest different moods and styles to experiment with.
- As a class, try to figure out a melody by ear. Choose something everyone is familiar with, give the students a starting pitch, and go from there! After doing this a few times, you could have students suggest the melody.
- Using a deck of playing cards, give each student a card and use that to determine who does various things during rehearsal. For example, you could have all students with Spades play or sing their parts, Clubs say the note names, Aces use air and fingerings, and Hearts provide feedback after the repetition. Or all students with even numbers listen while everyone else plays. You will keep students on their toes!
Getting students to think creatively is great for their musicianship and reminds them we don’t have to spend all of our time recreating music composed by someone else. Giving students the opportunity to create helps them think musically, which is one of our goals! Additionally, it’s a great way to incorporate the Creating strand from the National Core Arts Standards: generate musical ideas for various purposes and contexts.
These are just a few suggestions to mix things up during rehearsal. You don’t need to do them every class period, or for the entire period, but you can’t go wrong giving the students some ownership of the rehearsal and making time for creativity. When in doubt, ask the students for their ideas and suggestions! It’s bound to pay off in the long run!
Looking for more ideas? Check out one of these blog posts for more inspiration: