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Posted by on April 12, 2016. 0 comments

Motivation is one of the trickiest and most important aspects of leading an ensemble. A choir can live or die depending on a conductor’s capacity to maintain the group’s motivation. Different things will demotivate different people, so it can be difficult to pinpoint specific techniques that can be useful in all cases. There’s also a widespread assumption that this aspect of conducting and teaching is entirely dependent on charisma and that it can’t be effectively taught.

While there are countless rehearsal techniques to work on rhythm, articulation, balance, diction, pitch, etc., I’m interested in finding rehearsal principles that will help:

  • • Keep a choir motivated.
  • • Create moments of genuine insight that are frequent and personal.
  • • Promote lifelong commitment.

From my own experience and from observing and talking with conductors that I admire for this aspect of their conducting, I’ve come up with three broad principles for rehearsing with motivation in mind:

1. Do not create hate for the piece

This should be your first priority. Surely not everyone will love a particular piece, but they shouldn’t get to a point where they abhor it. Getting a choir to learn a work temporarily is never worth making them hate it permanently. Help your choir get excited by showing them early in the process what excites you about the piece — programming repertoire that doesn’t excite you is always a bad idea. This is usually easy to do, but hard to maintain in the long term; it will usually take several reminders of what makes a piece exciting to you to get a choir on board with your vision.

There are probably certain details of the piece that you are crazy about. However, love of the details came from a broader appreciation of a work. Get your choir excited about the big picture: the big picture will help them appreciate the details of the piece, not the other way around. Learning notes, drilling passages, and detailed rehearsing will be more productive and permanent if the big picture is in place. Learning details without context can feel futile, and few things are as effective at promoting hate for a piece of music as rehearsing with a sense of futility.

2. Motivation is limited

We learn most of our rehearsal techniques in the context of school. There, singers’ main motivation is a fear of not graduating — many of the rehearsals “work” because students are pressured by their tuition costs, peer pressure, and grades. Outside of this environment, interest does not always translate into motivation, especially because of the other pressures in your musicians’ lives. It can be difficult to return to a piece of music repeatedly and attention spans can vary from one rehearsal to another. It is important to take this into account when planning rehearsals. The following techniques can help account for varying levels of motivation:

  • • Find a section of the piece that is approachable and that serves as a microcosm of the entirety of the work. Use that section as an anchor to introduce new sections, going from the known to the unknown. Introduce new concepts gently. This will help maintain their desire to revisit the piece.
  • • Plan for a “moment of insight” in the first few minutes of rehearsal that will encourage them to keep going. This can be an activity, a practice technique that they haven’t done before, or a mind-blowing fact that makes them question an assumption about the piece. The goal is to create a moment of self-satisfaction in the singer where something in the music suddenly makes sense, a moment where it “clicks”.
  • • Make the rehearsal progressive so that even a short time investment results in insight or audible progress. Plan your rehearsal as if some of the musicians had to leave after a few minutes, some halfway through, and only a fraction staying until the end — make sure that all of them “leave” with some kind of insight.

3. Expect it to be wrong at first and acknowledge difficulty

It’s easy to forget just how confusing certain aspects of a piece can be in the beginning. It is important to acknowledge this and reassure the group that you’re there to help them figure it out. Failing to acknowledge that things can be confusing or difficult can imply to the group that the fault lies with them.  A conductor’s job is not to be omniscient authority. Let’s not expect perfection from our ensembles and ourselves. Rejoicing in the the process of rehearsal and practice is the best way to attain lifelong commitment and continued satisfaction from what we do.

Teaching my two-year-old, Part 1: Black, White, Ssshhh!

Posted by on February 15, 2013. 0 comments

If you have never seen a piano keyboard what immediately catches your eye?

That there are white keys and black keys.

Even if you don’t know what they do, it is easy to understand that the white keys and the black keys are different from each other. All you need to know is black from white, something that most toddlers know by the time they’re two years old. The same cannot be said about many other aspects of the keyboard, which require knowing left from right or more complicated spatial reasoning.

The first thing a child will learn about the piano is that pressing the keys makes noise. Noise versus quiet is a good starting point for a game. You can play it with flashcards or with a sheet of paper (I prefer a single sheet of paper because it mirrors the act of reading sheet music better.) Make a drawing that means “noise” (for example, lots of squiggles) and one that means “quiet”. Then practice making lots of noise or lifting your hands and being quiet when you point to one or the other.

At this point, the student only needs to keep track of two elements: “noise” and “ssshhh!”

Making the transition from banging on the keys indiscriminately to finding and playing specific keys can be a struggle. Putting stickers on the keys is a common approach, but it carries its own set of problems. I prefer to start with the things that are immediately obvious about the piano and gradually work our way to specifics, one element at a time. Showing the difference between black and white keys is a great next step because it only requires adding one more element to what we already know.

First, we practiced playing only white keys or black keys at one time, so I could make sure that my kid was ready to understand the difference between them. Then we composed our score:

We already knew the difference betwen noise and quiet, so now we have two categories of noise: black-key noise and white-key noise, represented by the white and black circles. Whenever we got to a red circle, that meant “Ssshhh!” (put your hands up and be quiet!) As you can see by our sheet music, I drew the first few circles and then my kid took over. Once we had our sheet music, we started to play.

I would point to a circle and we’d do it together. Hold down the sustain pedal for each “event” (and remove it for the moments of quiet). After our first run-through he was the one playing and I was only pointing at circles. By our third run-through, he was reading the sheet music on his own:

At this point, a student is keeping track of three elements: “white”, “black”, and “ssshhh!”

What’s our next step?

The key is to add other elements gradually. For instance, we can add “loud” and “soft” playing, play with durations (with bigger and smaller circles), or we can play in different registers using  four elements: “tweeting birdies”, “mewing kitties”, “barking doggies” (top, middle, and bottom registers), and “ssshhh!” As we combine all the things we know, things can get complicated very quickly. For example combining register with black and white keys yields seven different elements to identify in the sheet music:

1. High-register black keys

2. Middle-register black keys

3. Low-register black keys

4. High-register white keys

5. Middle-register white keys

6. Low-register white keys

7. Ssshhh!