How do you make a band of different levels sound as one? I have been conducting now for about two to three years and I still have difficulty especially with the new band I have taken on, in making the more experienced players feel challenged whilst not leaving the lesser experienced behind. Is there a quick way to teach kit players to read the music? I'm normally a tuba/clarinet player and I am still learning about how to conduct and if there is any right or wrong way to do so?
Thanks for your questions, Your first question has been asked by many before you, and will continue to be asked for years to come, I reckon, so you’re definitely not alone on this issue. Sadly, in my experience, there is not an easy answer, if any.
To give you some background, most of the big publishers have stipulated criteria/limits for the various ensemble levels. Their composers then have to compose within those limits. For example, a level 2 band has limited keys for composers to write within (key signatures for this level could be up to two sharps or down to 4 flats), this also limits modulations to the same key centers. There are also limited time signatures (for example, you will seldom see a 12/8 time signature for level 1 or 2 ensembles), limited ranges for all the instruments, limited rhythms, length of the music cannot exceed ‘so many’ minutes, limited tempi, etc.
The idea is a good one in that, as a level 2 ensemble director, you will know that if you choose a particular Publisher’s level 2 work, your ensemble will probably be able to perform the work to an acceptable standard following reasonable rehearsing. The idea falls over when a particular ensemble is faced with the very problems you have mentioned i.e. an ensemble of many levels. What to do? I have a couple of suggestions.
One is to have ‘special’ arrangements or compositions written for your specific ensemble. The downside with this idea is the additional $s required to have specific arrangements (along with any associated copyright costs) or compositions written for you. There is also a time consideration in that you need to organize your program and arranger/composer to have any music ready for rehearsals and performances, and, finally, finding someone capable of doing the writing to an acceptable standard.
A second (and possibly more achievable) idea is to challenge the more advanced players by forming them into smaller, workable, ensembles where the individual players can extend themselves in their own sphere without putting pressure on the beginners or strugglers from the ‘main’ ensemble. An additional plus is, at performances, you will have more ensembles to choose from, hence more variety for your audiences. Furthermore, by giving your advanced players an opportunity like this, you could be left with more time to concentrate on the beginners/strugglers of the main ensemble during rehearsal sessions (in my experience advanced players challenged in this way often need little direction or encouragement and simply want more rehearsal time for them to hone their ensembles’ skills, freeing you to give more time for your less advanced players).
If the formation of smaller ensembles can be achieved, the more advanced players may be more accepting of the frustrations associated with the fewer times they’d be part of the larger ensemble.
Keep in mind the use of technology, too, for maintaining enthusiasm with smaller ensembles. When I was a member of a clarinet quartet I wanted to play works with a rhythm section backing. In those days I couldn’t organize it but today, with computer programs, small portable speakers and Ipods, backing tracks can easily be put together and played through a small cube speaker adding another dimension to small group performances. These backing tracks could include any ‘missing instruments’ from specific ensembles. I believe this is one area that could be further explored given today’s limitations and pressures in school music programs, in particular.
Q: How to improve the reading of kit players. This is where your music leadership has to come to the fore. I don’t think there is any other way to teach reading music than by individuals applying themselves to the learning. Young kit players often see themselves more as famous rock artists…many of their heroes have ‘never needed to read music and, as a result, cannot read music so why should they be forced to’ sort of idea. In our ‘industry’, reading is a must. There are no shortcuts, I don’t believe. I do know there are some wonderful new computer programs that can help students to learn reading (they can be expensive but may be worth investing in…many of the bigger music stores stock music programs that could be just right for your purposes), however, it still must come down to the individual applying themselves at some level. Your leadership (teachership) is to find a way for them to be enthused to learn. In my job I was lucky as I never experienced this particular problem. All my musicians, including the percussionists, could already read.
An idea I’ve seen used in the past to teach a drummer to read is to have them play a fairly complex drum rhythm…one they know really well, and get them to write it down for another drummer to play. Alternatively, write a rhythm they already know really well and see if they can then play it by recognizing the written notes. There are ‘play along’ books with CDs that have pop/rock drum rhythms written out for drummers to follow and play along with and could be a good ‘carrot’ to get them started in a positive way. Anything like this will assist learning. Again, I believe it still all comes down to the willingness of the individual to want to learn.
Q: Right and wrong ways to conduct? Yes, there are many right and wrong ways to conduct. The answer for anyone to improve their conducting is full on conductor training…somehow. However, I’m conscious that this is something that is simply not an option for many rural music teachers/ensemble directors and this is one reason why I’m very interested in visiting rural areas to lecture on this subject (and other music subjects).
In short, great conducting technique itself will never guarantee a fine sounding ensemble. Knowing where to place beats, understanding how to study scores, learning a few ‘tricks of the trade’ when rehearsing are all important, but a wonderfully expressive five beats in a bar will not necessarily give you a wonderfully expressive sounding ensemble. There is a powerful secret to improving your ensemble…but it’s not an easy one to develop. It’s leadership from the podium. Many ensemble conductors (specifically community and school ensembles), in my opinion, place too much emphasis on conducting technique to the detriment of the all-important quality of leadership. Admittedly, musicianship is crucial to musical leadership but not the other way round. I’ve seen many a fine technician with the baton have woeful sounding ensembles. I’ve also seen some woeful conductors, technically speaking, that have marvelous sounding ensembles. What’s the key? Musical leadership. Leading from the front in a way that enthuses the musicians to want to play the music to the highest standards.
Now, where is the most work done when preparing for a performance? In the rehearsal room. So, musical leadership, along with good rehearsal principles/techniques, is of immense importance. I, and others, can possibly teach many rehearsal principles that can greatly assist you in the rehearsal room (there are many) but, the responsibility in developing good leadership from the podium, is something that is as individual as you are. In short, without that leadership, you and your ensemble will, possibly, always struggle. Check out, if you can, great conductors and see if you can work out why they’re so great (if you can’t get to live rehearsals or performances then there are many DVDs around these days with some of the world’s greatest conductors in action and in rehearsal. Many are fascinating to watch and learn from).
For your information, one thing I am offering as part of Graham Lloyd Music is the opportunity for teacher/community conductors to send me a DVD with a 30-minute duration recording of one of their rehearsals (preferably an earlier rehearsal session in preparation for a particular performance). I will review the DVD and send back a written critique of the rehearsal specifically concentrating on conducting and rehearsal techniques. This idea may be of interest to rural conductors in particular. The cost will be $100 per DVD.