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4 Ways to Improve Your Ensemble’s Sound…and Improve Your Festival Rating Along the Way

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For many years, at the conclusion of the spring festival season, I have thought that I should write an article about the performances that I have heard. The impetus for this is the fact that while many groups bring outstanding performances to adjudicated music festivals, others frequently receive lower ratings for reasons that are often relatively easy to improve. While they have rehearsed, learned the music, and prepared diligently for the event, their ratings fall short. This might happen even though they have performed their pieces somewhat accurately. So, for those directors who are unhappy with festival scores of their vocal groups, here, in that proverbial nutshell, are four ways to help those performances sound better.

1. Study the score carefully and observe the markings.

It always disappoints me to see an ensemble not perform as well as it should simply because the conductor has not followed what is written in the score. Frankly, when things like fermatas, accelerandos, and ritardandos are totally ignored, the fault lies with the conductor, not the students. Students will perform as they are taught. Metronome and tempo markings are also often a similar problem. While we know that these are not absolute, playing a piece at a speed that significantly deviates from what is indicated is again the fault of the conductor.

Some aspects of musical interpretation are more personal, while others are more clearly defined. For example, if a new section of a piece is marked “faster” or “slower,” the composer is indicating that it needs to be different from what preceded it. How much faster or slower will be more of a personal decision if there is no new metronome marking. But, if a conductor simply makes no change in tempo in the new section, that is incorrect. An adjudicator might opine that more should be made of an accelerando or ritardando. That can always be subject to discussion. But if there is no change at all, it is incorrect. Similarly, the length of a fermata is a personal decision. But, if the director simply beats time through it for the written duration of the note with no cessation of the pulse, again, that is incorrect. As an adjudicator, I may not agree with some or all of one’s personal musical interpretation. But at the same time, it would not be fair for me to lower a score if that performance is still a valid interpretation of what is written in the score.

2. Teach the musical style as well as the notes.

Style is often an area that does not receive enough attention. For example, the title of a piece frequently gives important information about how it should be played. If the title includes words like “dance” or “song,” then the composer is providing important stylistic information. Knowing what type of dance it is will provide additional information about the style that needs to be achieved. Similarly, if the title or the composer’s notes indicate that a piece is programmatic, try to bring out the parts of the piece that represent those ideas.

If the piece is a transcription or adaptation of a well-known work, be sure that your group has had a chance to hear a recording of it in its full original version. Even though it will be different from the arrangement that the students are performing, there is no more efficient and effective way for them to learn about the idiomatic aspects of music than to listen. Listening goes to the very core of what we do as musicians. Yet, it often plays one of the smallest roles in the way that we teach music. Emphasize the musical styles in your teaching and conducting, and stress to your students the importance of communicating these musical thoughts to the listener. The end result will be a performance that is not only more engaging for the performer and listener, but also one in which the students are better able to enjoy and personalize their music-making.

3. Choose appropriate music for your group and for festival performance.

I have always found the selection of a program for any of my groups to be extremely challenging. It often takes me quite a bit of time to decide on pieces that fit the players, have musical merit, can be learned in the time available, and will balance with the other pieces on the program.

Selecting pieces for a festival can be even more difficult. The bottom line is that any time a group performs, we want the students to sound their best. I have never been able to understand why directors program pieces that simply don’t sound good. There can be many reasons why a piece doesn’t present the group in the best manner possible. It may just be too advanced. I appreciate the thought that is sometimes expressed that “at least they had a chance to try it.” I would let them try it in the rehearsal room and bring something else to the stage. Why not let students show off their finest playing instead of struggling with something that is beyond their abilities?

On the opposite side of the spectrum, performing a piece that is far too easy for the ensemble no matter how well it is done will also usually be reflected in a lowered score. I knew a college football coach who said that to him a good schedule for a team would have some games that are sure wins, some that would be a good game but probable wins, and some that would be a stretch, but winnable. A similar view can be taken of programming. Every piece doesn’t have to be easy. But, depending on the capabilities of your singers, a concert that stretches a group too far on each piece may also be problematic. Strive for a balanced program.

Other times the piece doesn’t fit the ensemble. If your numbers are low for a certain section or those singers are weak, why program a piece that has critical parts for that section? If you have singers who are not going on the trip to the festival and their parts are not covered in some way, how can a judge be expected to give a good score for something that he or she doesn’t even hear?

4. Listen to your group.

In order to help achieve the goal of having your ensembles sound good, an important thing to do is to step away from the stage and listen. Try to listen as if you are an outsider and this is the first time that you are hearing this group. Remember to put this activity on your calendar so that you do it far enough in advance of the performance to allow for corrective measures. Be your own judge. Do you really hear the dynamics? Do you hear good ensemble? Do you hear the soloists? Do you hear wrong notes? Do you hear good tone quality? Do you hear good phrasing? What about the style?

Listen objectively to everything, take notes, and don’t make excuses. Then get back on the stage and teach what your listening to the ensemble has indicated still needs to be taught. While you’re at it, make a recording and then play it back for the students. Let them be their own adjudicators. You might find that they are the ones who are most critical. Discerning listeners will become more astute performers. Remember that if something doesn’t sound good in rehearsal, it won’t suddenly sound good under the stress of performance.

Listening to the group should also include looking at the physical arrangement of the ensemble. The standard stage arrangements and the ones that we remember from the advanced groups in which we have performed might not allow for the best ensemble tone quality and balance with younger groups and with ones having less than optimum balance. Let your ears and common sense be your guide to seating. If you have a lot of one voice type and only a few of another, arrange them so that they all have the best chance of being heard. Don’t worry if it’s not traditional.

Many music teachers will arrive at this point in this article and realize that much, if not most, of what is being discussed here is not new to them. Whether for a school concert or a festival, there are no special secrets that will suddenly improve the performance of your musical groups. What is often said, but very often forgotten, is that we, as conductors and more importantly as teachers must go beyond the teaching of notes. Most students, especially at the high school level, are able to read and learn the notes and rhythms. They understand the dynamics and the tempo markings. That is their part.

While we need to be sure that they are singing their parts correctly, our duties also include the conception of the ensemble and perception of a work. We are the ones with the full score and therefore able to make comprehensive decisions about every musical aspect of the piece. We are the ones who select the pieces and determine their styles. We are the only ones who are in front of the ensemble and therefore able to hear the composite sound from a vantage point closer to that of the listeners. With more careful attention to these four areas, your groups will sound better whenever they perform and that’s the best rating of all.

Arthur D. Chodoroff is professor of music, director of Bands, and area coordinator for Woodwinds and Brass in the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa. Currently in his 42nd year as a music educator, he is conductor of the Wind Symphony with which he has recordings released under the Toshiba-EMI and Albany labels. In addition, he teaches courses in undergraduate and graduate instrumental conducting, woodwinds methods, and has conducted concerts with the Temple Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, and chamber groups.

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