Concert Preparation Tips: What Works and What Doesn’t?

Earlier this year, the GRAMMY Foundation announced 213 quarterfinalists for the 2016 GRAMMY Music Educator Award™ and of that number, 122 are members of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). NAfME applauds these acclaimed members.

We asked a few of those members to share concert preparation tips and memorable concert experiences with us. Others of the NAfME quarterfinalists will be asked to share their music education expertise in the near future. 


Angelica Brooks (front row center) with one of her choral groups.
Angelica Brooks (front row center) with one of her choral groups.


Angelica Brooks is a choral and general music teacher at Benjamin D. Foulois Creative and Performing Arts Academy in Suitland, Maryland.

She says she “conducts three concerts and several appearance performances during the school year. We have a Winter Concert, Spring Concert, and Honors Ensemble Concert.”

Asked what role a concert plays in overall music instruction, she notes, “It prepares students for performing in an ensemble in a pre-professional setting. In preparing for concerts, we review choral etiquette, audience etiquette, and how to make artistic judgments about our performances.” 

Brooks says the ways in which she prepares for concerts have evolved over her teaching career.

“In the beginning years of teaching, I was more focused on ensuring the music was correct. Now I focus more on telling the story of the music through the interpretation of the music. We do many exercises on researching the piece, the composer, the author of the libretto, and how to convey the message of the music.”

Asked for a favorite concert memory, Brooks responded, “One fond memory was when my choir performed ‘I Believe I Can Fly.’ This piece was a song they very much wanted to do at our Spring Concert to close out the year. I helped them artistically and with technique and staging. However, during the performance I did not conduct them. They had to conduct themselves. They were literally ‘flying’ on their own. I stayed backstage and controlled the lighting. It was a HUGE success! I was very proud of them.”


Corey Ames, director of bands at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois, says, “We typically do one sit-down down concert per academic quarter. This gives us substantial time to address learning goals and gives students a sense of thorough preparation.

“Overall performance is just an assessed outcome of the students’ work. The rehearsal process is far more productive in engaging student learners. Students gain independence through critical thinking in putting elements of an ensemble together. They gain self-discipline in watching other students work through issues to be a bigger part of the whole process,” Ames says. 

As his teaching style evolved he says he is “a lot more open to asking the students to participate in creating the outcomes. Most of the time it is better for me to ask the students what they think we need to work on than telling them what I think. As students succeed in making better decisions on their own, I am more inclined to listen and allow them to run the curriculum. Most of the time they push themselves harder than I ever would alone.”

Ames says he once made a repertoire change just one week before a concert. “After a few tragedies occurring in the news prior to a concert . . . The way students connected emotionally was one of my favorite and most successful concert moments,” he explained. “Not only did they pull it off, but it was different than anything else they played up to that point because of how engaged and emotionally involved they were.”


Debra K. Burnell-Wise
Debra K. Burnell-Wise


Debra K. Burnell-Wise is director of bands at Pleasure Ridge Park High School, as well as at Eisenhower Elementary, Wilkerson Elementary, and Greenwood Elementary, in Louisville, Kentucky. She says her high school band, usually performs six to eight concerts per year. “However, next year that will increase due to adding another band class at the high school,” she says. “Next year we will endeavor to give ten or eleven concerts. In addition to high school, I also conduct two to three elementary band concerts.”  

“Concerts are a culminating product and assessment of what concepts and techniques we have been studying for that time period,” Burnell-Wise says. “When I select music, I have definitive educational goals set for my groups, and I choose pieces that help to teach and reinforce the concepts that align with my goals. Of course, we do give concerts that are ‘thematic’ (Veterans Day, Christmas, etc.), so the music must correspond to those events. If a piece does not teach new concepts, it has elements that help to reinforce a previously learned concept or technique.”

Asked how her concert preparation had changed over the years, Burnell-Wise responded, “Throughout my career, I have always had expectations for my groups and tried to instill a drive for excellence in my students. I would say one thing that I do much better now than I did 20 years ago is that I am much more effective in communicating to students what our goals are for the music/lesson.

“As trained musicians, we have in our head the things that need to improve in the music, but lessons and rehearsals are not effective if the students aren’t aware of what the goals are. This also creates more of a team/group effort. After all, it’s their concert, and they need to have that ownership in order for rehearsals and performances to be effective.  

“I would also have to say that I make greater use of having students critique their own performances. We do this by listening to each other in class and offering that person/section praise for things done well and suggestions as to what to improve. We also use recordings we have made in rehearsal and do quick mini critiques. This is such an effective tool that helps to develop our students listening skills and sometimes, they can offer more insight into a problem than I can!”

Asked for one of her favorite concert memories, Burnell-Wise responded, “During my second year at Pleasure Ridge Park High School, the band had grown from only 13 members to 40. We gave our annual PTSA Christmas Concert, that most of our community attends. We performed ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’, which was a pretty challenging medley for us at the time. We received a standing ovation. The whole school was talking about how awesome that band was. My students were beaming with pride!” 

If you could “do-over” one concert, what would you do differently? “I had one concert where we actually had to stop a start a piece over,” Burnell-Wise replied. “If I could do it over, I would reconsider my programming for that concert. I most definitely over programmed and needed to either play fewer pieces or lower the grade level.”  ​

istmas, concert, music students, chorus
Students from Cashell Elementary School in Rockville, Maryland, perform at the National Christmas Tree pageant in Washington, D.C. Jennifer Boice, a GRAMMY Educator quarterfinalist, shares concert preparation tips below.


Jennifer Boice, general music teacher at Cashell Elementary School, Rockville, Maryland, said limited instruction time plays a role in the way she approaches concert preparation.

“Because I teach in elementary school, I see my students only once a week. This limited amount of time makes it essential to use every opportunity to use the concert repertoire in music instruction. The songs and activities I teach correlate directly with my performance program. I try to plan the programs well in advance so I can teach the concepts in the curriculum and prepare for performance at the same time. Planning a music lesson and a concert both need many of the same characteristics: variety of styles and genres, singing, playing instruments, moving, dancing, and the opportunity to be creative.

“I find that when students know that they will be sharing a song, activity, or composition in a concert venue, they are motivated to do their very best, and this in turn helps in performing concerts of high quality.”

Led by general music teacher Jennifer Boice, students at Cashell Elementary School perform an Earth Day concert.


However, she adds, “I try to provide as many performance opportunities as possible throughout the course of the year. We begin the year by performing the National Anthem for a football game or at some other venue. This gives my new chorus students a chance to get up in front of people and sing and see how much fun it is! We also sing our holiday program at several different venues in the month of December. It is the same musical program, just at different places. I try to have an outdoor and an indoor experience in addition to a performance locally. This is very beneficial for developing performers because it gives them a chance to analyze and perfect their program.”

Boice also says, My kindergarten through third grade students also have grade level performances which include music, reader’s theater, and Orff instruments which interrelate with their curriculum. Classroom teachers are much more cooperative with rehearsal time if the students are also using music to enhance the learning process. When the students begin formal chorus instruction in the fourth grade, they are veteran performers and eager to advance to the next level of musicianship.”

Teaching since 1979, she says, “This means that music in the classroom has changed quite a bit over the course of these 35+ years, and so I have had to adapt and make many changes in concert preparation. Extra rehearsals or combining classes for performances is now much more difficult. Testing and reading initiative schedules, and the many demands of new curriculum on teachers make it much more challenging as well. Creative scheduling is key. Schedule your performances and get them on your school’s calendar early!”

“Communication with teachers involved also creates an atmosphere of cooperation and shared goals. There is no such thing as too much communication. Students are also so busy with many great activities, and I now use an email list to communicate with parents so they can plan ahead and be sure that their child will be able to participate in the chorus events. We all want the same thing, which is a fantastic learning experience for students, and we need to stay focused on this, plan early, and communicate to make it happen for them.”


Jennifer Boice, (far left) with her third grade recorder students.
Jennifer Boice, (far right, front row) with her third grade recorder students.


Boice has so many concert memories; she says it was hard to choose a favorite.

“When students begin performing early in elementary school and become more experienced, there are many opportunities in the community to share what is happening at your local school music program with them. Many of my favorite memories include performances for the community,” she says. 

“We have performed at the National Christmas Tree Musical Program, the National Zoo lights, the Cherry Blossom parade, local nursing homes, and Earth Day celebrations. One of my favorite community performances was last year when we auditioned for the countywide Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration, and service of remembrance. We were chosen as the opening act,” Boice adds.

“We sang a special song written for Martin Luther King. Jr., and signed it as well in American Sign Language. We sang on the stage at Strathmore Hall [in North Bethesda, Maryland], and our performance was broadcast on television. It was such an incredible learning experience for my 4th and 5th grade students to see how music helps a community celebrate and share together. It was thrilling!”


Read the complete list of 2016 GRAMMY Educator Quarterfinalists, including those who are NAfME members. In all, more than 4,500 initial nominations were submitted from each of the 50 states.

From elementary general music teachers to band directors, choral conductors, string teachers, and college professors, the GRAMMY Music Educator Award was established to recognize current educators (kindergarten through college, public and private schools) who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education. They must also  demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools.

The 2016 GRAMMY semifinalists will be announced in September. Nominations for the 2017 GRAMMY Music Educator Award are now open


Want more info on concert etiquette? NAfME members can also access a concert checklist.

Photos courtesy of Angelica Brooks, Debra K. Burnell-Wise and Jennifer Boice

Roz Fehr, July 9, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (