Do You Hear What I Hear?
Isolating and Attacking Musical Phrases for Accuracy
By NAfME Member Lori Schwartz Reichl
This article was originally published in the February 2019 teacher edition of In Tune Magazine.
“Improvement begins with I.” ~ Arnold H. Glasow
Through my years of directing musical ensembles, supervising pre-service music teachers, mentoring novice educators, and adjudicating ensembles, I have encountered ensemble directors unable to quite hear discrepancies in musical phrases or who lack the confidence to acknowledge and correct the errors. Even if rhythmic inaccuracies, dynamic contrasts, and tempi changes are often heard and corrected, pitch errors may be ignored in dense harmonic lines, and even in unison passages. Reflecting upon my formative years as an ensemble director, I am certain I ignored discrepancies in my ensembles, too. Inexperienced, I might have been so intent on how the individual musicians looked and acted that I may not have focused with precision on their unified sound. Even now, although I make every attempt, I know I can’t hear everything at once!
I can recall an instance with a student intern when we discussed the immediate need for correcting errors in an ensemble. While conducting the band through a performance of a scale, he did not acknowledge that the horn players were not performing in unison with the ensemble, let alone correct them. He didn’t even look at the section to make a nonverbal gesture. I asked the intern why he had not corrected the horns during the scale. He looked at me in confusion. So, I took a different approach and asked, “Did you hear that the horns didn’t perform in unison with the remainder of the ensemble during the scale?” He answered that he had not. I instructed him to view the score of a specific selection he conducted, asking him what pitch he heard a tenor saxophone player perform in a particular measure, rather than what the composer had written. He guessed the answer correctly, but admitted that he had not heard that particular pitch error. He confessed that sometimes he heard discrepancies within certain sections, but did not feel confident in how to proceed with instructions for improvement. We spent the remainder of the observation discussing methods for ensuring the detection of errors while conducting an ensemble.
A method for isolating and addressing musical phrases:
- Do you hear an error?
- Can you discern where the discrepancy is coming from within the ensemble? As the conductor, do you hear the error to your left, in front of you, or to your right?
- Can you detect the instrumental section or voice part that is producing the error?
- Of the instrumental section or voice part, can you detect which divided part is producing the error?
- Further, can you detect which individual is making the error?
If you can detect which section or voice part is producing the error, but you can’t detect which individual is the culprit (or do not wish to individualize), consider this process:
- Ask your students to acknowledge what error is occurring. Is an F# being performed when it should be an F? Are eighth notes being confused for sixteenth notes? Is a dynamic marking of piano being performed instead of forte?
- Instruct all members of the section to use a pencil to star the exact beat or measure where the error is occurring.
- Instruct all members of the section to circle or place a bracket around the musical phrase that contains the error.
- Speak, sing, or play the phrase yourself as a model for your students.
- Ask the section leader, or another musician you are confident can perform the phrase masterfully, to do so also as a model.
- Ask that individual to perform again while you add the next student in line, so that two musicians are now playing or singing in unison. While this is occurring, ask those students who are waiting their turn to perform to finger, slide, air stick, or mouth along. This ensures that all members of the section or ensemble are focused, with no instructional time lost.
- Continue down the line by adding a musician each round, until all musicians are performing in unison.
Also consider slowing down the tempo in order to master the phrase, increasing speed as you add more musicians. If a student makes a mistake, restart. If the student makes the mistake more than once, ask him or her to become tacet and finger, slide, air stick, or mouth along again. Encourage this musician to join in when he or she can master the phrase. This could be later in the rehearsal or sectional or another day after he or she has spent some time practicing the passage in question at home. Once the musical phrase in question has been isolated and attacked, add the phrase before and after it to ensure that a smooth transition can occur. During a rehearsal, once all (or most) musicians of the section can master the phrase, instruct all members to perform beginning at the phrase prior to the error. Acknowledge when the phrase has improved.
A veteran band director I admire has always said, “Directors who are good musicians will hear the errors.” Do you hear what the composer has intended? Are your musicians performing the music accurately? If not, isolate the errors and attack!
About the author:
Lori Schwartz Reichl actively serves as an adjudicator, author, clinician, conductor, instructor, and speaker. Lori is the author of the “Tools for Educators” series entitled “Key Changes: Refreshing Your Music Program” published for InTune Monthly Magazine’s Teacher’s Edition, where she provides resources to enhance the music classroom and rehearsal space. Her column has been transformed into a summer graduate course that she instructs through the University of the Arts. Lori’s articles are also featured each month as part of the National Association for Music Education Music in a Minuet blog. In addition, her publications frequently appear in the Maryland Music Educator Journal and The Woman Conductor Journal. Lori also serves as a journalist for Teaching Music magazine and writes program notes for composers. In Maryland, she serves as artistic and executive director of the Regional Repertory Wind Ensemble, coordinator of Howard County’s Secondary Solo & Ensemble Festival, conductor of the Howard County Middle School Honor Band, and the Maryland state chair for Women Band Directors International. Visit her at MakingKeyChanges.com.
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