Harlequin Brass Ensemble
University of Huddersfield, Queensgate, University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield HD1 3DH.
Sunday 2nd June 2013
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Keeping Up the Momentum
I am happy to say that the groups that I have been involved in have all improved musically and technically over the period of my association with them. This is really important to me because I am always trying to find methods of making that happen and to find that things are not working can be very disheartening for everyone involved. Without going into detail, those groups will be well aware of the progression and the achievements that they have constantly worked towards and how that affects their dynamic as an ensemble. Many strategies have been employed to bring about these improvements and groups have come to expect a linear improvement in every aspect of their playing.
Surely then, meticulous rehearsal will always improve things! Well, it can certainly be necessary, but that sort of work generally improves the piece and will not necessarily improve the group. When every decision is made for the players in rehearsals, the players will abdicate those decisions to the conductor and take less responsibility. Groups only improve when they make conscious decisions based on the principles of ensemble playing which are encouraged and developed in every session. Those principles are well established in my rehearsals and when a group can adopt them constantly, things improve no matter what type of music is being played.
What must players take full responsibility for? Fundamentally every ensemble must be striving to play in a tight and unified manner. This helps phrasing, tuning and balance where clearly the conductor must help as much as possible. Playing together should be a matter of simple pride for a group and should be in the mind of every ensemble member throughout a rehearsal. If this is lacking there is something wrong with the level of concentration at that rehearsal.
Balance and tuning are much harder for the players than simply playing as a unit but they must consider those elements at all times. Advice and indications are constantly part of the process of conducting but players need to be alert to the requirements of those challenging issues and rise to that challenge every time the group plays anything, anywhere.
When things get technically, physically, and or musically difficult the conductor will always provide guidance and method to bring forth a solution and that is as it should be. If he is constantly engaged in badgering the players to concentrate on their tasks then there will be less time to work on the magical things that create a special performance and a special ensemble.
As I read back through this article a word crops up again and again; concentration!
Concentration can be a hard concept to bring to a rehearsal but it is absolutely essential. I do conduct groups who do not get a lot of rehearsal hours per concert and they automatically maintain a high level of concentration. This makes rehearsals fly by and it makes the performance experience easily relatable to the rehearsal.
Some groups feel that they have plenty of time and are naturally inclined to concentrate less. This makes the experience of performing rather more stressful for them and can result in basic mistakes happening where they could have been avoided.
The state of concentration can make time feel as if it passes at a different speed and can make a piece or a venue feel entirely different from the one experienced at rehearsal. The concentration can cause different players to react in a variety of ways which can then make ensemble an even more difficult task. The solution? Try to make sure that all rehearsals are designated concentration zones where problems are solved permanently and where groups find enough pressure within the organisation to do their personal best at all times.
As a conductor I have found it useful to occasionally break the mood with just a little humour or light relief allowing a moment of respite before the next session of hard concentration. These are quite carefully contrived and based on an assessment of how the morale of the group is holding up. Unfortunately this mood can be broken by other elements and those are untimed and destructive to the atmosphere of achievement.
So what can wreck a group’s concentration? Players who talk instead of listening when the conductor stops the group; “Oh but we were discussing the music”. There can be no excuse for this one. It is disruptive and contagious and should not be part of any progressive musical ensemble’s repertoire. Worse still are players who actually play their instrument or practise something when the group stops. That one is simply bad manners and very disruptive to the point that others no longer know why the music was stopped or what is to be done after that. Of course players do not do these things on purpose nor would they want to ruin the concentration of others. Part of the problem is that after a time it is, as I said earlier, contagious. It can also simply become a habit that is, like all bad habits, very hard to break.
So how do groups get over this problem? If the conductor chastises them it tends to cause problems due to a loss of working atmosphere and adults do not like being spoken to like children. Should the conductor be scary enough to inhibit such behaviour, he will surely be scary enough to inhibit musical achievement at the same time. Further to this, the players are there to enjoy themselves in a musical fulfilling activity so there is no place for negativity. If the conductor politely points out the disadvantages of such activities, then that might work, but if it doesn’t then only the group themselves can choose to modify their behaviour.
What players must realise is that this is a team activity and their self discipline is not there to keep the conductor happy. The self discipline is what enables the group to function and to flourish and to develop good habits like listening, blending, phrasing and adjusting their playing as the group requires it. A totally recreational player might just get on and blast his/her way through a rehearsal, never thinking about how much that can damage the collective final product. With sensitivity, flexibility and concentration players can constantly enhance the performance and make a genuine contribution to the well-being of the ensemble.
Once the rehearsal discipline is habit, the players can then learn to apply the concentration to their individual and sectional needs. Keeping tabs on tuning at all times, adjusting volume levels, tonal subtleties, note shapes, note lengths and dynamics. Prioritising the important parts and finding the space in the score through careful phrasing. I do conduct groups in which the players can do those things.
Keeping up the momentum is harder than initially making things better and everyone knows that in music, standing still always results in going into reverse. That sounds like some cliché but it isn’t. Failure to address ongoing issues in music will always have a knock on effect and the whole delicate structure will begin to collapse. Treading water can be more tiring than swimming forward; ok it is a bit of a cliché!
All of my groups are still making progress at the moment and I am going to be careful to keep that situation intact. I have very seldom had a group that did not improve although I have come across the odd group where improvement was impossible for reasons that I could not control. So what does one do in that situation? Anything you like but elsewhere!
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