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by James Mick and David Pope

Creating a Positive Solo and Ensemble Experience for Your Students

Editor’s Note: This article appears as one of a series written especially for Ala Breve by experts in the field of music education.

Performing at solo and ensemble festivals can be an overwhelming experience for both students and teachers. While some students are naturally calm and confident when performing for an adjudicator, many others become anxious and disheveled no matter their level of preparation. The one unifying factor, though, is that all students desire a high-level performance that increases self- confidence and garners positive feedback from adjudicators.

As teachers, we strive to provide tools that help our students succeed. The following suggestions are aimed at closing common gaps in students’ preparation for solo and ensemble festivals. Some tips address specific performance issues while other tips provide broader opportunities for students to hone their performances. If students keep the various goals in mind, they are bound to build stronger performance habit strengths. Based upon your own students’ talents and needs, you can use these teaching tips individually or in combination to help your students have a successful solo and ensemble experience.

1. Create a “Game” Plan – Just like successful head football coaches in the SEC, students should formulate a “game” plan well in advance of their solo and ensemble event. First, students need to determine how much time they have until the solo and ensemble event. While looking through their calendars, it is important to note potential conflicts that may distract from practice time, such as vacations, sporting events, and concerts.

Secondly, students should schedule a regular practice time in their daily and weekly calendars. By creating a regular practice schedule, students will be able to determine the exact amount of practice time they have to learn and prepare their music. Ensemble members will need to schedule both personal practice time and group rehearsals. It is also important for students to schedule various opportunities to perform their music before the solo and ensemble event. These


performances can be for family members, friends, their music class, or even a recital. Ideas and goals for practice performances will be discussed more in “Step 4: Play Early and Play Often.”

The third and final step in creating a game plan is for students to formulate a conceptual practice plan that identifies short- term and long-term goals. These goals will make learning the repertoire more manageable by providing markers and indicators of success along the way. To begin the goal-setting process, students should analyze the music and develop a broad understanding of the music’s structure, form, and phrasing. Many times sections repeat or vary slightly from other sections, and by locating these instances students will be able to transfer similar concepts from one section to another. The process of learning to transfer similar concepts will allow students to better utilize their practice time. Also, by breaking music into separate learning segments, students may be able to avoid feeling overwhelmed by needing to learn an entire piece all at once.

It is important to note that creating a game plan teaches students many valuable skills. One of the most important skills it teaches students is personal responsibility and accountability. Meeting short- and long-term goals along the way is a different experience than procrastinating. This goal-setting skill can positively impact the level of their performance abilities, but equally as important, if transferred, it can also influence other academic and personal aspects of their lives. Learning this skill now will set students up for success in college.

2. Tempo, Tempo, and More Tempo – “Can we practice with a metronome today?” are words rarely spoken by developing musicians. However, most young students have trouble correctly playing rhythms and doing so with a steady pulse. To build proper rhythmic skills, students need to set a long- term goal tempo for their solo and ensemble performance. This goal tempo can be

written at the top of the music but students should keep in mind it is the final goal to be achieved after much practice.

When initially learning new music, students should learn the correct notes, rhythms, style, and bowings with a metronome set at a slow tempo. How slow? The tempo should be slow enough that students can play the rhythms, notes, style, and bowings of each particular section correctly. Once students can play a passage correctly at a slow tempo, the metronome speed can be increased a few clicks each day. Some passages are more complex than others and will need more practice at slow tempi. While most attention should be focused on these more difficult and temporarily slower passages, it is okay for students to practice other easier passages at faster tempi. Staggering the success of various passages allows students to feel a sense of accomplishment while directing attention to areas still in need of more devotion. It is important for students to keep in mind, though, that most efforts should be delivered to the slowest, most difficult passages. If two or more passages are performed together, then the slowest tempo must be maintained throughout the entire combined passage.

To keep track of progress, students should write daily tempi in their music next to the individual passages. After each particular passage is mastered at a specific tempo, students can cross off that tempo in their music. Conversely, though, if mistakes occur during practice, the marked metronome tempo should be decreased. Students need to understand that reaching their performance tempo with the correct notes, rhythms, style, and bowings takes patience and time.

3. The Truth Machine – As much as most students do not like to listen to themselves, listening to one’s self performing is a necessity if students wish to understand their faults and to improve their performances more quickly. Students should record portions of their practice sessions to identify

October/November 2015

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