Rehearsing an Ensemble the First Steps

Rehearsing an Ensemble the First Steps

Rehearsing an Ensemble – the first steps

I presented theWorkshop,“Rehearsing an Ensemble – the first steps,”at the AMEB Information Day on 23 January 2013. This focus on Ensemble music-makingwas prompted by the following factors:

the AMEB has Ensemble Syllabi – these are not printed in the AMEB Manual of Syllabuses, but can be downloaded from the AMEB Federal Website at .

the Draft Australian Curriculum (Music), which is to be implemented in schools in 2014,is expecting students who are studying music to develop skills, knowledge and understanding of solo andensemble music making.
In 2013, for the very first time, the Adelaide Eisteddfod will introduce an Ensemble Event, which will “enable students on all instruments to make music with others, be it chamber music, small ensembles, chamber orchestras or having fun with busking items including Jazz, Folk or Gypsy music.”
My ensemble–conducting experience has been acquired over 30 years of group instrumental music teaching (clarinet and saxophone) and ensemble work in schools, with the Instrumental Music Section of DECD.
The purpose of this Workshop was to provide participants with the opportunity to practise some basic conducting patterns and skills which wouldenable them to establish and rehearse an ensemble. In particular, the focus of this session was upon teachers with little or no ensemble-conducting experience, who were working with an ensemble of young musicians who had no, or very little, ensemble-playing experience.

Participants practised together the conducting patterns for 2, 3 and 4 beats in the bar. Participants then practisedhow to conduct a piece of music which began on the first beat of the bar, and then a piece which beganwith an anacrusis; how to indicate entries with the non-conducting hand;how to finish a piece of music; and how to indicate a fermata.

Then, an instrumental ensemble of 15 enthusiasticregistrants was brought together, providing a “live” group with whom workshop participants could volunteer to practice their developing conducting skills.

Anna Lester (AMEB examiner)

AMEB Workshop – ‘Rehearsing an ensemble – the first steps’

  1. When we play as a soloist (as a solo pianist, as an unaccompanied instrumentalist, or doing our own private practice) we don’t need to consider other musicians. We set our own tempo, we establish and maintain accurate beat and rhythm, we manage our own dynamic contrasts, tempo and time changes, etc.
  2. However, when two or more musicians play together, a whole new layer of complexity is added to our music-making:
  3. the very first thing we have to do is tostart together, stay together and finish together
  4. and there are two scenarios here: do we manage this ourselves, or is a conductor to be involved?
  5. When would a conductor be useful?
  6. a conductor is not generally used in the followingsituations: (but the teacher will need to demonstrate how to do this and ‘conduct’ rehearsals at first)
  7. soloist and accompanist - soloist gives a ‘breath in time’ to indicate tempo and when they are going to start playing, and to indicate tempo changes, entries, pauses, endings etc.
  8. playing a duet or trio - ‘someone’ needs to lead: this isnot always the same player –it could be the player playing Part 1, the player with the melodic line, or the moving part, or with the next entryetc
  9. a conductor would be helpful in the following situations:
  10. with a small ensemble (4-10 players) –eventually of course, as their ensemble-playing skills develop, they could choose to ‘dispense’ with a conductor altogether
  11. a conductor is essential with a large ensemble
  1. So – playing music with other people requires us to to start together, count together and stay together, and then finish together –
  2. we need to establish an appropriate tempo – ie. the tempo at which the whole group can accomplish the task –and this is usually different from ‘performance tempo’
  3. we need to indicate the beginning, any tempo changes, the end, a pause etc.
  4. whether we are working under a conductor’s guidance or not, beat and tempo need to be established and maintained in some way.Of course, individual players still have to count – a conductor does not‘count’ for us!
  5. when the ensemble can do this, then all of the other elements of ensemble music-making can be explored
  2. I use standard conducting patterns
  3. conducting patterns need to be practiced (in front of a mirror) and they need to be presented clearly and consistently
  4. we need to explain to our ensemble members what the patterns mean, and they can practise them too:
  5. the down-beat is always the first beat
  6. the up-beat is always the last beat
  7. the penultimate beat precedes the up-beat in a side-ways motion across the body

2/4, 2/2, or fast 6/8 time

3/4 or 3/8 time

4/4 time

slow 6/8 time

  1. I find it useful for the whole ensemble to practise differentiating between rhythm and beat:

Activity: ask the ensemble to clap the rhythm, and then to tap the beat, of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle little star’(this tune starts on the first beat of the bar) and then ‘Advance Australia Fair’ (this tune begins with an anacrusis)

  • select an appropriate tempo - ie. a tempo at which the whole group can undertake the task as accurately as possible
  • the ensemble claps the rhythm
  • the ensemble claps the beat
  • then the ensemble does both together – tap the beat with the footwhile clapping the rhythm
  • to use a baton or not – I use a baton when conducing a large ensemble

Activity:practice conductingananacrusisand a fermata- “think” and conduct the first 8 bars of ‘Advance Australia Fair’, and add a fermata to ‘sea’ (“…..girt by sea”)

Rounds are excellent for an ensemble’s ‘first steps’:

  • in a round, everyone plays the same part: we can practise it in unison where we all play the same part at the same time, and then as a round in 2 then 3 parts where we still play the same melody as everyone else, but at different times – a painless introduction to Ensemble Playing!
  • I start with rounds in 4 beats in the bar, and which begin on the first beatof the bar, not with an anacrusis

More thoughts:

Music stands need to be adjustable and stable

I try to make each rehearsal productive and enjoyable

I establish and maintainensemble behaviour expectations, and require each member tobringall necessary equipment (strings, chin rests, cello boards, reeds, neck strapsetc) to each rehearsal and performance

Wind players need to warm-up before tuning and string players will need to be tuned. I don’t spend a lot of time ‘fine tuning’ but I do make sure that everyone is playing the correct tuning note, and I attend to significant tuning problems.

During ensemble rehearsals, I rehearse particular sections, and then play through the entire work or at least a large part of it, so that the whole group has a general idea of how everything should eventually fit together. I select a rehearsal tempo at which the group can play accurately, and I distinguish clearly between ‘rehearsal’ tempo and eventual ‘performance’ tempo.

Ensemble players need to practise following their part, to watch the music and count, even if they can’t play all of the notes.

We try make the best possible sound at all times (especially the very first note that the ensemble ever plays)

Ensemble performance opportunities provide incentive and enjoyment for the group

And finally, to see a great impromptu ensemble performance, Google Bobby McFerrin – Ave Maria –(YouTube).

Anna Lester (AMEB examiner)