Synopsis of Many Sessions from ASTA Conference Related to Directing an Ensemble

Synopsis of Many Sessions from ASTA Conference Related to Directing an Ensemble

At the ASTA (American Strings Teachers Association) National Conference, March, 2020, I attended many interesting sessions.  Below are key points of interest to music directors from some sessions.

“Full Contributor Mode”: Orchestra Rehearsal Techniques For Creating Leadership From Every Chair

(Emily Schaad and Jonathan Handman)

Principles of full contributor mode: Every member of the section gives.  Seating is an equalizer (move kids around a lot). Matching sound production is critical (Talk about bow placement, weight, speed).  Match ensemble intonation.

Frequently sightread to keep rhythmic skills.

Separate what the group sounds like from what the group (and the individuals) are learning/processing.  Replace telling each section what they did wrong with providing an experience in which each student discovers how it’s supposed to go.

Below is a procedure for helping students learn a tricky new part.  I thought it was very interesting in comparison to an all-too-common tendency to just tell the students ‘how it goes’.  It guides them in figuring it out.  It gives them skills they will be able to apply elsewhere.

The presenters used “hover bowing” often.  Hover bowing is better than airbowing because you can work on placement, speed, etc.  Have students hold the bow at the balance point, though, to alleviate stress on the hand. 1) Hover bow and “lip sync” (count without saying the words out loud, but move your lips).  Lip syncing makes it so that students can’t depend on what they hear from others.  2) Play while “counting as loudly as you can without making any sound”.  3) Possibly ask part of the group to pizzicato while the others play.  You can have 1 person making sound per part while others hover bow.  Sometimes count off in threes (for plucking, hoverbowing, and clapping) with everyone counting.  Conductor claps beat or conducts.  Rotate the kids’ roles.

Use a metronome a lot. The ultimate goal is to make the music sound like the metronome is not even on. Keep the counting system consistent through the years of the students’ music education.  Counting skills are critical and must be developed.  They make the student more secure in the moment and a stronger contributor.  The presenters do a boot camp, when students record a short excerpt each night, counting and hover bowing.

Intonation should be talked about in every rehearsal. It must be worked on at home and in the ensemble.  Use drones.  Play scales and exercises with drones.

The presenters advocated giving regular assignments and conveying that we can tell, and they can tell, if the student has come back prepared.  I was impressed by the rigor the presenters were able to expect from the students, in a very positive and supportive way.  Each student rose to be their best self as a contributor to the group!

Redefining ‘Mistakes’ in Rehearsals: Balancing Musicianship and the Mechanics of Ensemble Playing

(Soo Han, Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music)

It is our job to empower students to deal with what we might call “low hanging fruit”.  This means to teach students to identify and correct any issues such as fundamentals of playing and the basics of ‘how it goes’.  If the students can take care of that “low hanging fruit”, the conductor is better able to bring people together for effective music-making.  In every rehearsal, be MUSICALLY drive, not just technical.  The music is the carrot that gets the kids to work out the technique.

The presenter encouraged self-assessment, both for individual students and for the ensemble.  He also promoted journaling, to identify ‘what works for me…”

I’m Frustrated/Bored! Differentiation Strategies For Simultaneously Challenging String Students of All Levels

(Robert Gardner & Julie Renne)

This was a very interesting session.  Dr. Gardner is a professor at Penn State U. and Ms. Renne teaches in a rural orchestra orchestra program with a huge range of experience level.  Their packet can be found here.

We need to recognize that different students have different reasons for being there and different goals for their instruments.  They learn in the optimum state of “flow” when the demand is just beyond their current skill level.  Technique is a means to an end.  Remember that kids sign up for music because they like to play music.

To differentiate scale practice, have more advanced students play up an octave, or if the class is doing a basic scale in quarter notes, more advanced students can do eighth notes in thirds.  Regarding pitch, there are two separate elements to teach: diagnosing tonal accuracy (what note is it and how do I finger it) and intonation.  There is, similarly, rhythmic accuracy vs. pulse, tempo, meter and feel.  Don’t forget expression and balance.  They recommended Michael Allen’s Warm Ups as a resource for developing technique in a differentiated way.

We want to have all the students active (not waiting for others) 98% of the time to keep them in ‘flow’.  How do we manage that? Ask some students to pizz.  Maybe ask them to just pizz what is on the beat.  Focus on one section and they play LOUDLY but the rest of the ensemble plays, too, softly. Change octaves.  If some kids are struggling with a passage but others have it down, the more advanced students can practice it up an octave. Have sections serve as metronomes.

Incorporate writing assignments and analysis projects, ways to show learning outside of the instrument. In the packet, they discuss Ms. Renne’s chamber music project.

Smart Music is an online resources in which assignments can be done at three different levels: Basic, Intermediate, or Advanced. The difference is in the tolerance level for pitch accuracy, tempo, and number of octaves in the scales.  The number of assignments is the same.  Ms. Renne has her students self-select their level and allows them to change each quarter.

It is important to put an explanation of your differentiation procedures in the syllabus.  You can see an example in the packet.

Preparing for the Podium

(James Mick, Ithaca College)

This was an informative session about what we do before we even start rehearsing.  The goal is to solve all problems before we even give a pieces of music to the students.  Mark parts and make decisions with instrument in hand. Try your fingerings and bowings out. Make sure your score has same indications as the students’ parts.Dr. Mick uses Margaret Hillis’ technique for color-coded score markings. Write hash marks for what beat patterns to show.  Be able to model for the students. Use small sticky notes to identify which parts need help during rehearsal. As a conductor, listen to three performances of the piece (poor, decent, and excellent) to identify spots and tendencies.  If that student orchestra on YouTube is out of tune at letter D, chances are your students may be too (until you fix it).

Details on the Dr. Mick’s preparation steps can be found here.

Expressive Conducting For The School Orchestra Director

(Matthew Brooks, University of Nebraska at Omaha)

Don’t underestimate the power of and need for eye contact.  Make sure your two hands are conveying the same thing or let the left hand rest. Reflect on how it’s being received by the ensemble.

Use joints efficiently.  Only engage the joints necessary per the music (based on dynamics, style, tempo and articulation).

  • Fingers – pp; very light, spiccato, pizzicato, “flick”
  • Wrist – p-mf; staccato, “dab” or “float”
  • Elbow – mf-f; heavier staccato, more expansive, legato, “punch” or “glide”
  • Shoulder – f-ff; heavy accents, sforzando, heavy legato, “slash” or “press”

Rehearsal Strategies and Demonstration of Building Technique In Your 8th-9th Grade Orchestra

(Christopher Selby)

I have heard Dr. Selby speak twice before and I use his method book. He is a brilliant educator.  Highlights from this presentation include:

Teach students to play with ‘tuning tone’, soft and transparent, which allows the student to hear and correct the pitch. Use this tuning tone during tuning canons and chords in his book.  Be mindful, not loud.  Speaking of tuning canons, do it the first time all together and then immediately go into a round by section.  There is “solo tone” and “tuning tone”.

In Harry Potter speak, “Expecto Good Tonum”. Expect good tone.  Until we teach students to listen and blend to each other, they are – at best – playing in tune with themselves. We don’t see tone in notation, and we forget about it.  Talk about how you want it to sound.

Don’t try to teach technique through music.  Practice bow style/articulation on scales.

Do many one octave scales, to learn to play in tune in first position.  Don’t forget the dominant arpeggio.  Tune passages slowly to a drone (usually the Dominant). Play beat by beat as tuning chords.

Illiteracy is a silent but significant problem.  Theory is a big part of the solution.  Use fingerboard maps.  Write more notes out (in notation).  WRite chromatic scale, using both sharps and flats.

Mind-Body-Spirit Workout for Strings: Full Body Workout With Your Voice, Body, Energy, and String Techniques

(Barry Green, Ohio State University, author)

I was drawn to this session out of respect for Barry Green.  His book, “The Inner Game of Music”, was groundbreaking (back in the 80s!).  The premise of the session is that we are expressers and the instrument is our voice.  Music is based on the instincts of singing, banging rhythms, and dance/movement.  We need our students to tap into these things to grow.  Mr. Green (and Bob Gillespie, OSU) had created a program of videos and exercises entitled “Stringersize”.

Personal review here.  I am not ready to buy the program, but I gleaned these points from this presentation.

  • Get students up and moving when possible.
  • Convey the ‘vibe’ of the music through singing, connecting to a story or tangible event, or carefully adding/subtracting intensity.
  • Practice articulations, rhythms and techniques to funky back-up tracks (which could be made on Garage Band).
  • Have kids sing and play.  He went through many steps with the song Shenandoah (while a recording played).  1. Play through normally. 2. Play and breathe through your mouth as you play, singing silently (on ‘la’) as you play.  3. Airbow and sing.  4. Sing and play, but sing louder than you play. 5. Play loudly, sing in your head.  Your instrument has become your voice.


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