Have you ever made a lesson plan for a group you know nothing about? A week ago I was invited to teach a group of students that I don’t know from another school district. This is the first time I’ve been asked to work a group of musicians that I really have no prior knowledge of. I’ve worked groups of students I’m familiar with many times, but this one is new and exciting for me.
As I’ve been preparing for this upcoming experience (will happen this Friday) it’s made me really rethink my approach to teaching! This process will definitely change the way I prepare to work with my own group. Here are five things I’ve realized about the process of preparing to clinic an unfamiliar group.
1) Mark everything in the score – The piece of music the students are working on is only vaguely familiar to me. I’ve heard the work played twice, and looked at the score only once before this week. Not knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the group has made me extra aware of every little detail.
I searched out the most difficult syncopated rhythms and made sure I wrote the counting in just so I don’t bobble the counting in front of the group. I marked tricky fingerings and hard to notice accidentals. Basically I tried to mark every mistake that the students were likely to make.
If they can nail notes and rhythms the first time (and I hope they can) I need to be prepared to dive deeper into the score. What about phrasing? Style? Blend and balance? I asked myself, “If I’ve been working with group for six weeks on this piece, what would I want to hear?” Of course I’ve always advocated for marking up your music, but I went crazy on this one. Hopefully I’ve thought of every possible contingency and will be able to add value to the group in my time with them.
2) Play every part yourself – Yes you read that correctly. I sat here at my kitchen table this evening and played through every note in the piece myself. I can look at every student in that room and honestly tell them that I’ve played their part and can understand what challenges their part offers.
I should note that while I was doing this, I was making notes on each part as to the tricky segments. If nothing else, I can at least offer them an educated opinion as to fingering options, phrasing, and overall musical approach to those difficult sections. I can do this with some authority because I actually have played their part.
3) Be sensitive – This group may do things totally different from the way I do things, and that’s ok. But I need to realize that not only do I not know them, they don’t know me. There are things that I will joke about with my students, corny inside jokes we’ve had for several years, like calling a student a “unicorn killer” (long story) might not go over so well with another group. I have to be sure that if I do joke around, it’s 100% clear that I’m joking, and it’s in no way at the expense of the students.
4) Be considerate – Also musical choices that the group has made without me might not be apparent. I need to be careful to not tell them that I don’t like the way they’re playing a passage because they may have made an intentional decision to play it that way. I should instead suggest another way of playing the passage…not right or wrong, just another option they can choose from.
Everyone approaches interpreting music a little differently, and that’s a good thing. Can you imagine how horrible it would be to hear every ensemble play the same piece the exact same way every time?
5) Remember my role – My job on Friday will be to add musical value to the ensemble through making helpful suggestions. It may be fixing problems while I’m there, or suggestions on how to fix problems we can’t fix in the time frame I have. It could be confirming good choices they’ve already made, or possibly an adjustment in the mechanics of playing, or tuning, or ensemble awareness.
Or it may be none of these things. But I need to be sure that I remember at the this is not my ensemble, and the students and director are free to take my suggestions and use them or forget everything I ever said. But at the end of the day my goal is to add musical value to the group.
It’s difficult enough to clinic a group, but when you add the unknown factory, realizing I don’t know what I’m going to hear when the group plays… Well to me it adds an extra need to prepare so I can contribute something worthwhile.
Action Plan: If you have an hour to spare, go pull a score from your library that you’re not familiar with. Pretend you’re teaching a group you don’t know that piece of music and you only have 30 minutes to do it. What would you do? What will you say? I promise this will change the way you approach music with your bands!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”