Let’s face it, extra curricular ensembles are part and parcel of the Music Department in most schools. More often than not, teachers take on these ensembles out of the goodness of their hearts, with very little support. Some of us are fortunate and may receive a couple of periods a week to help with planning and preparation but most of us don’t get that much help.
This week I would like to talk about the challenges of creating an ensemble, be it vocal or instrumental, and some of the strategies to ensure you are providing a development plan which also incorporates growth.
So how do you start an ensemble? Well it depends on your school, it’s attitude to music and your history. If you work at a school where music is not considered valued, then you have an uphill battle. So where do you start?
With the keenest kids you can find. You know, the ones who hang off your every word and who want to be game changers. The ones who want to make history, not just watch it go by.
The next challenge is to make it good. You need to ensure that the product they are presenting is good quality. You also need to make sure their first outing is quick and effective. Don’t spend three years practicing, waiting for the kids to be good. Make it good from the start. Where energy goes, excitement flows.
If you have a vocal group then get them to sing in unison or in 2 parts so that it sounds fuller and more confident. Don’t go for 4 parts straight up. If you are starting a small band then select charts that maximise their strengths. They might be grade 4 players but get them some grade 2 charts that sound impressive and your audience won’t be any the wiser.
So how do you plan for an ensemble? Well believe it or not, the same way you plan a unit of work…from the end. You need to ask yourself, what is the end result. For a lot of us who run ensembles, the end result is a performance. But is one enough. I run various groups and one of my ensembles will have 25 gigs a year. That is an awful lot for one group. So it is not surprising that when we did the planning for our 8 other groups, we had to seriously consider the performing schedules for these teams with regard to the premier group. This requires quite advanced planning that happens at the end of each year. We learn from our mistakes and try to correct them the following year. Now if you are starting out, you are not going to have that problem but you are going to need to know how to focus your energy and attention.
So you have your group and they have some material so what’s next.
Step 1: Sit down and organise a plan just like you would a unit. Too many people start ensembles with absolutely no plan and no time from week to week to create a plan. They float from one rehearsal to the next without any developmental plan and without having done the preparation for that rehearsal. You need to treat it like a class.
Step 2: It’s all about the gig.
You need to identify what gigs you want this group to do. There are different performance opportunities available depending on where you are based. Some of these different types are:
- School based events – presentations days, graduation, special events like White Ribbon, Harmony Day, Anzac Day, etc.
- School organised concerts featuring the groups or visitors working with the groups.
- Small scale community events – playing at the local primary school fete, or the local church, nursing home or local club
- Large scale Community events – perhaps there is a Community Fair, Education Week, International Jazz Week
- Competitions – Instrumental and Vocal Festivals both in your community and online
- State or national events – like Generations in Jazz, Schools Spectacular, Arts Unit programs or private school programs.
- Tours local, interstate and international
If you are just starting out, pick one or two categories and go for it. For example, you might have a small band. Well, the local church or nursing home might be happy for the group to come on down and entertain for an afternoon. If your group don’t have enough material to sustain an entire set, then pepper the performance with some of those students in your senior classes. They have HSC works they need rehearsing so put them to work.
Get the group out in front of the school. Playing or singing for your peers is the hardest thing they will ever do. If they can do that, then they can do anything! Make sure the performance is a success from the start. Pick the right song for your school community and the right event or year to perform for.
Organise a workshop with a visiting group like the Police Band. These teams are happy to come to schools and get involved in helping the younger generation. They will make your concert bigger than Ben Hur.
Step 3: Find the High Profile Event and then boast about it. With the world of social media taking a hold on the young, any major event, or minor event for that matter, needs to be advertised. If it is on facebook or instagram, then it must be really important. Whilst promotion might not be your thing, it might be someone’s – like one of your students. Organise a high profile event with someone, or get involved in a large scale community event that is seen to be super special. This is great promotion for the school and the students. Make sure that your school is primary in promotion – get a pull up banner made. Principals love positive promotion of the school.
Step 4: plan your repertoire. Look at the events you have decided they are going to do and organise your repertoire before hand. Make sure this is known by the group. A google doc with a table outlining the week by week schedule for the performance allows them to see “what’s on the docket” for the rehearsal and then they can make sure they have practiced that material. Put the gigs on the schedule so they can see how much time they have to get the material ready. Constantly refer to the document at rehearsals so that they know it is not created and forgotten.
Step 5: ask their opinion. Your group are the ones that need to play it so get together and play good quality recordings of the material. Ask them to offer their opinion. They are more likely to put in the effort if they have ownership of the ensemble. You are the leader but they are the team so make sure they are valued.
Step 6: Make sure everyone understands the plan. Check in with them at rehearsals and at other times to make sure things are going well for them. Have conversations outside of the group, asking them how they are feeling about the gig etc.
Step 7: the most important of all- find the successful formula and repeat. Once you have it, just repeat it.