How to avoid over-programming for your next concert

I’ve lost count as to the number of times I’ve had this conversation with a colleague:

Me: “How was your concert?”

Colleague: “Ugh. It was a little rough around the edges. I think I put a little too much on the kids’ plates.”

Me: “How did you go about selecting the music, and how did you go about issuing it?”

Colleague: “Oh man! I chose everything over the summer and it all works together beautifully. I issued everything during the first week and I had my plans all set on my calendar. I was so organized! I thought for sure the kids would pull it off. They just didn’t quite get there I guess.

Now, if you are reading this and I’ve had this conversation with you, don’t worry...nobody knows that but you and me. But at this point I’ve had that conversation enough times that I feel compelled to try and help anyone who has gone through this type of situation. It’s rather easy to fix if you can let go of some old habits.

  • Understand that a successful concert relies first and foremost on your ability to *teach* the repertoire in the amount of time allotted. Many teachers (and especially younger teachers) literally have no idea how long it will take them to teach a piece when they choose it...especially if they have never taught it before! You may see a grade level on a piece, and think that it fits your band perfectly, but you really won’t know how long it will take to bring that piece to fruition until you start teaching it.
  • Your ability to teach a piece to your students is always impacted by the unforeseen characteristics of your ensemble. I say “unforeseen” because each school year brings a different collection of students. They will interact musically with one another in unique ways. They will have different approaches to preparation and rehearsal engagement. Over time, once you have built a very consistent band program it may become easier to predict the nature of a group before the year starts, but until you really feel like you’ve entered that era, every year brings a very unique group of learners.
Given the above realities, pre-selecting a entire concert before you hold the first rehearsal with your new band can truly be a recipe for frustration for both yourself and your students. I’d like you consider a very simple approach to concert preparation that folds repertoire selection into the overall preparation cycle. That’s what I’ve done for years, and here is how it works:

  1. Decide upon the “main” piece for the concert. Don’t issue it. Don’t even make the part assignments.
  2. Select, assign and issue the piece that you feel is the next most challenging work.
  3. Rehearse that piece until it is basically concert ready. That could be two weeks...or it could be longer. Assess your students, record your rehearsals...STUDY your scores. Teach your rear end off.
  4. Once your secondary piece is ready, you have will learned many things about yourself and your students. If that piece comes together quickly, you are pleasantly surprised (I would issue another secondary piece now, if so). If not, you now have the opportunity to revise your thinking about the “main” piece. Do you really have enough time to bring it to realization, based upon what you have learned? Is there another piece that is less complex but still meets some of your goals? Should the piece you already issued become the “main” piece? Remember that your students don’t even know what you chose as the “main” piece so there will be no disappointment (other then perhaps your own). That piece can perhaps be programmed later in the year. Make your decision now, and be realistic.
  5. Assign and issue your “main” piece and work on it until your students truly understand it. Don’t cheat.
  6. Look at the remaining time on your calendar. Count up the number of rehearsals that you have. Plan for a full concert run one full week before your concert, and remaining rehearsals for spot checks of all the pieces. How many rehearsals will you really have?
  7. Choose and issue remaining piece(s) based upon what you have learned so far and in consideration of the time you have left. If you need to supplement with pieces two grades it. If you choose well the parents will never know. This is the step where you can save your kids. Do what is best for them.
I have used this process for years. It really prevents having “eyes that are bigger than your appetite.” There have been times where I am able to choose remaining pieces that are *more* challenging than I expected, and (more often) there are times when I am supplementing with easier pieces, or fewer pieces. Either way the bottom line is that over-programming is avoided, students can be more successful and (especially) in a position to enjoy their performance instead of being completely stressed over it (which we all know makes matters even worse).

I’m not sure why teachers feel the need to pre-select an entire concert before they’ve really come to understand their ensemble and their own ability to teach each piece. Perhaps it was a mantra in college methods courses? I don’t know. But to my way of thinking, ensemble learning is an organic process and placing all the music into students’ folders in the first week is committing you to an outcome which may be less than successful. By surrounding your “main” piece with other works that are selected in light of student progress, you and your students will be more successful.

If you give this process a try please let me know how it went!