Sep 6, 2013

When Rehearsals Go Bad

 One of my favorite parts of my job is when we finish a fantastic, musical, productive rehearsal in choir.  I leave excited, energized, and invigorated.  Students have fun, leave singing the music they just learned with a sense of accomplishment. 

Then there are "those days"...

You know what I'm talking about-- the worst thing in the world for an ensemble music teacher-- the "Bad" rehearsal.  Maybe it's a lot of talking, poor playing, off-key singing, unfocused energy, or a general loss of control.  Regardless of the reasons, these "bad" rehearsals suck the life out of us. 

  In my earlier days of teaching, I would approach every single rehearsal each day with the same perspective, outlook, and goals.  Never mind that energy on a Friday was always higher than a Monday, or that Wednesdays were consistently unfocused, or that there was no snack time on Tuesdays.  We're professionals here-- leave it at the door and get work done, right?!?
When students did not come to the rehearsal with the same consistency I would bring to them, it frustrated me to no end.  I blamed the kids.  I blamed the schedule changes.  I blamed the weather.  I blamed the special assembly that day.  I blamed the time of the class.  I blamed the weekend.

I blamed everyone except myself.

Once I started looking introspectively, I was met with a gut-wrenching blow of clarity.  Of course approaching every rehearsal in the same way didn't work-- kids (or community members, or church choir singers, etc.) are NOT professionals.  They have NOT had decades of training and grooming and experience.  They DO bring emotional baggage, lack of sleep, their home life, relational troubles, physical hunger, and a host of other issues to us each day.  We can choose to accept and work through them, or we can continue to try and fit a square peg into a round hole.

I know what you're asking-- what does that mean in practical terms?  Are you saying not to have high standards?  Are you saying not to be consistent?  Are you saying not to have procedures?  Absolutely not.    In fact, those elements of a rehearsal are increasingly important in today's fast-paced world.

What I am saying is this-- step back and analyze the issues one at a time, and start with what YOU can do to fix them.  Here are some examples from my own experience:
  • Mondays are always low energy.  So after bell work (theory), warm-ups, and sight reading, I do a 2-3 minute physical game to activate the students' bodies and minds.  Sometimes it's a kinesthetic repetition/mirroring game.  Other times it's what my students call "dance jam", wherein one student gets up and leads dancing to a popular song and trades off with others.  Regardless, those 2-3 minutes every Monday are worth every second.  I get 4-5 minutes of extra productivity back from them, and I don't get more gray hair with each Monday.
  • Sometimes, my pace would get so fast in rehearsals I would look back unsatisfied with students retention.  Rehearsals were quick and seemingly productive, but not thorough.  Now I have a plan for every week, with slight amounts of give and take on each day depending on daily progress.  The key is knowing what I want to accomplish and not letting that be too much.  I set the students (and myself) up for success by doing this.  I even write exactly what "our" expectations are for the rehearsal on the board.  It works.  They like to achieve goals.  They like to check things off lists.  Believe it.

Some of the common pitfalls I see in rehearsals that would be easily fixed with a bit of introspection:
  • Singing or playing with a weak section to make it sound better.  
  • Having such high energy that you actually seem out of control to the singers or players.  I'll talk more about this later in another post on mirror neurons.
  • Talking too much.  I try and stick with the "7 words or less" instruction between instances of playing or singing.  
  • Allowing a lot of repetition on notes and rhythms without attention to articulation, dynamics, tone, etc.  With every passing repetition, they are creating a habit for that phrase WITHOUT the musical elements you want.
  • Seeming angry or upset when students can't do something right.  I find that 9 times out of 10, students can't do something to my standard because I have not adequately prepared them, not because they just won't do it.  One of my go-to phrases that applies here is "Competence leads to confidence".  
  • Not allowing for regular self-assessment.  Students need to hear themselves sing or play, and often.  They also need to hear great ensembles perform the music they are doing.  You may have heard hundreds of collegiate and professional groups play, but they have not.  Your sound ideal is foreign to them unless you share it.
 So what about you?  What have you seen in your own classroom that frustrates you?  What have you fixed?  What seems to never go away?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Moving forward,


J.D. Frizzell, a composer, conductor, and educator, is the Director of Fine Arts and Director of Vocal Music at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, TN. He earned the double Master's in Music Theory/Composition and Conducting from The University of Southern Mississippi, where he also earned the bachelor's degree in Music History and Literature. He is currently a candidate for the Doctorate of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting at the University of Kentucky. He has many published compositions available from and other sheet music retailers.


  1. Love the post and agree. The toughest rehearsals are the ones for me when students do not engage. While I agree with lots of the above material, I try also to impart to the students that sometimes they just have to "do it" regardless of how they feel. I will go the extra mile to meet them where they are (Monday tired, confused by new concept, etc.) but once I take them by the hand to lead them forward, they have to at least start walking. Does that make sense? Sometimes I have kids who just give up completely before even making an attempt, and that drives me bonkers.

    So... walking the fine line between understanding/adapting for kids and not letting them use external circumstances as excuses to opt out of the rehearsal is pretty much the big challenge for me always.

    1. Yes, Brody, that's the fine line that is so tough to tow...How do we hold them to achieving what is possible even when they don't bring their best? I'm right with you.

      Sometimes when I feel like I'm pulling them more than they are pushing me, I'll smile at the end of rehearsal and remind them with something like, "Good rehearsal today. We accomplished our goals despite ourselves. Remember how much better you feel now at the end of a great rehearsal than you did at the beginning, and start tomorrow that way!"