Prepare Your Ensemble by Creating Musical Context

musical context

It’s no secret that detailed lesson planning is a great way to produce immediate results. However, this planning can take student learning to the next level when combined with long-term goals. If your ultimate objective is to prepare a second-semester piece, the best place to start is with short-term daily rehearsal plans in the first semester. By thinking about student readiness for each step leading toward your comprehensive objectives, you are able to most effectively guide student learning. 

While our personal experience is in band, these techniques can easily be transferred to orchestral or vocal ensembles, as well as general music classes. They also serve to meet NAfME National Music Standards.

A Melodic Theme

The foundation of this concept is to teach students a melodic theme from a selection you plan to program in the future. Prepare students for this new piece of music by teaching the theme (or one of the themes), a bass line, and a chord progression before passing out the notation. Students will experience tonal and rhythmic contexts through learning and performing them.  Have students sing and play both the melody and the bass line. 

Depending on the complexity of the theme and bass line, decide with which element to start. It may be easier to begin with the bass line (or a simplified bass line) before teaching the theme. 

We suggest using a rote procedure documented by Rufola and Rutkowski in chapter six of Tips: The Child Voice Revised Edition. Establish the harmonic context with a simple progression (i.e. I-V7-I or i-V7-i) on piano or another harmonic instrument. 

Ask students to listen to several repetitions while keeping them engaged through either moving to the song or by giving them something to listen for. They should audiate the whole song at least once before being asked to sing. Correct any phrases as necessary, then have them perform the entire song again with an added simple piano harmonic accompaniment.

Once students are able to perform both the melody and bass line, teach some simple harmony parts so they may experience playing the chord progression (and the harmonic context). Students will find learning songs by rote easier the more they do it, and it is great ear training. Detailed steps for teaching a piece by rote can be found here or by researching materials cited below.

A Foundation for Warmups

Once students have successfully performed the theme and/or bass line, it becomes the foundation for daily warmups. Analyze the musical characteristics of the repertoire to be performed in that day’s rehearsal. Use the theme, bass line, and/or harmonic progression as the warmup to establish context for the rehearsal. Ask students to create variations of the theme by having them change keys, tonalities (major to minor), meters (duple to triple), instrumentation, etc. Use the familiar theme to establish context for that day’s repertoire during the warm-up. 

For example, if you are planning to rehearse a work in triple meter, teach the students to play the familiar theme in triple meter as the warmup. If your first planned work is in minor tonality, teach the students to play the theme in minor. 

Other warmup suggestions include:

  • Teach the melody in a new key before rehearsing a piece in that key.
  • Teach the chord progression before working on intonation.
  • Explore timbre changes before working on balance.
  • Teach a rhythmic accompaniment using challenging rhythms from the current piece.
  • Explore developing the theme before rehearsing a piece in sonata form.
  • Ask students to improvise a different melody over the chord progression.
  • Find other songs that use the same chord progression.

In this way, students will better understand and perform the future piece when it is eventually passed out. Furthermore, students will be learning compositional techniques without getting bogged down with too much terminology. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to explain a recapitulation to a student that has just created one.

Finding the Perfect Piece/Theme

One of the easiest ways to introduce this concept to students is by using a setting of a folk song or a work with a strong melodic idea. Several arrangements are available using the following themes.

  • Amazing Grace
  • America the Beautiful
  • Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair
  • Country Gardens
  • Danny Boy
  • Greensleeves
  • Heart and Soul
  • Ode to Joy
  • Pachelbel’s Canon
  • Scarborough Fair
  • Shenandoah
  • Simple Gifts

If students are new to learning songs by rote it may be best to start with some simple tunes that use only tonic and dominant chords like Hot Cross Buns, Mary Had a Little Lamb, or Long, Long Ago. Once students become more comfortable with the process of transforming a theme, you can ask them to transform future tunes without your guidance.

It is important to note that this process takes place over an unpredictable amount of time. Each step should be successfully accomplished as readiness for future steps. Student achievement will make it apparent when they are ready to move on. If you are unsure – move on! If students crash and burn, jump back a step. For that reason, this process can be adjusted for all levels and/or abilities.

Final Thoughts

This process will help your students develop a deeper understanding of music, beyond accurately regurgitating the notes in front of them. Although preplanning is imperative, the benefits are huge. Students will learn new music quicker and play more accurately. As they start listening to what is occurring around them and exploring what something is not (other keyalities, tonalities, and meters), students learn what something is

By establishing a music context, students begin to attend to tone and intonation by default. Pulse improves as well. Teaching phrasing becomes a non-issue because they have been guided to play not just notes on a page, but a musical line within a familiar tonal and rhythmic context. These steps develop a student’s ability to audiate and self-correct. 

It may appear to be an overwhelming undertaking at first, but take comfort in the fact that your students (and you) will become more adept at this process the more you do it. Our experience is that students enjoy the musical challenge, have fun, and create beyond expectations.

Additional Resources

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