We’ve all experienced those frustrating days when it takes half the rehearsal to really get going. Choosing a warm-up that requires additional brain cells can help students engage more quickly. I’ve found that technical exercises like scales and arpeggios don’t entice students to actively participate. If you instead choose something like a Bach chorale, they will have to listen to how they interact with the group and watch you. Technical drills, especially if you do the same routine daily, will engage fingers and bodies, but minds will begin to wander. Chorales will require students to listen, watch, and analyze right away.
Chorales are fantastic for teaching intonation because the counterpoint and harmonies are so clear. I recommend simply asking the orchestra to listen to their neighbors and match. This helps students engage with the ensemble right away rather than mindlessly playing a bunch of easy notes. It also empowers them to make adjustments without you directly telling them what needs to be done.
If you have time, you can dive in with some more detailed exercises. I typically have all voice parts play together and then break it down. For example, with a full orchestra, you can have everyone playing the soprano line play together. This will help the flutes and first violins to tune across the ensemble (they likely didn’t hear each other the first time). Afterward, they’ll start listening more closely to each other.
You can also isolate different voices playing together, perhaps bass and tenor lines, and ask students to listen for the intervals between them. This is a great time to engage not only the bass and tenor lines but also to ask the alto and soprano students what they heard to help their lower friends out.
Listening can also help students focus on matching timbre. I may have one section, perhaps the violas this time, play a few measures and then ask the rest of the ensemble to describe the viola section’s sound. (If you have a marker board available, you can write these adjectives down.) Then I ask the orchestra to try to match that section. You can try this drill with a few sections to get students thinking about descriptive words and considering what they can do to explore their sounds. Finally, ask students to write three adjectives for their own instrument’s ideal sound in the margin and to play with that sound.
There are a couple places you can ask the orchestra to watch. Primarily, you can have them watch you! Let them know what you’re working on before you start so they know where to focus. If we’re preparing a pops concert with lots of tempo changes, I’ll let students know that this time through we’re going to have a different tempo after each fermata or that they should watch me and be prepared to ritard or accelerate. You can also have them watch you for dynamic changes, articulation styles, and phrasing.
Secondly, if you have a strong concertmaster, you can ask the orchestra to follow that student. This helps them combine listening and watching, developing skills required to play in chamber groups. Chamber music opportunities help develop independence and confidence, so even if it’s rough the first few times, I would suggest letting one student in the front row lead the ensemble once a week. This also helps students learn context; sometimes they’ll need to watch you, sometimes they’ll need to watch their colleagues, and sometimes they’ll need to do both.
I always ask questions after we play a chorale:
- What did you see?
- What did you hear?
- What did you like?
- What would you like to do better?
I get three or four quick answers and ask each student to pick one of those things to focus on, and then we play the same chorale again. Or maybe I pick the answer that suggests the area I agree needs the most work before playing again. Or perhaps I pick the one that got the most nods from other students.
Whatever questions I ask, we play, we critique, and then we go again, and we do this right away from the first downbeat of the rehearsal, which helps set the expectation that they’ll do that throughout the rehearsal as well.
Another strategy I use is to send a section or a few students from each section out of the ensemble to listen and report back. In addition to the questions I usually ask, I also ask what they heard from the other side of the room that they didn’t hear when they played in the ensemble. We’ll play again, and I ask if the observers heard a change (the answer is almost always yes.) Then, we switch groups and do the same again.
This strategy takes a bit more time than I usually plan for chorales, so it’s a once a week or every other week activity instead of one we do every day. It also goes more quickly as the semester progresses since students become more confident contributing their observations and faster with the transition into and out of the ensemble.
I use the Bach/Thurston edition for strings published by Southern Music Company (available at J.W. Pepper). While it does not include much in the way of bowings, this edition does include a variety of key signatures, time signatures, and both major and minor modes. If you happen to be teaching a full orchestra, you can order select parts from the band version to fill out your ensemble. The string version lists how the band version scores wind and brass parts and alternate keys for some of the chorales if you want to write out your own parts for one or two chorales.
I’ve seen chorales used in both bands and orchestras, and every time the students both learn something from them and enjoy playing them. I suggest spending about five to ten minutes playing one or two chorales per day. Remind students to listen and watch from the first downbeat and then pick one concept you’d like to reinforce, be it intonation, timbre, articulation, dynamics, pulse, or something else. You’ll see better engagement right away and more productive rehearsals overall.
Excerpt from “Bach Chorales for Strings,” arranged by Richard E. Thurston, is used with permission from Southern Music.