Seven Habits for Highly Effective Bands
Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Seven Habits for Highly Effective Bands

Written by John Phillips

Phillips John Festival 2017Throughout my career in teaching and adjudicating music festivals, I have observed that successful band performances are based on the development of certain habits. Forming the correct habits takes time, patience and persistence. Developing incorrect habits involves limited effort and can produce a harmful effect on the ensemble’s performance.

Effective and efficient performance in band requires individuals to function cooperatively in the pursuit of common goals. Along the continuum of musical growth from the early to advanced stages, students transition from being dependent learners to independent musicians. For me, an ideal scenario is when they become interdependent performers and achieve a synergistic relationship in their collective musicianship. To aid students along this musical journey, band teachers may find it beneficial to impart their charges with specific, repeatable behaviors. I refer to such behaviors as habits. When students behave in a musical way, the results are musical. By encouraging young musicians to form the correct habits, teachers prepare them to engage in music making without impediments such as poor posture, lack of breath support, lack of attention to detail that may negatively affect the overall outcome.    

With the aforementioned assertions in mind, I have generated a list of Seven Habits for Highly Effective Bands (with apologies to Stephen Covey.) While some teachers may have other priorities, it has been my experience that instituting these “habits” leads to confident and competent results. The only priority with these seven habits are the first three which I feel are essential building blocks before others may accrue.

HABIT #1: Posture is the initial step to establish an ensemble that not only looks professional but is physically primed to produce a well-supported tone. Sitting toward the edge of the chair and raising the music stand are two very simple strategies initiate this habit.

  1. Ask students to move their body closer towards you but don’t move their chair. This simple request will direct the musicians to move forward and away from the back of the chair, sitting in such a way that breathing will be full and relaxed.
  1. Have students raise the music stand so that they are not slouching in the chair. While this may seem obvious, I have witnessed countless groups in adjudications and clinics where simply changing the stand height achieved an immediate improvement in the group’s sound and focus on the conductor.

When ensembles enter the stage for a festival or perform in a venue other than the rehearsal room, they may encounter a different seating arrangement and should adjust the stands as required. It is well worth the time to address this issue with the band prior to any performance outside of the customary rehearsal/performance space. Young students in particular are reluctant to change a stand height in a new setting. After all this is someone else’s stuff. Ensure they can see you, are grounded with good posture and are positioned comfortably away from the back of the chair.

HABIT #2: Holding the instrument is another habit to bolster any wind players’ musical development. As with posture, ensure that students are aware of the correct holding position and repeat it every time they pick up their instrument.

Try these ideas to improve your players’ set-up:

  1. Have students bring the instrument toward them, rather than moving toward the instrument. With the correct posture set, all wind players should keep their head up, chest elevated, shoulders relaxed and bring the instrument to their mouth. If they go on a “journey” to position their mouthpiece, most likely posture will be affected and so too will sound.
  1. Have students balance the instrument. Be sure they have the correct hand(s) supporting the weight. Try to have them balance their instrument with only one hand. Be sure to demonstrate this carefully or you could have some major repair bills.

Some examples of a balanced instrument position include:

  • Flutes balance the instrument between the thumb and pinky of the right hand and their chin as if playing a Db.
  • Clarinets balance between the mouthpiece in their mouth and just using the thumb on the thumb rest so that no keys are pressed down as if playing an open G.
  • Saxophones balance the instrument with the neck strap only, using no fingers as if playing a C#.
  • Trumpets hold the majority of the weight in the left hand so that the right hand is able to move freely while working the valves.
  • Horns find the correct balance point by positioning the bell on the right knee and right hand placed properly inside the bell with the mouthpiece set securely on the embouchure.
  • Trombones are quite often challenged by holding their instrument. The left hand should make a “gun” so that the thumb will rest on the cross brace, then put at least one or two fingers over the lead pipe and the fourth finger and pinky are tucked around the remaining bracing. The right hand should move fluidly with the slide and the thumb and first two fingers should “pinch” slightly the brace on the slide with the fourth finger and pinky free. Don’t let them use the death grip.
  • With larger instruments such as tuba, bass clarinet, baritone sax, bassoon, and euphonium, stress that positioning of the mouthpiece to the embouchure is imperative so that the student doesn’t have to reach, stretch or contort to do so. Whether this requires a phone book for the student to sit on, cradling the instrument or adjusting a seat strap or peg, be sure they are set-up for success.

HABIT #3: Breathing should be a natural and repeatable habit that wind players demonstrate every time they produce a tone on their instrument. There are countless resources available to assist teachers in establishing good breathing habits with their students. An internet search will yield an abundance of ideas to establish and form effective breathing habits. Developing this habit involves two important phases, inhalation and exhalation.

To introduce the inhalation phase, try the following:

  • Stand tall and relaxed.
  • Inhale through the nose and hold. Sense an expansion around the midriff.
  • Breathe again through the nose and hold. Then take in more air through the mouth and hold. Then sip in a little extra through the lips. Observe how much capacity we have for inhalation. Don’t forget to release the air.
  • The next step is to think of a silent vowel sound “oh” and inhale through the mouth. This should be the habit for all breaths taken while performing.
  • Extend the process to inhale for various durations such as 2, 4, 8 and more.
  • Use a one count breath as if beginning a fast phrase. The concept of rhythmic breathing can be helpful in a variety of musical contexts.

Another technique for experiencing this sensation is to have students flop forward like one of those inflatable tube people you see at car dealerships that's been deflated, letting the arms and head hang down in front. Then, take full, deep breaths. They should be able to feel and see their upper body rising and falling with the intake of air. This exercise helps students more viscerally experience and visualize what it means to take a deep breath.

Repeat breathing activities often to form habits that reinforce both ensemble sound and unity. A general caveat is when dealing with slower or more nuanced music. In such instances, encourage an approach that leads to breathing in the tempo, expression and character of the music.

Exhalation is equally important and can underpin musicality through extended phrasing, expression, tonal focus, pitch accuracy and tuning. As with inhalation, this habit can be practiced without the instruments. Transferring the concept to the instrument is critical.

Try this exhalation method:

  • Breathe in using the correct habit of inhalation then immediately release the air using a hissing sound.  
  • Practice this for various durations such as 4, 8, 16 and more.
  • Next apply a silent “oh” to sense a release similar to airflow through the instrument.
  • Release using sizzle or silent “oh” for various durations, 8, 16, 24, 32 and challenge the players to measure the air throughout the entire interval.
  • To add interest and links to the repertoire, sizzle or silent release various rhythm patterns from the music being studied.

I reiterate, one can locate innumerable resources to support introductory through advanced breathing techniques. These initial breathing habits are intended to merely establish a base line for students to utilize each and every time they inhale and exhale. To quote Arnold Jacobs, “We must keep simple things simple.”

These first three habits create conditions for consistent and repeatable individual musical behaviors (habits) which lead to effective performances. Devoting time each day checking and rechecking a player’s set-up while emphasizing correct breathing practices will produce confidence and competence.

The following habits focus on the entire ensemble. These group exercises can be practiced in a warm up and seamlessly transferred to any piece of music. Essentially, the habit transforms from individual to communal behavior. Where scales are indicated in the exercises, a 5-note scale may be substituted for beginning bands.

HABIT #4: Watching the conductor is an important habit for all students to acquire. Inattentiveness is typically caused by not requiring the performers to watch direction from the podium or because the director counts the group in far too often. Counting aloud is not an especially bad practice on the part of the conductor since it encourages a consistent pulse and tempo. However, the result of frequently counting time may result in a band that does not respond to conducting gestures.  

This conducting strategy may be used to establish the habit of watching more and synergize non-verbal communication between the conductor and the performers:

  • Conduct each note of a scale with students playing the various degrees as indicated by your gesture.
  • Change the pace and duration of the notes as you ascend and descend, holding some longer than others, accelerating/decelerating and so on. 
  • Add a dynamic or style indication through the baton movement. (E.g. use legato or marcato style for a few notes)
  • Use smaller and larger baton movement to indicate a dynamic variation.

Applying this habit will soon have dozens of pairs of eyes focused on the podium. Make this habit a transferable skill that can be applied to the repertoire by indicating dynamics, style, tempo through all conducting gestures. In particular, consider repertoire or study material containing a variety of caesura to verify the habit has been established with your band.  

Another strategy to garner visual focus is to draw scale degrees or solfège names on a blackboard as a target point. Move a pointer, yardstick, baton or finger up and down the “modulator” and have the students play the scale degrees that you point to. Make up tunes using these scale degrees. Have the students play “Name that Tune” as you challenge them by incrementally adding one note before they solve the puzzle.

HABIT #5: Expression is an important concept many ensembles seem to lack or marginally develop. Expressive playing should not be foreign to any musician. It may take time to acquire this musical behavior, but it is well worth the effort and will soon become an innate habit for your students. Developing expressive performance during the formative stages of music learning yields positive results for the student’s entire musical experience.   

An introductory strategy for this habit is shaping a phrase cultivated through the warm up routine:

  • Perform a scale in a returning fashion using half notes at a moderate tempo (E.g., do-re-do, rest for half note, then do-re-mi-re-do, rest for half note, and so on) covering the entire compass of the scale.
  • Have the students initiate the scale at p dynamic and crescendo ascending, decrescendo descending. As they become proficient, reverse the dynamic range.
  • Make the goal to perform the scale in one breath ascending and descending thus extending this habit to include both shape and length of phrase.
  • Ideally this approach is most successful when the students start each phrase by breathing together, though it can be led by the conductor.

A further extension of this habit is to have the musicians provide their own expression for a unison passage from a method book or an entire etude containing no expressive markings. Have them share their product with the class and then the full ensemble repeats what is demonstrated.

Perhaps the most natural way to inculcate expression as a natural habit for young musicians is to have them sing. Whether they vocalize just one note or an entire phrase, producing a sound from within can have a profound effect on their musical development. Singing should become a natural habit that supports all music learning including sight reading, pitch control, and most importantly expression. When band members are reluctant to vocalize by singing, try having them “say” the note. Ask them to “say” this note (F concert) but you sing it. They will respond by “saying it” at pitch – actually singing. Move from this one note approach to singing segments of the melody and having them repeat. Eventually the group will move from “saying” short melodic phrases to singing their own parts independently. To quote Arnold Jacobs again, “Singing is what develops the music centers in the brain.”

HABIT #6: Rhythm, counting and playing in time are important ensemble skills as well. Once rhythmic independence and interdependence becomes a habit, the more fluency and facility the performers will demonstrate. There are countless resources to aid in the development of rhythm and pulse control. I recommend these simple strategies to assist in nurturing this habit.

The “thinking exercise”, like previously suggested warm-ups, is based on a scale.

  • Set a steady pulse of 4 quarters or subdivided eighths
  • Have percussionists keep the pulse, clap it yourself or use a metronome
  • Wind students play the first note of the scale as a single eighth note then rest for the completion of 4 pulses (the rest of the measure in common time).
  • They breathe on beat 4 then play two notes of the scale in measure 2, as eighths ascending only, and rest for the remainder of the bar.
  • Continue the pattern adding a note each time until they get to the 8th scale degree, then descend the scale all in eighth notes. It takes 9 bars to complete an entire scale using this format.  

Once they can perform this with a steady pulse in the background, take the pulse away and have them do it by simply breathing together at the end of each measure.

Using solfège, it looks like this:

d+ 2+ 3+ 4+; dr, 2+ 3+ 4+; drm+,3+ 4+; drmf, 3+ 4+; drmfs+ 4+; drmfsl 4+; drmfslt+; drmfsltdtlsfmrd.

Another strategy is the play and rest approach:

  • Play the first note of the scale at a moderately slow tempo for one pulse then rest for one pulse
  • Immediately move on to the second degree of the scale playing it twice and resting for 2 pulses.
  • Continue to the third note played 3 times and rest for 3 pulses. Continue the pattern.
  • Upon reaching the eighth note of the scale, remain focused and continue to count for 8 rest pulses before bringing the instrument to rest position
  • OR continue the pattern descending the scale and return to low Do.

Using solfège, it looks like this (R=rest): Do - R; Re Re - RR; Mi Mi Mi - RRR; Fa Fa Fa Fa - RRRR; Sol Sol Sol Sol Sol - RRRRR; La La La La La La - RRRRRR; Ti Ti Ti Ti Ti Ti Ti - RRRRRRR; Do Do Do Do Do Do Do Do – RRRRRRRR.

An additional strategy to develop this habit, and watching, involves students counting aloud as you conduct a variety of tempos and beat patterns in changing meter. This approach ensures that all eyes are on the baton and interpreting the meter changes you indicate. Practicing without instruments further reinforces what students experience while performing and introduces a certain degree of novelty.

HABIT #7: Listening is a skill that may be taken for granted by wind band conductors. We tend to assume the students are listening to one another and recognize how their parts connect to the other voices in the score. In most instances however, student listening is focused exclusively on their own part. While we may praise this independence, I challenge us to demand they become more interdependent performers and listen across the large ensemble setting. Consider using reflective questions to have students identify their role within the musical context.

Some simple strategies to focus and foster listening as a reliable habit are as follows.

Example 1:

  • Ask students to play a unison note in a comfortable range, for example concert F.
  • Ask them to play the tone again and listen to the person immediately to their left. You will be astonished at how much the sonority improves.
  • Ask them to listen to the person on the right side, then on both sides as they repeat the process.  

With very little adjustment, the tuning, blend and balance progresses significantly. Why? Because they are listening!

Example 2:

Beyond listening for single pitches, transfer the habit of listening to include multidimensional aspects as well. Selecting passages within the repertoire to heighten the ensemble’s awareness of role is an advanced skill that will eventually lead to more clarity and quality in overall sonority of your group.

  • Choose a tutti chord within any performance work, possibly the final note or cadence.
  • Have students listen for another instrument that has the same pitch they are playing and ask them to identify who also plays that note?
  • In repertoire where there are distinct parts such as a bass line, harmonic material and melody, ask the entire group “who has the melody?”
  • Have all musicians sing or perform just the melody. Those not performing the melody should assess where they fit in and/or what other voice(s) has a similar part. 
  • Once the discreet parts are revealed, improved balance will result. Listening in this setting often requires secondary voices to play softer so that the melody or any designated voice can be heard.
  • Critical listening can also aid with adjusting dynamic levels and improving balance. If the brass cannot hear the flutes in a “pp” passage, they might well be too loud.

It is important that we make listening a habit for students to apply continuously in order to improve their individual, sectional and ensemble sonority.

All teachers have interesting ways of assisting students in the development of habits leading to successful performance. I encourage you to emphasize those that work for you and to be consistent in your expectations. Remember that patience and persistence are key conditions in the pursuit of skills, techniques and behaviors which eventually become effective habits.

According to Covey, a habit is the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire. He defines knowledge as the What to do and the Why; skill as the How to do; desire as the Want to do. In order to make musical behaviors repeatable habits, students should possess all three characteristics. Developing effective habits with your band will eventually lead to effective performance.

John Phillips is a retired Music Professor from the University of Western Ontario. Throughout his career, he has participated as a clinician and consultant in numerous initiatives with Music for All including the National Concert Festival, the Summer Symposium, and the Bands of America Grand Nationals.  

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