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No questions, please: How to manage student expectations five minutes before rehearsal

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I don’t need to write about the importance of every minute of rehearsal time. You know this. The fact that you are reading this post suggests that you are well past that stage in developing outstanding educational practices. However, if you regularly find yourself starting rehearsal with a French horn in your hands that needs reoiling and a $13 check and permission slip hanging out of your pocket while you ask percussionists to stop playing the timpani with chimes mallets… then this article is for you.

First, an obligatory sports analogy. You are the coach of the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Your team has worked tirelessly for this chance to win it all. As the players take the court for tipoff and the buzzer is about to sound, the referee asks if you would pump the ball up a little… soon after, one of your players feels the need to confirm the plays you are going to run… another player asks if he may quickly use the restroom… and your agent asks you to sign some documents….  You get the idea.  In reality, these requests would never be asked of an NBA coach in the minutes before tipoff, and they should not be asked of a band, orchestra or choral director in the moments prior to rehearsal.

The five minutes prior to rehearsal are crucial for a director to focus on the tasks at hand and create a positive rehearsal environment. It is too easy to get taken out of our “zone” by requests, even well-meaning ones. The “in school” rehearsal (as opposed to an after school or night rehearsal) is likely the most challenging. Unless your ensemble rehearses at the very beginning of the day, you likely spend your pre-rehearsal five minutes with students entering your classroom and getting set up for rehearsal. If you clearly communicate to your students that you do not answer questions until rehearsal begins, you can begin to take control of the “pre-rehearsal five.” With a clearly communicated policy, some of the most common pre-rehearsal questions can be avoided:

­ “What are we doing today?”

By far my least favorite question. If I could physically respond with the stone-faced eye roll emoji I would (I guess I could actually roll my eyes but the emoji would be so much more effective, right?). Sadly, this tells me I haven’t done a good job of establishing consistency in my rehearsal procedures or, more likely, we are at a point of transition (i.e. after a concert or festival) and an agenda isn’t obvious. Even if this is the scenario, an agenda can be communicated ahead of rehearsal or on the board to be read upon students’ arrival. If a student asks, you can confidently, and unapologetically, not answer this question as they should know the answer or how to find it. Additional questions can be avoided by posting the pieces that will be rehearsed on the board along with warm-up exercises or announcements that you plan to go over.

­ “May I go to the restroom?”

A simple sign-in and sign-out sheet can be used for bathroom visits with a clearly communicated policy that only one or two students are permitted at any given time.

­“Do you want my permission slip?”

I do not. A paper box acts as a depository for all forms, permission slips, fundraising packets and documents that are due to me at any given time. Students know exactly where the “Band Box” is and I never get handed a thing.

­ “Do you have an extra copy of the music?”

I never have an extra copy of the music available to hand a student. I expect them to keep the music I hand them in the first place! If they lose it then they can send me an email or, even better, fill out a music request form on the class website. If that request comes in at least one hour prior to rehearsal it will be waiting on their seat when they arrive. I have found that handing them a copy when they ask at the last second in class makes it a little too easy. Perhaps now they will try to hang onto the music or plan ahead in order to not lose participation credit in class. (I’m aware that I might be coming off like someone who detests children, but I assure you all of this is done in a very loving manner.)

­ “Can you fix my instrument?”

For me, this is the issue that is the hardest to navigate as there are a lot of variables here. If the issue is significant then I am not likely to be able to fix it during the pre-rehearsal five. If they knew of this problem prior to class they could have emailed me and left the instrument for me when they arrived in the morning thereby giving me ample time to check it out. Of course, this procedure has to be communicated to students. If it’s a minor issue perhaps an experienced section mate has encountered it before and can help. A student not fully participating in our rehearsal is unfortunate and if it’s an obvious problem maybe I can take care if it!? Maybe. However, think of all the good I can do if I’m not distracted in the moments before rehearsing…

By clearly communicating my “no questions” pre-rehearsal policy, my fabulous students enter the room and see a relaxed and focused director who is prepared to fully engage with them. I may even pleasantly greet at least the first few that funnel in! My students will play a few warm up notes and if they don’t, I can recommend that they do so in an appropriate way because I’m not distracted. If some students are off task I can remedy that situation. I have set expectations with clearly communicated classroom procedures that state when rehearsal begins, so if students are not in seats or not fully prepared for rehearsal I can hold them accountable.

Give it a try and see how it works. I truly believe that your students will take rehearsal more seriously. It will be clear to them that no personal problem supersedes what needs to be accomplished by the greater ensemble in the precious moments ahead. It also may allow students to develop skills of thinking ahead and problem solving. We all know people who request things from us ASAP because they dropped the ball somewhere along the line, right? Well, those people probably asked their band director for valve oil 35 seconds before the start of rehearsal. Let’s develop more proactive young people while also establishing patterns of great rehearsals in our classrooms. It’s a win for all involved!

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Peter Sciaino (b.1975) is a passionate music educator and spirited composer of concert band music for all levels. Mr. Sciaino holds a B.M. from Syracuse University in Music Education and an M.A. from New York University in Music Composition. An instrumental music teacher at Whippany Park High School (N.J.) for over 20 years, he directs both the concert band and jazz ensemble while co-directing the marching band and teaching AP Music Theory. For more information, visit his website.

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