10 tips for organising your beginner orchestra rehearsal

I remember the first time I stood in front of 50+ young students with a massive bunch of scores on an over-sized music stand. 

Not having 'grown up' in the band or orchestra world meant that this was all pretty foreign to me. I remember watching as student after student poured into the rehearsal room. They seemed so comfortable. It didn't take them long to set up their instruments, get their music, arrange the chairs and be ready for me (yes me!) to wave a baton around to get them playing. Man, this group is organised, I thought. I was a trainee teacher and this was the primary school concert band and they were ready to roll! Was I?

Just getting the damn score onto the stand was hard enough. How am I meant to keep this all tidy?! I had spent a few afternoons getting to know my music and I had my plan for the session, but I had never done this before. 

Look, the rehearsal was 'ok'. I was pretty overwhelmed and I think the students knew it. They were gracious and they played well, I waved my arms around and worked through a few sections with them. But, I'm sure they were glad to have their normal director back the following week 🙂

Look at this wonderful stock image of an orchestra...wouldn't it be lovely if it was so simple! By the way, don't clarinets and saxophones need a mouthpiece? :p

Fast-forward 15 years and here I am reflecting on the things I have learnt as an orchestra director with a little more experience. I am no doctorate-level expert in this stuff, but I have spent lots of afternoons honing a bunch of skills to take groups of elementary/primary-aged students through their rehearsals each week, with multiple performances along the way. I've attended courses and observed many wonderful directors at other schools and I'm still learning all the time! I've grown to love the whole interaction. The learning, the mentoring and the collaboration that comes through ensemble playing is a privilege to witness. 

The reality is that rehearsing a beginner orchestra can be a daunting prospect. When you have a room full of students at an early stage in their instrument learning journey, you will get the full range of musical and (let’s face it) ‘not—so-musical’ sounds coming together in one room. There is the possibility that one might create more chaos than music. As with all learning environments, students come with different needs, motivations, background experiences and understandings. Progress will happen at a different pace for each student. The beginner orchestra director's role is vital in ensuring that students are given the best experience possible as they embark upon their orchestra journey. So, what are some great ways to structure a rehearsal? Here we go:

Ideas for setting up your rehearsal space

  • Give students responsibility and roles - jobs such as setting up chairs, setting up stands, handing out pencils, handing out music, helping others to tune instruments can be coveted 'positions' for a beginner player. Building a little bit of responsibility and ownerships amongst your ensemble will go a long way. What's more, making sure students understand that a rehearsal is a collective endeavour builds community early on!
  • Assign seats - an age-old classroom management technique that words perfectly in the orchestra context as well. Assigning seats will help to build routine and camaraderie within your sections. It also reduces 'faff' when getting your rehearsal started. Students enter the rehearsal space and head to (or setup) their chair/stand. Simple! It is important to monitor student behaviour and interactions during rehearsals to check that engagement is maximised. It's easy to shuffle your students around if their seating arrangement doesn't maximise potential learning and fun.
  • Encourage mentorship - Intentionally setting up your ensemble to maximise the potential for mentorship can be a fantastic tool! With young groups, mentorship may happen naturally, but it may also need to be directed. Discuss what mentoring means with your more experienced musicians. Guide them to be aware of how to mentor i.e. encouragement, role modelling, supporting their mentee, not doing everything for them etc. I've seen some lovely cross-grade friendships begin through this process.
  • Send music home - my beginner students often need reminding that orchestra rehearsal is about helping the orchestra to play together. It is not a time for individuals to practise their parts. Sending music home (digitally or as hard copies) ensures that students can practise their parts each week and be ready to play together during rehearsal.
  • Keep a ‘stand copy’ - I have found success in keeping a stand copy in addition to sending music home. This avoids the inevitable, "I forgot my music this week" problem. Students may annotate on the stand copy in pencil, but they should also do so on their take-home copy.
  • Pencils at every rehearsal - I have an orchestra member that places a pencil on every stand each week. I encourage student to keep a pencil in their take-home folder, but this is not always fool proof. Having a sharpened pencil on each stand ensures that notes can be taken and valuable directions are remembered.

Student A: "Sir, where do I put my violin when I go to the toilet?" (It's amazing the things we need to consider as orchestra directors.)

Repertoire selection

Ensure your pieces are arranged appropriately for beginners, with differentiated parts to aid progression. Our pieces are arranged a little differently to a standard orchestra piece. We have at least two parts for most instruments in every arrangement and these can be chosen according to a students' level. Our violin parts are typically labelled easy, intermediate and advanced (rather than Violin 1 or 2) so that students can move through those levels as they progress. Check out our epic pieces here.

I've always found it useful to include a range of styles, including modern arrangements of familiar pieces in our repertoire. If you'd like some ideas on how to arrange pieces for beginner groups, check out this post!

How to rehearse - 10 quick tips

  1. Have a regular warm-up routine. I mean seriously regular = do it every rehearsal.
  2. Have multiple pieces going at once. Beginners need and want variety and so will you!
  3. Give breaks. Like any good workout, rest is just as important as exercise. 
  4. Don’t talk too much. For goodness sake, just let them play the piece to the end once in a while rather than stopping every 4 bars!
  5. Set high expectations. Routines, practise, posture, etiquette, manners, organisation, respect for each other.
  6. Sectionals! Either during whole ensemble rehearsals or find some helpers who might be able to take sections to other spaces to work on their parts.
  7. Video your rehearsal and watch it back together. Students love it. Promotes self-reflection and opportunity for discussion. 
  8. Demonstrate parts. Nothing is better than seeing the teacher or other competent players performing a part. Inspiring and helps to model a desired technique or phrasing effectively.
  9. Play along/accompany on an instrument. Why not join in with the orchestra?
  10. You don’t have to always wave your arms around! Let the orchestra find their own sense of timing together.

Communication is key

Setting up effective channels for communicating with your orchestra can be super useful for adding legitimacy and clarity to how your orchestra is run. One option is to create a Google Classroom for your students so that you can share videos of performances, PDF's of parts (if you have permission of course), guide tracks and videos. Keep all of your communication through the same channel.

Do you have any wonderful ideas for how you rehearse your orchestra?

Get in touch and share via the comment section below.

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