*Some of these are pieces of advice I received from master clinicians over the years, and some I learned the hard way. I has served as the conductor for over 50 honor bands at all levels, and these are my best tips. Please feel free to add yours or discuss below and share!
1. PICK GOOD MUSIC: I would say 90% of the success of your clinic will be music selection. Make sure the music will engage the students AND keep them busy. Do NOT pick pieces that exclude large numbers of percussionists (see #3 below). Make sure your music has a good variety of styles and creates a sense of shape through the concert. Not only should each piece create a sense of climax, but the overall shape of the concert should as well. Here are a few good examples of concert structures:
A. Fast Opener, Short, Exciting
C. Climactic piece, Dramatic, Programmatic, Premieres*,
D. Light Piece, March, Pop Tune, Finale
A. Fast Opener, Short, Exciting
B. Quirky, Charming, Folk Dance, Innovative, Experimental
D. Climactic piece, Dramatic, Programatic, Premieres*,
E. Light Piece, March, Pop Tune, Finale
Obviously, you can vary as you see fit, but these have proven successful for me.
2. PICK APPROPRIATE MUSIC DIFFICULTY AND HAVE BACKUPS ON BOTH ENDS. If you want a short season in hell, pick music that is either way too difficult or way too easy for the ensemble. Bored or frustrated performers are NOT having a good experience. Be sure, when selecting music, to ask the hosts for repertoire lists from previous years. Talk to conductors who have worked that honor band before. Submit potential repertoire lists and get the hosts reaction. Put at least one piece harder than you think they can handle in the folder, and put at least TWO pieces easier than you think they can handle in there as well. This way, you are ready for anything. Also, select music appropriately in regards to the rehearsal time you will be given
3. BE CONSIDERATE OF THE PERCUSSIONISTS. Students work hard to be selected for honor bands; this includes percussionists. Do NOT select music that excludes them. While every piece doesn’t have to be a percussion feature, it should be engaging. If you absolutely MUST program O Magnum Mysterium, Sleep, or October, confer with the host ahead of time and see if there will be percussion staff available to take the percussion out into sectionals. Also, be sure that every percussionist is playing on every single piece. In my opinion, an honor band experience is about the performers, not just the music. If you are playing a march or an older work, double up parts so that all performers are engaged at all times. Give the professionals the oboe parts to perform on melons. Do something.
4. MANAGE YOUR REHEARSAL TIME. Be sure to have a general plan and make sure you can get to all of the music you intend to get to AND to prepare it for the concert. Give students breaks. Even when fixing small problems, try to engage as many students as possible. Yes, you might need to fix that clarinet moment, but can you have everybody else playing and still hear it so they’re not just sitting there? Your students will thank you for it.
5. BE REALISTIC ABOUT EXPECTATIONS GIVEN THE TIME/TALENT YOU HAVE. Always keep in mind that this is an honor band, not something that is going to be judged at a festival. Some honor bands can last three days, and I have conducted some that only have four hours of rehearsal. Here are a couple of basic guidelines for overall plans for Honor Band rehearsal strategies:
A. Reading session: read through all or portions of the works to assess the group’s abilities. After your first session, make a decision about what you think the program will be
B. Workshop. Work the pieces you have decided on. Work them one at a time, and allow time for students to build familiarity with the work and to understand its structure, flow, and transitions. Except for extremely technical moments/works, rehearse at the actual tempo you want to perform. Performers WILL internalize this, and changing it later will be difficult. That last statement goes TRIPLE for middle school honor bands. Work out problem areas, articulations, dynamics, etc. lastly, make sure that you do enough repetitions for the students to internalize the piece. Do not underestimate the role that muscle memory plays in the success of a performance.
C. Final Touches/Dress rehearsal. Review the pieces and especially review any transitions or tempo changes. Be sure to practice any stage presence items such as standing or sitting at appropriate moments, recognizing soloist, or any special type of physical thing that you want the students to do. Go over it multiple times.
A. Read/Internalize. With a shorter clinic you are going to have to combine the two parts in the previous section. In regards to selecting repertoire. shorter clinics demand that you make decisions more quickly and have a better idea before the clinic even begins of the actual ability level. If you are reading a piece and the students are not getting it within the first 10 minutes, boot it. If something seems too easy, congratulations, it is something you will probably be able to put together in four hours or less. Focus on one piece at a time and give the students the chance to learn it and internalize it. Do not skip around a lot as this will just create confusion.
B. Final Touches/Dress rehearsal. Review the pieces and especially review any transitions or tempo changes. Be sure to practice any stage presence items such as standing or sitting at appropriate moments, recognizing soloist, or any special type of physical thing that you want the students to do. Go over it multiple times.
6. DON’T SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ON WARM UP. There are directors and conductors who will argue with me on this point, but I strongly feel that the students are there to play repertoire and to have a good experience. Yes, we want them to sound good, to play in tune, to play with good tones and balance/blend, and, yes, we do want to do a good warm up. But realize that anytime you spend on this is time you’re taking away from getting to the music. The size of your warm up and the length of it should be relative to the length of the clinic and take into consideration all the goals that you have and the music you have selected. One strategy that I use is to incorporate many of the warm-up and ensemble sound skills that I want the students to achieve into the repertoire itself. Again, this is an honor band, not your home band in which you will have weeks and weeks to work on these concepts.
7. BE AGREEABLE TO YOUR HOSTS. Nobody likes a diva. Roll with the punches. If things are not to your liking, you’re only going to be there for a couple days. Deal with it. You build your reputation as a conductor and clinician one honor band at a time. And people DO talk. However, if your host asks you for input, be honest but tactful. Praise what is done well and offer constructive criticism with solutions for things that could be better.
8. MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE AFTER THE CONCERT. When planning your trip, make sure to allow at least an hour after the concert to talk with students, parents, or directors once the performance has concluded. Some people may want photo opportunities, some people may just want to talk, or whatever. You have to remember that this is a very special occasion for them, and in the age of social media and digital cameras, they want documentation.
9. TRAVEL SMART. If you’re going to do this type of thing a lot, here are some travel tips for you.
A. Get TSA pre checked. You will save hours.
B. Allow way more time than you will need for driving and/or flying. Life happens and it doesn’t always revolve around you. Be ready for anything
C. If you experience any type of delay, keep your hosts informed.
D. If it is a short trip and stay, I recommend trying to get everything onto a carry-on. This will save your host luggage cost and will keep you from having to wait around at the airport for your luggage once you arrive..
E. If you are renting a car, make sure that the reservation is taken care of in advance. Personally, I like HERTZ because I have enrolled in their gold program and I usually just show up at the counter, grab my keys, I am go. It is easy and fast.
F. Always keep your musical necessities with you on the plane. This might be a briefcase or backpack. If your luggage gets lost, you can probably go to a department store and get a new suit or appropriate attire very quickly. This will not be true for your scores, or other paraphernalia.
G. Keep snacks in your backpack or suitcase. Being “Hangry” doesn’t help anyone.
10. A FEW SPECIAL NOTES FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL HONOR BANDS. Repeat this with me. Middle school and high school honor bands are not the same. Middle school and high school honor bands are not the same. Middle school and high school honor bands are not the same.
A. The biggest difference that I tell people is that for a high school honor band, it will mostly be a matter of interpretation, internalizing, and style for the performers. For a middle school band, you need to be ready to really teach. Teach rhytms, meters, dynamics, articulations, etc. Assume they know nothing and be ready to teach everything. With work, you’ll only need half of it.
B. Repetition, repetition, repetition. For this age group, the internalizing of muscle memory for performing at these is even more important. Allow enough time in your rehearsals to repeat phrases and whole pieces and of times with the states feel confident in their performance. This will help keep them from falling apart on stage.
C. Keep tempi and transitions as steady as possible. Yes, as conductors, it is fun to experiment with rhythm and tempo alterations, but for this age group that will create more confusion and uncertainty that it will anything else. For middle school honor bands, I tend to rehearse things at the exact tempo I want to perform them at.
D. Be ready to teach tonal concepts and pedagogical concepts for each instrument. Be ready to introduce the concept of tuning to some of the students, as some of them may not be familiar with. Be aware when you ask students to do something at this age group, they may have never done it before. Be ready to teach it.
I hope you find this list helpful and informative. I really enjoyed my time being a clinician, and I feel like I have learned a lot and I’m still improving all the time. A well prepared, well strategized honor band can be really fun. If you have a bad experience, you probably have nobody but yourself to blame. If it is successful, then you may take credit for that as well.
Peace, Love, and Music.