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Tomorrow I'm standing in for the conductor to lead a rehearsal of my "training" band. This is effectively a school group: most of the players are fairly new and still have trouble reading music, though there are some much better ones, and some of the beginners are grown-ups. I have no conducting experience but I can wave a stick and read a score.

One particular problem this band has is that they don't look at the conductor. The players who need to concentrate on reading their parts don't look up at all, and then because the ensemble gets noticeably worse over the course of the piece, even the better players stop bothering to look up.

Apart from reminding the players to site their stands so they can see me over them, are there any tips I can give out, or exercises we can do as a group, to help the ensemble?

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Q: How many choir directors does it take to change a light bulb? A: "We don't know. No one was watching." –  Wheat Williams Mar 17 '13 at 16:30
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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

A suggestion for an exercise:
Select a short passage of music of say four bars that involve everyone and has room for some conducting work in terms of dynamic or tempo changes. Go through it until everyone can play it without looking at the music. Then have everyone look at you, while playing that passage over and over again. Each time you do something different through your conducting;
have them all play loud,
have them all play really soft,
have some play loud and the rest soft,
do a crescendo and/or a diminuendo,
do a subito pianissimo,
make them emphasize one specific note,
have them play very legato,
have them play bouncy, joyful, sad...,
pull the tempo up,
slow the tempo down,
and any other stuff that you can think of that makes looking at the conductor relevant and the exercise fun.
This will hopefully practice the musicians in following you when they actually are looking, as well as teach them the importance of looking at the conductor.

When you are done with the above, start some bars ahead of, and carry on for a few bars after these exercise bars, and tell them to beware (look up!) when you reach the exercise bars where you will do something of the above. This will hopefully practice the musicians in looking up from the music, and then to look down finding the place in the music again.

Another suggestion for an exercise:
Play a piece you find fit for this exercise; After every two bars (or any regular suitable low(!) number of bars) everyone stops playing (perhaps while counting the beat out loud) and looks at you for a full bar before looking down (if necessary) and continue playing at the start of the bar after the last played bar. During the counting and looking "intermission" do some dynamic or other conducting instruction as suggested in the other exercise above and have them stick to this when resuming playing until the next "intermission" where a new instruction sets in.
This will hopefully also practice the musicians in looking up and down in the middle of the music.
This exercise might be hard, so start very easy. And be sure to find a suitable easy piece of music that doesn't have so many notes that are held over consecutive bars. (Instruct the musicians to break those notes in two so that they can end and start exactly at the bar ends and starts.)

When you are done practicing the above, play the same piece again and have them look up (for a short glance at you/the conductor) at the same places but keep playing without "intermission". Hopefully you will have opened(!) their eyes by now.

Yet another suggestion for an exercise:
Play a piece from the beginning (or some other good place to start). Before this, inform the musicians that you will suddenly signal to stop on the first beat of some random bar, and that the goal is for everyone to stop collectively and to have complete silence after this stop beat. Repeat this several times. Start by stopping after the first or second bar! Then, for each restart, increase the number of bars you go before signalling to stop. Throw in an early stop once in a while. Finally play the whole piece through without stopping! The idea is to force everyone to give attention to what you do in order to not miss the stop signal.
You can increase the difficulty by allowing to stop at any beat.

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I tried the "stop every two bars" exercise at last night's rehearsal, and it didn't work out so well. The players found it quite confusing, so not everyone stopped at the right time, and even when they did, the people who didn't look up still didn't look up. –  Dan Hulme Mar 19 '13 at 14:13
    
@DanHulme: Sorry about that. :-( I guess it's too difficult and not a very good exercise. I hope you didn't loose credability for trying out stuff. –  Ulf Åkerstedt Mar 19 '13 at 14:22
    
No, I think the novelty kept people interested. I'll try the third one next time and see if that's any better. –  Dan Hulme Mar 19 '13 at 16:00
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Raise the stands!

Seen it a zillion times. The music stands need to be set high enough that the conductor's upper body is visible just above the top edge of the music. That way they can read the music AND receive visual input from the conductor simultaneously.

The problem with having to "look up" is then you get lost when you look down again.

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For the benefit of future visitors to this question: I now start every rehearsal by asking the players to put their stand so they can see me and the music at the same time. I'd have thought this was obvious but people still move their stands each time I ask! –  Dan Hulme Apr 23 '13 at 11:20
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The best way I've seen conductors solve this problem is by "changing it up" with their conducting. I've played in bands for a long time, and I've found nothing more effective.

For example. In the middle of a piece, change the tempo. When a small percentage of the students actually catch what you're doing, they'll follow you. The others, when hearing that others are playing at a different time than they are, will LOOK UP and see they are off.

I believe it takes more than just reminding. It takes showing. And they won't get it right away. Even adults who've been playing their whole lives sometimes need reminding. So, keep working on it.

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"The others, when hearing that others are playing at a different time than they are, will LOOK UP and see they are off." That might work with the senior band, but I've played with the training band before and I know some of the kids will never notice they're not with everyone else. –  Dan Hulme Mar 17 '13 at 16:40
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Excellent question. The problem is most likely that once looking up, the kids have trouble quickly finding the spot where they were. So they are afraid to get lost. As with most things in music: "practice makes perfect:". Suggestions:

  1. Go through the score with them. Put "look up" markers and "come back" markers into the score. These could maybe be a bar or two apart. So good targets are bars that are easy to play and easy to memorize. Then practice with kids to do this.
  2. Ping their music teachers. They can start incorporating a few exercises around it. How to recognize good spots for looking up, how to read ahead, how to annotate a score and just do look up exercises on a regular basis.
  3. Make sure that the kids understand why it is important for them to look at you and what is the benefit to them for doing so.
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