One of the things I love about school ensemble conductors is that they are usually educators first.  This is vital for the work we do with school ensembles. There is so much to teach!

  • Notation
  • Playing instruments
  • Listening skills
  • Group skills
  • Sound production and tuning
  • Ensemble conventions
  • Playing and moving together

And sooooo much more.

Most of this is best taught through doing and through being an active part of an ensemble rather than explicitly. As a conductor I don’t want my rehearsals to feel like another class. We want this learning to feel different – like making music, like a social activity, like a team sport. This is what kids do for fun in their lunchtimes or afterschool.

The best most active learning time of any rehearsal is when you have every eye wide open. Every player on the edge of their chair – ready to go, focused, determined and excited. So how do we achieve this? Here are some of the things I do to get kids pumped.

  • Challenge with increasing tempo
  • Passion
  • Concentration and intense teamwork.
  • Humour

Challenge with tempo.

Works at any level and especially with a really hard new piece. It is hard work slogging through a new piece of music, especially if you have to go slowly.  So find a bit that sounds good, even 16 bars – maybe the intro or end? Practice it – and then speed it up – really fast – edge of their seats fast -‘we can’t play it that fast’ fast! It is especially good at the end of the piece because it gives players something to aim for and they are delighted when they get there. This pushes kids on all sorts of levels and it is fun. I also like jumping up and down yelling ‘come on – faster faster’ but that is optional.


Often in rehearsal I get so bogged down by the notes and frustration that I forget the music. Recently I watched a workshop where the conductors were concentrating so hard on the technical side they totally forget to listen to the beautiful music happening around them, and it was absolutely gorgeous. This happens for the players as well. We lose our connection with other players and the sound while focusing hard on our own part. Reminding students of the music, the passion and the drama often fixes the technical issues faster than anything. Don’t forget that music is fabulous.

Concentration and intense teamwork

This one is for slow pieces. You have to set it up so your ensemble is committed to playing perfectly together, listening to each other and achieving a common goal. Again it can be done at any level. I tell my ensemble that in especially slow music the role of the conductor is just to shape. Moving together, creating a unified sound and an emotional connection is for them to do – it is much deeper than watching the conductor, it is a feeling amongst the group. This is often a good time to get off the podium and let them do it.

NB – If you do get off the podium don’t stand to the side pulsing with your body – that defeats the purpose!


I like picking on players and sections so we all have a good laugh! This is very much a relationship thing and obviously needs to be done with care. It works with some students and some conductors. Pick the kid carefully – usually the loudest personality who is a relatively confident player. The great thing about this technique (and yes – I call it a technique not just nastiness) is that it shows players it is ok to make mistakes and the worse that can happen is that we all have a good laugh. This can be done with sections or the entire ensemble – some would call it ‘teasing’. I once watched an MSO rehearsal where Sir Andrew Davis was getting fed up with the orchestra playing so far behind his beat. He said ‘I gave my last beat, turned around and bowed, turn back around and the note sounded – ahhhhh’.

We have all sat through boring rehearsals!

There is no excuse.

Wide-eyed ensembles are fun and the learning, and most importantly the music, will be better.



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