Boost Rehearsal Attendance for Community & School Performing Ensembles

I was asked via a Twitter post (https://twitter.com/MusicEdTech) to provide some tips on how to boost attendance at community band rehearsals. I suppose these tips would hold true for any community-performing group that relies on volunteers for its organization and even applies to school organizations. If you really think about it, school music ensembles are really made up of volunteers. If the kids don’t take the class as an elective, there is no ensemble. Here’s a quick little post expanding my thoughts and ideas from my Twitter reply.

I conducted a community opera chorus for three years, guest conducted a few community operas, orchestras & bands and I am the Music Director of a community band for the last six years. Community organizations can be challenging to say the least! Increasing and maintaining high attendance numbers at rehearsals can not only make or break a performance, but also is the key to the stability of the organization. There are so many factors that go into building a stable core of performers all dedicated to the same goal. Each community will have it’s own culture and concerns. Here are my top three thoughts that I believe apply to most performing organizations.

1) Schedule rehearsals around the performance, not weekly.

There is an old established culture with community organizations around weekly rehearsals.  Maybe it’s because some community groups are also college organizations or maybe it’s just a night that people think works. Personally, I don’t find this pattern effective. Even a college/community group that needs to follow the universities class schedule might examine this practice. When I first started conducting the Sound Beach Community Band, we had weekly rehearsals. Every whatever-the-day-of-the-week, we had a rehearsal that culminated in a performance every several weeks. I remember having 8 – 12 people at a rehearsal and the very next week, a new set of 8 – 12 people. That’s not a rehearsal, that’s a group lesson. For thosemembers who like weekly rehearsals because it “helps keep my chops up”, I say, practice at home for your chops! The core members and I discussed possibilities and, over time, we came up with a good solution. We have our rehearsals in a one – two week period prior to the concert. For instance, we have an outdoor concert scheduled for Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 7 PM (click here for directions our Binney Park concert in Old Greenwich, CT!). Our rehearsals for this concert are scheduled for Thursday, Tuesday, Thursday before the Sunday performance with a 5 PM sound check at the band shell on August 1, the day of the concert. Here’s is what our July schedule looks like:

I have found this to be extremely effective. We tripled overall participation and player’s attendance is more consistent. Those players who can commit to the performance can commit to the limited and concentrated rehearsals and are more inclined to attend given they are very focused. Also, the music is very fresh in people’s heads come concert time. Programming takes on new challenges with this schedule. You’ll need to consider your ensembles strengths and weaknesses. I tend to program only two to three challenging pieces (level 4 – 5). The rest are either already in our repertoire or a level 3. Keep the medleys to a minimum. Those transitions need the most rehearsal time.

2) Don’t be a jerk on the podium.

This is pretty simple. Not everyone is going to like you or agree with you but there is no need to be a hard ass or belligerent. And don’t conduct what’s in your head. Conduct the players in front of you and their abilities. Conducting tempos that are too fast for the players only shoves the music down their throats and causes a hysterical performance. Speed does not make something exciting. Excitement makes something exciting. If you are going to do these and other things and be a jerk on the podium, no one will want to be around you. That includes students. As teachers, we all have bad years or semesters. Look at your enrollment numbers. If they are down, how were you over the last year? I have seen it in my own numbers. When you’re on, they come in droves. When your not, crickets. Students vote with their feet so do community players and professionals. I stopped playing with a professional organization after fourteen years because it wasn’t worth it to me mostly due to the person on the podium. It’s very sad. Remember, the baton makes no sound. The one and only job of the conductor at the moment of conducting is to evoke sound and performance out of the players. Ask yourself, “How do I need to be, at this moment, with these people, to get the best unified interpretation and performance out of them as I can?”

3) Have cookies at the break.

Community groups are social groups. People want to spend time with one another and catch up. Provide a few cookies (the kids love it!) and it gives them a place to socialize and interact. The more they interact, the more friends they make, the more incentive they have to come to rehearsal. No one wanders far from the cookie table so you can get back to rehearsing pretty quickly & easily. Make sure they have water before they start playing!

Start stuffing extra folders and have lots more seats available! Happy conducting.

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