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Students as Leaders

By Nancy J. Campbell

As musicians, we understand that in order to perform an ensemble piece with accuracy and expression, we must know our own part completely and understand how it fits into the overall structure of the piece. Often, students have learned their individual part, but they have little idea as to how all the parts work together. To improve your ensemble, and to have your students learn this important skill, engage your students in leadership.

Teach students the conducting patterns for simple meters – invite them to the podium to take turns as maestro. After this experience, my students tell me they appreciate me more – it's harder than it looks to keep a group of young people together. As a bonus, I often get improved discipline in rehearsal once some students see how poor behavior holds back the entire group.

  • Start with medium to fast tempi.
  • Teach students to bounce the ictus, keeping the beat fluid and buoyant.
  • Students may choose to lead with their hands, pencil or baton.
  • Teach students to lead with their instrument, giving the preparatory beat with their scroll for violin and viola, or with their head and shoulders for cello and bass.
  • When an unsure student is on the podium, post yourself at the back of the room and mirror their gestures. Keep it lighthearted, allowing the student to make mistakes and keep going.

In rehearsal, play a chosen passage as many times as there are players, allowing the opportunity for every student to lead. This doesn't have to be done in one day, especially if your class is large.

  • Allow students to observe others who lead most effectively, and help them to understand why.
  • Give students multiple opportunities to emulate strong leaders and improve their cuing technique.
  • If possible, have your students rotate seating and challenge the section leaders to help their section by imitating and even exaggerating the gestures you give from the podium. Be sure all students have a clear view of you as well as their section leader. Developing strong section leaders and followers is a real asset to any performing group. This also teaches students that it is acceptable, even beneficial, to move while playing.
  • Teach students to look through the score and decide which ensemble member or section leader might be the most effective leader in a particular place. This is especially helpful in preparing chamber ensembles. An example of employing multiple leaders would be when one player leads the ritardando, another cuts off the fermata, and yet another brings the group in at the a tempo.

I find that the skills learned on the podium and at the head of the section carry over into both orchestra and chamber ensemble rehearsal. Students learn to work smarter, and solve problems independently.