Our students are going through a lot. They are stressed, burned out, and overwhelmed trying to keep up with the pace of coursework, exams, rehearsals, and other looming deadlines. Some are struggling with attendance, mental health, and the multiple pieces of music they are responsible for in ensembles and lessons. They are striving to get acclimated again to high standards, expectations, and live concerts after a year and a half of accommodations, excuses (many valid), and livestreams.
Recently, one of my ensembles had a bad rehearsal due to a lack of preparation, confidence, and focus. It was certainly unexpected, concerning, and fell far short of what we are capable of.
Trying to salvage any inkling of progress and momentum during the rehearsal, I even jumped off the podium to work with students individually and instill a sense of urgency in their mindset and approach.
I eventually decided it was time to have an honest talk with the group, a “state of the ensemble” if you will. I was very direct and emphasized we were not where we needed to be to have an excellent performance, and that learning and cleaning the music would not be possible on our current trajectory.
Good leaders, and especially conductors, have a superpower when it comes to seeing the future, and I knew that unless our rehearsals improved, we would not be in position to perform at a high level and meet our goals and standards. Having their full attention, we talked specifically about effort, process, and accountability, and what we could do differently to work toward excellence and turn things around. Here are some things I shared with them.
It was apparent from the start that some did not practice or prepare for the piece we were scheduled to rehearse. You could see it in their eyes, energy, and body language. They lacked confidence and self-belief, and as a result, were not listening to one another or playing cohesively together. They were reactive rather than proactive. I asked them to “have lunch” and get together outside of class for a sectional and become more familiar with how their parts relate. I reminded them to have a low tolerance for mediocrity and hoped playing like that would bother them.
Our concert was only four weeks away and being ready was non-negotiable, both musically and mentally. Our performance is always the result of our rehearsals, which add up and stack day after day, week after week, and month after month. Music must be crock-potted, not microwaved. If we were going to have an excellent concert, we had to have excellent rehearsals, one after the other, over time. This is the process excellence requires.
Some students showed up with the mindset that their lack of preparation was only “about them” and were willing to take the heat. However, it was not about them – it was about the team and they were letting each other down. They had to become accountable to one another and feel like they could depend on and trust each other to do their part – to put in the effort, value the process, and honor their commitment. When everyone is accountable to one another, great things can happen!
One Week Later
Although leading through a bad rehearsal can be tough and uncomfortable, it can also be a teaching moment. Your students need you to be a vocal leader – someone who can be an enforcer – saying what needs to be said and enforcing the standards of the culture – as well as an encourager – building confidence, refocusing the team, and believing in them. The reason I was hard on my students was I knew what they are capable of, how good they can be, and what kind of experience our concert can provide, especially after two years of not having a public performance. They deserve that and it’s my job to get them to reach their potential.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what impact my talk would have on them. Would they be upset, withdrawn, or apathetic? Or would they step up their effort, embrace the process, and hold themselves accountable? Without question, I had challenged them to make a choice. If they were not satisfied with how they were playing, then they needed to take ownership and do something about it.
They did. At the next rehearsal, those who were late the previous week arrived early to set-up. Everyone was organized, aware, focused, confident, responsive, and engaged. They played with energy, touch, and purpose. The entire dynamic of the rehearsal changed. Same piece, same players, different outcome – all due to their effort, process, and accountability.
“The results you achieve will be in direct proportion to the effort you apply.” -Dennis Waitley
“The fight was won long before I entered the ring.” -Muhammad Ali
“Everyone has to be held accountable. Not just one or two guys, everyone on the team, they’re all important. You don’t have a team unless you have everyone pulling together.” -Larry Bird