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On Becoming an Orchestra Coach

by Swimmer Penny Meitz

“The first set is a 15 minute set of 25's. The first 25 is side glide, nose up; next 25 three-and-glide; next 25 of long axis combo, and finally 25 free, low stroke count, then recycle.” Huh?? What is this language I'm hearing that sounds like English but makes absolutely no sense at all? “Next set is a 100 IM with 10–15 seconds rest between.” You want me to do what?!

After years of swimming laps alone in the nearest YMCA pool, I took the plunge about a year ago and joined a Masters swim team, H2Ouston Swims, coached by Emmett Hines. Since then, I have worked out several times a week at the University of Texas-Houston Recreation Center pool near the Houston Medical Center. What does this have to do with teaching music? So much more than I ever imagined! I am learning new things about teaching orchestra almost every day that I swim. This may not be a surprise to those of you who have participated in a coached sport, but for me, having grown up when there were no organized woman's athletics in school, it has opened a whole new world. I am continually amazed at the parallels between swim practice and orchestra practice, and frequently lift new ideas from swim practice and apply them to my orchestra rehearsals.

One aspect of swimming on a team that has been a challenge for me is sticking with something I'm not particularly good at. That has made me think about why our students who don't excel in orchestra keep at it, and has motivated me to consciously reach out to these students in ways I never conceived. Of course we can count on our stars—the best players—to stay in our programs. It's easy for most of us to commit to something we do well. It's also easy for us as teachers to focus most on these dedicated players. After all, what would our programs be without them? But what keeps the others coming back to orchestra year after year, and why do some of our students finally become so discouraged that they quit?

As a result of my experiences in the pool, I've been focusing more on improving the playing of all my students, not just the ones who know they want to play better, and on making everyone feel like a necessary member of orchestra. I have been reminded through my experiences in the pool that everyone needs to feel important and successful on his or her own level, that opportunities can be offered for all players to have their performing skills improve. As every individual improved, the whole group advances by leaps and bounds.

The Language of Music

The first few weeks I worked out with H2Ouston Swims were not only a challenge to my fitness and swimming skills: I also had to learn a whole new vocabulary and etiquette just to know what was expected of me. Among these ideas were how to share a lane and what to do when the person behind you swims faster than you. In orchestra we have a protocol for playing divisi parts, for turning pages, and for many other aspects of performing. Written music has it's own vocabulary, with much of the terminology in Italian. This language is such a part of our lives that it is easy to forget what it was like the first time we played in an orchestra. I suggest we all keep a music dictionary handy, and when music terms are encountered in rehearsal, have a student look them up. I also like to keep an English dictionary by my stand as well for looking up any word that isn't familiar to everyone. The point is, remember what it is like to learn and develop a new skill. Put yourself in the place of your students who are usually working hard to do something that may not come naturally.

Breakdown of Technique

One rehearsal approach of which I've been reminded during swim practice is the importance of separating a complex skill into a series of smaller components. The first time Coach had me do a drill swimming the butterfly, I panicked. I had no idea how to even try! His approach was to start with an element of the stroke just to give me a place to start, and then add to and refine that beginning.

Use your creativity to break each technique into the smallest units. Scale practice can involve all of the following skills: notes, intonation, bow distribution, style, tone production, and fluency (tempo). Spend ample amounts of time isolating each of these components, working slowly and in the smallest unit. For example, when playing a three-octave scale, considerably more time is spent on the highest octave than on the easier portions. I often have students begin on tonic of the third octave, repeating only the first two notes a prescribed number of times. This reinforces the sound of the interval and the finger spacing and/or the shift. After refining intonation on do and re, the orchestra does the same drill with re and mi, mi and fa, etc. Upon reaching the top of the octave, the notes are put together and the third octave is played in its entirety. More drills on specific shifts and intervals will be done in the following days. We use this approach to drill both ascending and descending the scale.

Peer Coaching

In the pool, we swimmers choose a lane based on how fast or slow of a swimmer we are. Frequently during swim workout, Coach Hines will ask us to pair up with someone from a different lane and work on a technical skill. Each swimmer in the pair will take turns swimming, while the other watches a specified skill, giving feedback after each swim. As teachers, we know that it helps to verbalize ideas and makes the participants think about how they execute a particular skill in order to analyze and explain it to someone else.

In orchestra rehearsal I have used this approach to work on bow distribution or style, hand placement in shifting, and tone production. It is usually easiest to have students pair up with their stand partner. Occasionally they have the chance to pair up with someone in another section. This reminds them of the similarities of technique on all string instruments and the necessity that everyone continues to work on perfecting basic skill, regardless of instrument or level of advancement. This opportunity to examine and compare how they execute a particular skill can be very valuable in getting students to think about everything that goes into playing well.

An extension of peer coaching is using students from 'within the ranks' to demonstrate an element of a particular technique. While working on a drill with peer coaching, watch for a student who is doing an especially good job with the exercise and ask them to demonstrate for the class. Look for someone who doesn't always stand out, and be sure the class applauds their success.

Reverse Psychology

One morning Coach Hines asked us to swim the first 25 yards watching the opposite wall of the pool and the next 25 looking at the bottom of the pool. Keeping one's head down is an important element of balance in the water. Later that morning in orchestra, I noticed several of my students being lazy about holding their instruments up. In a moment inspired by my experience that morning, I asked everyone to point their scrolls to the base of their music stands and play the scale we were using for warm-up. Then we played the same scale holding instruments correctly. Everyone was surprised at the drastic difference in sound! They truly learned an important lesson.

Balance in String Playing

Balance in the water is one idea that is stressed at every swim practice. Balance helps streamline the body so one can slip through the water with less resistance. The concept of balance is one that carries over easily to string playing, especially relating to the bow arm. The approach to tone production I teach stresses using the weight of one's arm over the bow and string to pull out the sound. It seems to be easier for the students to adapt this approach when they think of keeping the bow arm balanced over the string. This seems to be especially helpful in negotiating string crossings. Keeping the bow arm balanced also helps keep sound even when crossing strings.

Variety is the Spice of Rehearsal

In the first few months of attending swim practice, I noticed that while our workouts were based on the same structure, specific drills were rarely repeated. I looked forward to finding out each morning what we would do that day. While maintaining a consistent orchestra rehearsal structure is an important element of discipline and control, varying the activities within this structure will help keep you and the students from getting into a rut. Have at least two or three different warm-ups that each reinforce one or two elements of technique and choose the one that strengthens one of the objectives of that day's rehearsal. The most obvious example of this is choosing a scale in the same key of a piece that is presenting intonation problems. Carry this a step further by having students play in smaller teams such as quartets or quintets, and award each team a point for playing in tune together. Likewise, concepts of matching style, tempo, volume and/or tone quality can be reinforced in this manner.

Think of ways to help students concentrate on what they are doing, even when playing the most mundane routine. If second finger intonation is a problem, have them count the number of times in a passage that note is out of tune. Ask them to work to lower that number the next time. Then increase tempo without letting the number of out of tune notes increase.

Trying and Learning New Skills

Learning a new or difficult skill is a challenge for everyone. How many times have we heard, “I can't play in third position,” or “My way is easier for me. I can't do that your way.” Swimming has reminded me what it is like to be trying something difficult for the first time. By applying what I am learning as a struggling athlete, I have learned to appreciate the problems of young musicians as they tackle new skills. In class now when a student tells me they don't know how to do something or can't play a certain way, I am reminded to begin from where they are and build on that. My students frequently her me say, “If I can learn to swim the butterfly, you can learn to play in second position!”

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