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Engaging the Big Band

Jazzed Magazine • Lessons LearnedMarch 2020 • March 18, 2020

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Have you ever worked in a group setting and been frustrated by those in your group who aren’t carrying their weight? This is a common human phenomenon called social loafing. “Formally, social loafing is the reduction in motivation and effort when individuals work collectively compared with when they work individually or coactively.”1 In musical terms this means that a musician will naturally put less effort into ensemble repertoire than solo repertoire. This also implies that as the ensemble gets bigger, the degree of loafing is more pronounced.

A director can help motivate students to learn their individual part through evaluation checks or going down the line in rehearsal, however, motivating them to stay mentally engaged in the rehearsal process can be another matter. Over the past few years, I have been developing some rehearsal techniques that create a more student-centered rehearsal environment, that increases student engagement and reduces the effects of social loafing.

Below I will share three techniques that I have successfully utilized. I hope that by sharing these, you can increase the student engagement in your big band rehearsals as well.

The Box

In a standard big band setting, we often direct balance and intonation in to the lead players and back to the lead trumpet, and this works really well during standard rehearsals and performances. However, as a trumpet player, I have always been frustrated that, though people may listen back to me, it is very difficult for me to listen forward to hear what is going on in front of me. This frustration can increase the tendency to loaf, especially considering that the trumpets are further away from the teacher.

To solve this problem, I like to hold some rehearsals in a box formation (see photo above). This setup allows all the musicians to better hear and see one another. It facilitates communication (musical and verbal) and reduces an excuse to loaf. When I have the saxophones staring me down, I am naturally more engaged in the process. I have also seen this type of setup used in recording sessions to better facilitate listening and communication.

For example, here is a link to a 2015 recording session by Caleb Chapman’s Crescent Super Band with Jeff Coffin: . Notice how the horns are set up on three sides of a box. These box rehearsals have really worked for us – the students engage more and enjoy being able to hear everyone.

Open Rehearsal

An open rehearsal is one where the director takes a step back and gives the responsibility of the rehearsal to the students in the band. The director takes on the role of facilitator, but it becomes the students’ job to listen, decide when to stop the ensemble, and collaborate with each other to make things better. A few simple rules will keep this rehearsal from developing into a chaotic mess:

A student must raise their hand to stop the ensemble, but the director actually does the stopping.

That student then concisely asks a question, or makes a comment to the ensemble. 

A brief dialogue may ensue, but the director must make sure that the talking doesn’t drive the rehearsal time (this is why the facilitator is needed to keep things on track).

The student who stopped the group states where they would like to start and then the director starts the ensemble again.

These open rehearsals have transformed our big band and the students really enjoy them. For example, one student recently stated, “The ‘Open Rehearsal’ concept is something I have really enjoyed since we first started utilizing it… I feel it turns the rehearsal time into much more of an engaging experience and keeps students involved, as well as allows for each student’s unique perspective to be discussed in the larger rehearsal setting.”

I have found that this style of rehearsal works particularly well during those nitty-gritty micro-rehearsals, where you are trying to improve those small important details. These can be daunting rehearsals and it is easy for students to disengage when the director is doing all the talking. Instead, letting the students talk to each other allows for peer analysis, peer feedback, and some helpful peer pressure. I have successfully used open rehearsals in both a traditional set-up as well as the box rehearsal mentioned above.

Student Leadership

The open rehearsal concept works because it creates a sense of ownership in the students, which then reduces the tendency to loaf. Giving them a larger voice provides them with more skin in the game and increases student motivation. Another way to provide this effect is through student leadership.

One way I have been sharing the leadership spotlight with my students is by giving them space on the concert to research and introduce chosen charts being performed and a voice in creating set lists. The student does some research and creates a 60-second introduction, including background on the piece and composer, while also announcing the soloists who will be featured.

If you want to take this a step further you can have the student also count off or start the chart for the band. This can be taken to the point where you, as the director, never have to set foot on the bandstand. Then the big band has become a complete chamber ensemble, which it really is. A final step in the leadership process is to allow the student introducing the chart to have some role in rehearsing the chart as well. These are all different steps down the same path of creating leadership and ownership in the band’s success, and that increases their engagement in the process.

In Summary

Any of these ideas will help take some responsibility from the director and place it on the students. Though at times this may feel like dereliction of our jobs, that isn’t true. Ultimately a teacher’s job is to educate their students to the point where the teacher is no longer needed. We teach ourselves out of a job as we develop independent musicians. When students are engaged more deeply in the process, they achieve this independence more quickly, and the rewards it brings the students, the ensemble and our institutions are wonderful. It also allows us as music educators to really focus in on the tasks that only we can do for our students and ensembles. Those exist, but they are not as expansive as we think.

I hope you give some of these ideas a try. It is alright to take just one small step down this path. That is how I started, but once I saw the effects of being on the path, I just kept walking in that direction. Now our ensembles play significantly above their potential, and that is a joy to work with and watch.

Dr. Cliff Towner is director of band activities and associate professor of music at Georgia College and State University. He holds a D.M.A. degree in Wind Conducting from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied with Dr. Carolyn Barber, a Masters of Music degree in Music Education from Wright State University, where he studied with Dr. David Booth, and a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Dr. Terrence Milligan. Dr. Towner has also taught in the public schools for ten years in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He has been published in the Association of Concert Bands Journal and the Journal of Band Research. His dissertation, An Evaluation of Compositions for Wind Band According to Specific Criteria of Serious Artistic Merit: A Second Update, has been downloaded thousands of times and is utilized at universities around the country.


1  Karau, Steven J. & Kipling D. Williams, “Social Loafing: A Meta-Analytic Review and Theoretical Integration,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, Vol 65. No. 4, page 681.

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