Band coaching

As a band coach you undoubtably have a lot to say about the role of your own instrument in a band. However, when coaching a band for the first time it is important that you have something to offer for all the band members. In this document I want to offer you the material I have collected by asking students and fellow teachers about the the recurring issues with beginning bands. It is not a complete or comprehensive work, but is intended as a practical working document.

Table of contents


The lay out of the practice room largely determines who stands or sits where. The drum set and speakers usually have a fixed spot, but bass and guitar amplifiers can often be freely moved. It is important that the bass player and the drummer have close contact, and preferably there should also be eye contact with the guitar player and the keyboard player. Usually the bass player prefers to stand next to the drummer and therefore you could arrange the rhythm section in a kind of semicircle. A much-stated tip to refine the groove is to enable the bass player to keep an eye on the bass drum pedal, so as to be able to follow the pulse visually as well.

Eye contact is important for cues and other forms of communication, but of course it is equally important that everyone can hear each other. Placement of the amplifiers deserves special attention here. Th bass amplifier produces frequencies with a wave length of several metres. It might be the case that the bass player stands right in front of the amplifier and is unimpressed by his volume, while players further away get an involuntary belly massage. It is a good idea to place the bass amplifier a bit further from the bass player, and to aim the speaker so that bass player and drummer are both in the line of the amplifier. In this way the volume can be kept down.

The guitar amplifier produces shorter wave lengths, but if it is placed at floor level the guitarists calves absorb the brunt of the sound. If you place the amplifier higher (for instance on a small table) the volume doesn’t have to be turned up so high.

One final remark on amplifiers: it is unwise to amplify a bass with a guitar amplifier. This is not designed for the task and might break down.

In overly acoustic spaces reflections against stone walls may amplify the sound enormously. In the heat of the moment this may become so excessive that wearing earplugs becomes advisable. A considerable number of insufficiently careful musicians have to cope with dips in their hearing spectrum or worse: a permanent ringing in their ears.


Drumming requires a high degree of motor control, because all four limbs have to work together in a rhythmically precise way. It is a good idea for a band coach to sit behind the drum set once in a while and try playing the simplest rhythm for a duration of about 2 minutes. Also try executing a simple fill, then you will have an idea of the considerations a drummer has to bear in mind!

For a start the role of the drummer is of course to lay down the rhythm in a tight, consistent way, so every bar of the groove feels the same. Nobody can play comfortably to a restless groove! Most music demonstrates a rhythmic subdivision of the beat in twos, threes or fours – so eighth notes (for instance bossa), triplets (swing) or sixteenth notes (funk). The job of the drummer is to play this underlying ‘grid’ in a clear and tight way, so that everyone can lay down their notes in that comfortable bed. If you discover unrest in this aspect you may ask the drummer to practice at home with a metronome, to discuss the problem with his or her drum teacher, or to bring down the tempo during rehearsal, to let everyone zoom in consciously on the rhythmic grid.

By the way, lowering the tempo is good way of putting a microscope on the matter of nearly all problems and analyzing why things are not working. Being aware of the rhythmic subdivision is a major step towards improvement.

Another role of the drummer is musically marking the formal sections of the piece. For example, when the verse gives way to the refrain the drummer customarily prepares this with a simple fill, or with dynamic support. For this purpose drummers need a vocabulary, a repertoire of appropriate fills. Of course these are included in all number of drum methods, but as a band coach it is also important to be able to sing a suitable suggestion for a drummer.

Experienced band coaches know the phenomenon well: when the music gets louder there is a tendency (not only in drummers!) to speed up the tempo somewhat. This might already happen in a fill. There are apps available (like EasyBPM) that measure tempo during the piece and show the fluctuations in every detail. Not always nice to see, but very informative.

Even if you have no experience in drumming it is interesting to observe exactly how drummers hit the drumhead. Really good drummers demonstrate a certain lightness , suggesting they could play all evening without tiring. Sometimes a distinction is made between ‘hitting in the drumhead’, versus ‘extracting the tone from the drumhead’. You can produce good sound by using wrist and fingers in an ‘upstroke’, that starts just above the skin, like a whiplash. The height of the upstroke and the velocity of the contraction of fingers and movement of the wrist determine not only the volume, but also the exact timing of the stroke. Usually this results in a clearer sound, and a certain sense of intent, which is to be distinguished from mere volume. The playing manner that involves a lot of muscle power can lead to excessive loudness and possible muscular pains and injuries.

The sound of hi-hat and cymbals are determined largely by the touch of the stick on the cymbal (side of the stick in crashes or on hi-hat, tip on the ride or hi-hat).

Oftentimes the bass drum beater is mistakenly pressed against the drumhead, which results in premature dampening of the low sound of the drum. This may of course be used as a conscious effect. You may also dampen the bass drum effectively with a layer of foam rubber or a cushion at the bottom of the drumhead, without affecting the lower spectrum of the sound.

Some drum parts are difficult to play reliably for a less experienced drummer. Due to the complex co-ordination the tightness of the groove might suffer. In these cases you might ask the drummer to reduce the groove to the simplest possible combination of bass drum, snare and hi-hat. So no fills, no inconvenient movement of hands between drums, no double strokes. When you get that engine running you can gradually increase the complexity, always checking that the groove does not deteriorate. As a band coach you could sing what you have in mind, but the drummer may also supply the solution.

When working with a band that makes use of improvisation in a piece, it is motivating for a soloist to receive a musical reaction to his or her ideas. Good soloists work with patterns and accents and leave space for interaction. If you perceive that there is not much going on in this sense you can stimulate the players to only play material that enables others to react! This is a moment to demonstrate on your own instrument in an exaggerated way what you mean. So: repeating five or more accents till the drummer follows you, leaving whole bars empty for someone else to fill up, etc. This is playing in a literal sense, and that is what it is all about! If you might as well put on Band-in-a-Box or iRealPro then the interaction is practically zero. This comparison should enlighten anyone to what is meant.


Together with the drums the bass is the most important time keeper. Just like the drummer the bass player should play squarely in the grid. That being said, there are pieces in which a fractional difference is permissible. A minimal difference in timing can help in making a groove extra exciting. The bass may move a fraction before the drums, or lay a fraction behind. If you have experience with midi sounds in the computer you know that tightening the timing (or ‘quantizing’) doesn’t guarantee a good feel. The computer enables you to experiment with small differences in timing between bass and drums, and this will show you that ‘feel’ is attributable to fractions with a duration of milliseconds.

It cannot be said that this kind of information leads to an immediate improvement in a bands performance, but listening together to recordings where the groove is exceptionally well performed is a good start. In an ideal case that would involve the original recording of the piece to be rehearsed. As band coach it is advisable to involve all players in this, because everyone stands to gain from a certain perceptiveness for precision in timing. Listening to this ‘foundation’ in music is something that takes some time getting used to, especially if ones musical role focuses more on melody or lyrics.

It should be clear by now that the beginning of the bass tones should correspond to the general rhythmic grid, but the moment where the tone is cut off is also important. The moment a note stops is in essence a rhythmical event, a pulse! If you feel that the groove in a cover is just a bit different from the original then it is a good idea to pay attention to this aspect. For reasons of comparison it is easy nowadays to record a small portion with a smartphone and to compare it immediately with the original. Of course this applies just as well to other musical considerations: are we in the correct tempo, does the drum part correspond to the original, etc.

Not all bass players are equally adept to adjusting the bass amplifier. A good bass sound involves a host of parameters: the strings, the manner and place of playing the strings, the pickup and further electronics, the trim of the bass, the cable, plugs, and of course the amplifier itself. And of course it is worth considering what kind of a bass sound the piece or the repertoire asks for. A thin metallic sound may not be appealing by itself, but it may work in the context, with other instruments! If this is not the case, then your options as a band coach are limited to adjustments on the amplifier itself. You can experiment with a bit less or more treble, less or more bass, and by experimenting with the gain. If this does not lead to the desired result, see whether another bass player is available for advice concerning the amplifier or one of the other links in the aforementioned chain.

Keyboards and guitar

What you have just read about sound regarding the bass applies doubly to guitar and keyboards! Excluding the acoustic piano there are hundreds of sounds available, depending on guitars, amplifiers, keyboards and various forms of effect equipment. Oftentimes specific signature sounds are highly determining for a piece. Copying such a sound exactly requires a lot of experience. Even if you have all manner of boxes and buttons at your disposal you will have to do je adjustments yourself, and that involves enough variables to challenge a three star chef. This subject is beyond the scope of this document, but we will give some tips regarding the ensemble playing of keys and guitar within the band.

Both instruments take care of harmony in the music: the substrate of chords, of course in some rhythmic form. If different sounds are used attention must be given to difference in volume between the sounds. If the keyboard player changes from Fender Rhodes to the more penetrating clavinet the balance should be adjusted. Keyboardists in cover bands spend a lot of time organizing their sounds, and control over volume is an important consideration. For guitarists the same applies: they often change sounds by way of buttons and pedals they operate by foot. This also takes the necessary preparation and experience.

Balance in volume is important, but a further relevant factor is the register in which everyone plays. If the vocalist sings in the middle register, and is joined in the same range by keyboard and guitar, the lyrics will soon become swamped and the whole vocal melody might disintegrate. This can be solved without automatically turning up the volume on the vocals. For instance, the keyboard player can move into a lower register, filling the harmony with static chords or small interludes between the vocal line, and the guitar player can play rhythmic patterns, maybe somewhat higher on the neck. In this way room is created for the vocals and a balance is effected in the overall sound. This poses a tough challenge for the band coach because guitar and keyboards habitually cross each other. You can start by calling the players attention to what the other is doing, for example by letting them play together without vocals and drums, maybe only with bass accompaniment.


If you ask instrumentalists in a band about the meaning of a song, chances are you will get no answer. Their focus is simply directed elsewhere. Stating the obvious, the lyrics do of course influence the interpretation, and the band coach has the privilege to create this awareness in the players. A distorted guitar sound probably does not suit a fragile text. But just possibly the opposite is the case! In any case it is clear that text awareness is important, not exclusively for singers.

Another obvious fact: if you want listeners to grasp the meaning of a song the vocal part should lie clearly on top of the rest of the band, and the singer should articulate well and make a good sound. You could ask the players whether they can hear the singer well enough. Sometimes the problem is easily solved by playing softer, or adjusting the amplification. If the lyrics are in a foreign language some attention should be paid to pronunciation.

If the band coach is trained singer he or she will undoubtably have enough to say about vocal technique, but for the instrumentalist this is usually trickier. Still the manner of singing and the posture of the singer do offer some clues. If you see an introverted, somewhat coiled posture (shoulders dropped forward, sternum tucked inwards) then chances are the sound will open up if you ask for more vitality and openness during singing. A classic trick is to ask the subject to stand as if being pulled upward by the top of the head. This can immediately produce a certain alertness, with less tension in the voice. You might also find the sound a bit thin. In that case you can ask the singer to flex the knees a bit during singing, which translates into more grounding. As a consequence the sound acquires more body.

A radical solution for activating the body during singing is to ask the singers to sing a short phrase in the normal way, and then do it again in an erect squatting posture, with the heels lifted from the ground. This can make an enormous difference, and alerts singers to what is still potentially to be developed in the voice. In the case of multiple singers you will notice that the blend between the voices improves.

Why is this a radical solution? By squatting you activate a small muscle near your pubis (the pyramidalis) that is connected to the linea alba (a tendinous fibre) that extends all the way to the sternum. This forms an important mechanism for the exhalation and influences the larynx. However, the whole abdominal sixpack is also activated, while a subtle adjustment of the body system calls for a minimalization of muscle tension. Everything in the body under surplus tension, like muscles and bones, reduces resonance and blocks the subtle energies. This is something that professional instrumentalists will also affirm: if you play the piano or the drum set your body should display an optimal looseness and flexibility, and the connection with breathing is evident.

Wind instruments

The tips you have read for voice also largely apply to wind instruments. Put the wind players on their haunches and a new world opens up!

If a band incorporates only one wind player, for example on trumpet or saxophone, this person is more or less free to supply additional lines (improvised or not) or to play a solo here and there. In the case of multiple wind players arrangements are customarily used, and in most cases the band coach is called upon to supply these.

When writing for winds it is important to have an idea of the capabilities of your players. If you write too high the notes will simply not come out, or your players will have to exhaust their reserves in such a way that they have no embouchure left for the following pieces. Embouchure means lip tension. Sound, playing in the upper range and stamina require a lot of practice, and controlling the breath so as to result in an effective vibration of reed or lips is an activity that requires a great deal of concentration.

Furthermore, a wind player necessarily has multiple considerations of co-ordination to take into account: breath, tongue and fingers should work together optimally to stay in time. If a part is too difficult this timing is bound to suffer. As a band coach you can underline that timing is of greater importance than hitting all the notes. In a suitable piece you could count off in a purposefully high tempo, with the assignment to bluff their way through without sacrificing the timing. This can be attained by hitting only the important notes (for instance only on the 1, or the highest note) and faking or omitting the rest. With multiple players chances are the line will come out fairly well on average. Considering which notes are most important in this sense will supply ample learning moments.

Of course you want horn parts to sound tight. The notes within the section should not only begin together, but also end together, otherwise one of the chord tones falls away at the end. Playing as written is important, but wind players should also be taught to listen to one another. If the upper voice (the lead) is out of breath or embouchure and cannot fill the complete duration of the note, it is advisable for the other players to follow the lead and not play out the note just because it is written that way. Of course you should, as a band leader or conductor, give similar attention to the execution of the signs for dynamics and articulation. Also, take care for the treatment of longer notes. It will sound very mechanical if such a note is played completely straight. A small dynamic up-and-down, a bit of vibrato will already make it come more alive.

Styles and forms

Every style has its own hallmark formulas, and as a band coach you should be aware of these, as they pertain to the style of your band. In jazz you should be able to explain about swing and timing and improvisation, in salsa the clave should have no secrets from you, in reggae you should know the effect of that typical guitar figure, etc. Tango, funk, waltz, merengue, New Orleans style, Dixieland, big band, salon music, the number is endless. If you have more experience you will listen more closely to the distinctive structure of the style and try to crack the code. The style can itself be characterized as an arrangement.

The form of pieces in a said style also obeys certain rules and laws. A song (in whatever style) hardly ever starts directly with the lyrics: it is nearly always preceded by an intro. As a band coach you may – with or without the band – think of an intro to establish groove, key and tempo, and so to acquaint the listener with the piece.

Other elements, like the verse and the chorus are apparent in virtually all styles, simply because the carry the ‘story’ of the song: the melody and the text.

Once the essence of the story has been told any number of things can happen. In jazz and various other styles a number of soloists start improvising over the chord changes. The solo is in fact the soloists commentary on the melody and the text, and ideally shows a close relationship with it. It is important for accompanists to engage in active dialogue with the soloist by supporting, following, challenging etc. In simple forms such as blues or modal music the ongoing solo may be supported by improvised (horn)riffs.

In various contexts and under various names you may find polyphonic harmonized instrumental sections. In jazz this goes under the name of interlude or special chorus, in salsa we refer to the mambo (a four or eight bar line which is repeated four times). Sometimes these sections are improvised, but usually they represent an arrangers inspired efforts.

The coda or ‘outro’ acts as a farewell to the song, and can be varied upon endlessly: with a fade out, a repetitive line that is cut off at a certain point, a small rhythmic figure, background vocals, an extended long note, or a complete cacophony that lasts until someone intervenes. An ending is like a dessert: as the last course it should leave a pleasant taste! A neat ending to a piece makes a professional impression, and as a band coach you should stress its importance.


Good parts sound better! The more information they contain the less chance there is of difference in interpretation. The arranger is often content if all notes for the various voices have been worked out, and might be less inclined to write down all the details in the original or the midi-demo. Still, careful attention to parts is an investment that will lead to a multiple payback in the rehearsal process. This is due to the fact that not everyone has the time or inclination to listen to recordings. What to watch for?

First of all, it is wise to include form indications in your parts. If you can say “ We will start at letter B” and each player has that information included in his or her part you don’t lose precious time. This can also be done with small and simple indications such as ‘refrain’, ‘verse 2’ or a quote from the text. For the players it helps their oversight if the building blocks of the forms, often 4 bars or a multiple thereof, is underlined by the layout. Make a habit of starting a new part of the form on a new line. Also, it is customary to add up bars of rests. If a part includes a row of 17 empty bars it is easier to count to 17 than to read all the bars by sight. Another tip is to include written cues that indicate what another instrument is playing at a given moment, so the player can see where to jump in.

Secondly: each note that could raise doubt about length or dynamics should be supplied with an articulation sign. The sticks, note heads and rests in music notation are after all somewhat basic, and articulation signs form a supplement to that system. So: ‘staccato’ dots for short notes, dashes for broader ‘portato’ notes, horizontal V-marks for accents, reverse V-marks for ‘marcato’: accented and separated. Imagine omitting this for a big band with 13 wind players: after a few run-throughs every player has settled in their own interpretation. If you only then start making notes and setting a standard then that will involve a lot of time consuming breaking of habits.
The same applies of course to dynamic signs, so mark the level at which you want a certain passage to be played (pp, p, mp, mf, f and ff) and use crescendo and decrescendo markings is you desire a more gradual development.

The notes themselves should also be correct and playable. As an arranger you should have knowledge of voice leading, but also the necessary listening and playing experience so as to have an idea about wich kinds of lines work well in certain instruments. Knowing the idiom in which you are writing will obviously improve your writing.


Repertoire may be chosen by the band coach, but can also be decided on democratically. In any case, finding the right piece involves many considerations.

If the original version is sung by a male voice, whereas the band has a female lead singer (or vice versa) then you will probably have to change the key. Sometimes this involves a transposition of up to a fourth, which in turn influences the wind parts, which end up in a less optimal range. Also realize that keys have an inherent quality, meaning that each key has its own distinct atmosphere and feeling. Composers have known this for ages, and there are even lists that link all 24 keys to a certain mood. F minor is associated with a funerary mood, E major with a sunny spring day. So, transposing a cheerful and perky song in E down a semitone for the singers convenience, might lead to a darker and more rainy disposition. In short, transposition has its limits.

Of course the instruments on hand and the level of the players are of importance. Sometimes you will want to copy a piece exactly, but there is ample repertoire that lends itself to a different tempo, or simplification or omission of lines. If you take pleasure in adding instruments, such as winds or strings, do check whether the piece offers the space for buttressing the vocal line, or for adding supplemental lines. There are limits to what a listener can process simultaneously.

A frequently made mistake is converting string parts to wind instruments. A lot of soul and disco music from the 70’s was recorded with string orchestra, and cover bands rarely include string players. If you transfer these virtuosic and repetitive violin lines from the original to the wind parts they might blow away the vocal part, their embouchure will wear out pretty quickly, and chances are they will lack the technique to keep up with the rapid violinistic passage work. A synthesizer with a good sample and a sharp attack usually works much better. Alternatively you might leave out the string lines and substitute them with new riffs for the horn section that do not interfere with the vocal lead.

Finally you should consider the raison d’être of the band. If you wish to take to the stage with a band with a certain signature identity, then look for pieces with similarities in style. If you are coaching a workshop in improvisation then put your focus on chord progressions that offer a suitable challenge for the fledgling soloist. In that context a jazz blues and a one chord funk number are entirely appropriate. It might also be the case that the band has trouble with a certain subject or rhythm, and that you choose (or write) a tune that addresses exactly that problem. Following this line we reach the question whether you want to play easy or difficult repertoire. If the band chooses a piece that everyone admires then it is not a big problem if it is somewhat outside the comfort zone. Even if the end result sounds nowhere near as good as the original it can involve worthwhile learning moments, ad a good stimulus for working on your technique.


Within a band there may be various levels of ambition and perspectives for development. Experience, playing level, talent, taste, and the available amount of time and energy all play their role. If these differences are too large they may become a source of tension. Let’s assume that you have been hired to help the band develop and to let them improve their playing. It will be of great help if, at the end of every rehearsal, everyone knows exactly what to work on. Feel free to distribute homework, directly or by mail. This is to be calibrated to the individual players: whereas one might get a basic assignment, another might get a bigger challenge. Take care that a goal is set, and that everyone is aware that you expect them to play their part to help the band progress. If stuff has to be sorted out at rehearsal that could have been done at home the players who do have their act together have to wait for the rest, and boredom is bound to set in. Apart from that rehearsing costs money: rehearsal space is usually not for free, travel costs and parking costs are made, and possibly there are subscription fees. Rehearsal time should therefore be used efficiently!

A band is a small scale society. There are introvert participants and extrovert ones, leaders and followers, machos and timid characters, emotional people, gadget freaks, people with ADHD, chatterboxes, etc. A band coach should be able to do more than just talk about the music: you need the antennae to channel the social dynamics within a band. How does this work? It is difficult to generalize because as band coach you are foremost a human being, with all the attributes that entails. Certain band coaches with an anti-social style might nevertheless foster great loyalty in their band members. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to give some thought as how to temper overly dominant players while giving feedback to more sensitive souls without them losing sleep over your message. As a rule, humor works best in addressing this matter.

Big Bands

A big band has a somewhat other dynamic than a band of six or seven individuals. It consists of thirteen or more wind players, and a rhythm section of bass, piano, drums and usually guitar. With such a large line up you are really the musical leader, and that means actively taking charge. This role involves constantly making choices. Helping one player with a part means leaving sixteen others idle, so you must consider how much time can be spent on this. When listening to example recordings during rehearsal you might hear “ I’m here to blow my horn!”. The more you succeed in getting the preparation of the material done at home, the more time you have left for ensemble playing.

Musically speaking the challenge lies in obtaining a uniform phrasing between the sections and maintaining the balance between the sections. This means that much time has to be spent in reading and executing the articulation signs. As a conductor you should be able to sing the phrasings as a concrete example. Scat-sounds from the bebop idiom (doowop-tada etc.) are most suitable for this, and can be learnt in practice by playing in big bands. You can delegate part of your task by teaching players to follow the leader of their section. This applies not only to articulation, but also to dynamics and detailed care for notes in terms of vibrato, length and closing – if this lies within the capabilities of the lead player. It is customary to organize section rehearsals led by the section leader or the conductor to get these details right.

On stage the trumpets usually stand in the back, the trombones are placed before that (preferably in an elevated position) and the saxophones are placed in front. As a result of this placement the brass players often fail to hear what is happening in the saxophones. In the interest of the balance of volume and leaving space for each others melodic lines this is important. Each player should have an idea of the total sound to know his or her own role within the whole. As a conductor it is therefore advisable to let the sections play separately. What also works well is placing the wind players in a u-form during rehearsal, so that the trumpets are opposite the saxes.

Being able to hear each other is important not only for the phrasing and dynamics, also for blending and intonation within and between the sections it contributes to the quality of the music. You can start by letting the players alternately play a note with a tuning device in the hand, but this is no sufficient guarantee for correct intonation. It is easier to blend with a wind player with nice, centered tone with many harmonics, than with someone with a gritty tone and background noises. With players with an inferior sound the problem is rarely located in the tuning process, because there will always be clashing frequencies remaining.

Does a big band leader have to be able to conduct? In certain pieces the classical conducting technique has its value, but many big band conductors easily do without, because the groove in the rhythm section offers ample support. Important is in any case that you:

  • Can count off adequately, making clear how many bars you use and whether it contains an upbeat. Ghost notes can suggest a certain groove, i.e. shuffled, straight, funky etc;
  • Can choose a comfortable playable tempo;
  • Can demarcate the transition to new form components;
  • Can alert soloists in a timely fashion as to which chorus it is their turn;
  • Can indicate dynamics;
  • Can incite players to more daring artistic achievements;
  • and all that sort of stuff.
If a certain piece calls for more explicit timekeeping you can easily find sites and films on the internet concerning the principles of conducting. More advanced pieces with changes in time signature etc call for more skills, which might require taking conducting lessons.

Brass players make use of various types of mutes. Timely insertion and extraction of the correct mute is an integral part of rehearsing. In traditional material trumpet players use the sharp straight mute, the velvety cup mute, the harmon mute (the Miles Davis sound), the bucket mute (a kind of cotton wool box to create a softer flugelhorn-like tone) and the plunger (a real sink plunger for a muffled sound, or for a humorous wah-wah effect). Lacking a plunger you can reach a similar but significantly lesser effect by holding your hand in front of the bell. In general you cannot work on the sound of a section if everyone does not have a complete set of mutes at his disposal – a classic cause for exasperation in conductors and players alike.
N.B.: trombone players also use plungers, and to a lesser extent the other mutes. These are rather unwieldy and it takes a sizeable sports bag to carry them around.

Big bands sometimes exist for decades, and build up an impressive repertoire in that timespan. The introduction of the internet has made the search for repertoire (legally or otherwise) ever easier. This often translates into bulky collections of parts for each instrument. This is not in itself a problem, but does become a classic nuisance if it is not well ordered, keeping the whole band waiting. As a conductor you can prevent this happening by making known beforehand which pieces are to be rehearsed, or by reminding band members of the importance of the alphabet. Tablets are on the uptick, which is certainly a blessing for the organization of parts.


Leading a choir represents a distinct skill. If you are working with trained singers who know how to sight read you may make quick progress, but more often in the amateur scene you are confronted with singers who do not read music and memorizing parts is a painstaking business. Choice of repertoire is therefore of the essence: you should be able to predict whether or not a piece is manageable for your vocal group.

For a start a conductor should know and be able to sing all component parts of a piece. This takes the necessary preparation. You can enlist technical help here, by sending mp3 or midi files for home practice. Much material is to be found on the internet, and otherwise you can produce it yourself using notation or recording software. Make tracks including all voices, where the part to be practiced is recorded louder, and the other parts offer a softer harmonic framework.

At the start of the rehearsal it is customary to do a few exercises to warm up body and vocal cords. Usually this involves some stretching, for example to create awareness of the breathing musculature. This kind of warming up exercise can easily be found on the internet. Warming up the vocal apparatus is necessary to ensure that singers can sing throughout the whole rehearsal, and for avoiding injuries or afflictions to the voice. A good warming up is also enjoyable: one can stretch out and yawn a bit to alleviate the tensions of the work day.

With a new piece you may hope that everyone has practiced his or her part, but even then you can assume that it will be necessary to give separate attention to all voices to imprint the melodic lines. When working with one voice group three others will be sitting idly by. The sopranos usually take up the least time because they carry the melody, and are oftentimes the best stocked section. To avoid boredom it is a good idea to let all singers participate in all parts. This keeps them busy, and also makes them more aware of the harmonic context of their own part and of the interlocking phrasing in polyphonic material.

If the choir works without a piano accompanist you will be confronted by the natural tendency for the intonation to drop. This is connected to the desire to sing in tune. In the equal temperament of the modern piano every interval is slightly de-tuned to compensate for the irregular harmonic series that nature offers us. Many choir conductors are able to accompany by themselves on the piano. This prevents the intonation dropping, but accompanying does detract from the ability to focus on the progression of all four voice groups. Alternatively you can work with a separate accompanist or a backing track.

Choirs from different countries sound different! This is caused by the fact that articulation is different in every language. German lies broadly in the mouth, and the cheeks are somewhat lifted, especially in syllables like ‘ich’ and ‘dich’. Compare that to French, which has a much more pointed articulation, with puckered lips, like in ‘oui’. English, especially British English, sounds much darker and rounder, like in ‘he’. American English has a more nasal quality. You can use similar analogies to teach singers to experiment with the placing of words in the mouth. You can ask them for instance to sound more British, or more German. Singing in different languages is certainly a good way to increase awareness in this area.

Finally some tips for working with choirs:

  • Make sure everyone is in the right voice section.
  • Sing or play the initial notes for every section in the right octave.
  • Practice the timing of final consonants: if the final letter is a ‘d ‘or ‘t’ you want to hear it only once.


If the repertoire offers room for improvisation your role as a band coach acquires a new dimension. Musicians with little experience in improvisation will need to overcome some hesitation before taking the first steps. First and foremost the players should feel safe. This can be achieved by stressing the fact that mistakes do not create any damage whatsoever, unlike in mountain climbing. In this stage you should add lots of positive energy and applaud every well-intentioned attempt.

You can also choose to challenge the soloist during his solo, by indicating that he can take it a bit higher or louder. Whether to walk amongst the band giving encouragement or whether sitting in a corner and giving feedback afterwards is a matter of intuition. The style of coaching is determined by the musicians and the personality of the coach himself. There are no hard and fast rules that have general validity.

Play or sing examples, keeping in mind that you use lines that the musicians would be able to invent and play themselves. As a teacher you should be able to assess the level of the player. If you play an overly virtuosic example chances are the pupil will feel intimidated and and doesn’t dare to make his own attempt. Rather, start by showing how minor variations on the melody already open up new pathways, or how you can tell a story by using only a minimum number of notes.

The repertoire should of course be chosen to fit the level of the band. Classic numbers for the first steps in improvisation are Blue Bossa, Summertime, Autumn Leaves, and of course also the blues should be featured in a beginners workshop. This kind of tune does not demand a great knowledge of chords and scales, although some aural demonstration of the relevant major, minor, blues or pentatonic scale will come in handy.

Where ensemble playing is concerned it is never too early to call attention to the importance of interaction in the band. The music becomes twice as enjoyable is people are listening and reacting to one another. Of course such a musical dialogue calls for reciprocal communication. If the soloist produces an avalanche of notes and never leaves a gap or plays some repeating accents the accompanists don’t get a chance. But if the space is left open and the accompanists are not alert enough it will also not work. In this situation you should be able to demonstrate what to play in order to challenge the accompanists to pick up on your ideas. The cues can be sought in rhythm, patterns, lines, in short all that you ever learned about melodic analysis. Keep it simple, and when working on this use and easy piece, or a very short chord progression. It is handy to have a number of recordings that illustrate this ensemble playing principle. In a jazz context: the album Smokin’ in the Pit by Steps Ahead is often cited as an example for advanced musicians, as is the album Live in Tokyo by Michel Petrucciani.

Technical aids

When a piece has been adequately rehearsed it is always a good idea to record it and listen back (together), either during the rehearsal or at home. The players can then focus all their attention on listening to their own part and the ensemble performance, and may offer valuable feedback. As a (non playing) band coach you can also hear other things because in the intensity of the sound details tend to get lost. Another advantage is that the form of the piece is laid down in the recording, so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel during the next rehearsal.

version it can be useful in between playing to check the original. Especially for the sense of tempo and groove such a reminder can effect an improvement in the performance.

back a recording over the PA mixer, be sure to have a cable with two cinch plugs to mini-jack at hand.

ool to let your musicians play on an unremitting external pulse. There are electronic devices and metronome apps for the smartphone, and you can play those too with the essential cable over the speakers in the rehearsal room. You can use it with a particular passage of a piece, but you can also do isolated exercises with it to work on the basic sense of rhythm.

able for visualizing tempo fluctuations. EasyBPM, for example, listens to the pulse and draws a fairly accurate tempo graph, which makes it easy to see in which parts the tempo is being rushed or held back.

ers can use at home to practice a passage in loops and a slower tempo are The Amazing Slowdowner or the competing Transcribe !.

can provide accompaniment is iRealPro. For example, if your bass player or drummer is unable to attend, you can substitute their part with iReal. There is of course no form of interaction, but such an app does continue tightly and tirelessly!