Rehearsal Tiers : A Guide To Goal Oriented Rehearsals

Rehearsal Tiers : A Guide To Goal Oriented Rehearsals

Tiers of Rehearsals

Written for Strings By Mail by guest blogger Thomas Byers. Thomas is the Director of Guitar studies at Northland Prep Academy and founder of the Thomas Byers Guitar Studio, LLC.

These are simple parameters for engaging in and finalizing a piece of ensemble music. The three tiers create targets for both instructors and students to hit.

Tier I (foundations)

Tier I focuses on low-level work or fundamentals. Students and instructors should sharpen all the material in Tier I so that Tier II can focus on the important, dimension-full, and enriching work of expression.

  • Fingering

    Each piece of music creates its own challenges in both physical and artistic execution. Below is a simple diagram to arrive at the most useful fingering. Instructors should be assisting with interpretive fingers consistently and double checking student lead fingerings.

    Does this fingering support the interpretation?
    YES: Continue
    NO: Start over, please

    Can you physically execute the passage with reasonable success?
    YES: Sweet, keep it!
    NO: Continue

    Can you alter the fingering to make it simpler without sacrificing the interpretation?
    YES: Sweet, you are good to go!
    NO: Consider a simpler piece or simpler part that will build your confidence and physical development.
  • Rhythm

    All rhythms should be understood at a slower tempo first and then at tempo. Don’t forget, a theoretical understanding is nice but does not guarantee feel. Demonstrating rhythms by rote is a big help!

  • Pitches

    Even with fingerings, sometimes positions may be wrong or small errors with accidentals or key signatures can happen. “Stumble” through the piece to insure correct pitches.

  • Tempo Changes/Structure

    Larger frameworks always help students work through material. They also reinforce what will happen in tier II and gives great starting and ending points for students to isolate and conquer.

Tier II (expression)

This tier focuses on interpretation and expression, which are the stepping stones towards a polished piece of music.

  • Cultural/Historical Context

    Expanding the instructor’s and the student’s perception of the piece is critical towards a more meaningful interpretation. Feeling connected to the piece provides the backdrop for enriching and fulfilling work.

    This is a great opportunity as well to reach out to living composers. You’d be surprised how happy they are to talk with you and perhaps even video call into your classroom.

  • Interpretation

    Within interpretation lie the tools for expression as outlined below. Note: Tier I fingerings suggest interpretation as well. Fingerings may be changed as a larger, and clearer interpretation is discovered by the students and instructor.

  • Phrasing

    Phrasing happens on two levels, the microscopic and the macroscopic. On the smaller level, each segment or line of music can have its own contour and on a larger level, broad musical statements deserve a thoughtful contour as well. The larger statements do usually move in four bars, but students and instructors should investigate and verify.

  • Dynamics

    Think exaggeration. Dynamics are the main tool for shaping a phrase, creating contrast, and bringing dimension to a piece. If dynamics are written in, great. If not, using the idea of phrasing can give solid parameters for good dynamics.

  • Color Contrast

    Darks, smooths, warms, brights, and so on should be applied where the interpretation supports it. Usually, color is used to create contrast; this is beyond dynamics and other articulation markings like diminuendos, accelerandos, etc. This should also be done collectively, where the instructor provides guidance and experience.

Tier III (total command)

This tier focuses on execution of the tier II, where the students are central and the conductor is not.

  • Chamber Setting

    Students should be able to perform the ensemble piece with one student per part and on a rotating basis from there. This insures confidence, execution under pressure, opportunities to adjust small errors, and a chance for clear listening for other parts, especially for students not performing in that rotation!

    Give much time for this segment to come to fruition and be sure the learning environment is supportive and free of stress. Pressure does not equal stress.

  • Conductor-less

    At the pinnacle of preparedness, the ensemble should know the material so well, should be aware of musical cues so clearly, and be able to adapt their playing to the group so easily, that the conductor becomes obsolete. That is when an ensemble can react to the conductor on a whim, i.e., the line between conductor and ensemble disappears.

  • Audience Impression

    If the ensemble can’t engage an audience then the fruits of their labor become thin and rather uninspiring. Recording for self-reflection and sending off for feedback, performing for peer groups, performing in public and focusing on impacting the audience leads to the most real-world and beneficial performance experience imaginable.

  • The Always Cloud

    There are concepts that should always be at the attention of the student and the instructor.

  • Tone Production

    As I once saw on a bumper sticker, “life is too short for bad tone.” Enough said.

  • Professional-Level Technique

    The fundamental technique should reflect that of the finest performers in the world. This must be approached from day one and should constantly be expected and implored by the students and the instructors.

  • Listening

    To paraphrase Abel Carlevaro:
    The student’s ability to listen to themselves is the surest way for their improvement.

    Not only that, but listening skills help develop confidence with musical cues, phrasing, anticipation of form, and the list goes on.


This simple guide is just that, simple. The complexities of classroom teaching can often override the best intentions. Let your students know where they are to go, how they are to get there, and above all, try and let them drive as often as possible.

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