Creating tuition plans

James Cavanagh in rehearsal with Symphonic Waves Youth Orchestra © Cormac McMahon.

Image: James Cavanagh in rehearsal with Symphonic Waves Youth Orchestra © Cormac McMahon.

A guide to getting started by James Cavanagh.

This guide offers advice on creating tuition plans based on the needs and strategic plans of non-professional orchestras, bands and other performing groups.

Organisations, both newer and well established, are recommended to create an overall tuition framework as part of their strategic planning. Of course, as the goals of the organisation change, it will be necessary to update tuition plans. From an initial focus on participation and building up the core membership, a growing organisation may decide to pursue musical ambitions like larger-scale performances, competitions, an exploration of contemporary repertoire, or collaborations with other ensembles. Such activities may require, for example, a greater focus on particular instrumental techniques or additional time spent on stage presence/choreography.

Generally speaking, the following topics should be addressed, aiming for a consistent approach across the orchestra/band/ensemble:

  • Repertoire
  • Instrumental technique, tone production and related exercises
  • Group playing
  • Theory/music reading and musicianship
  • Posture and well-being
  • Care and maintenance of instruments
  • Preparation for exams/competitions/performances
  • Practice techniques and expected commitment

In every case, it is preferable to avail of the expertise of a professional specialist teacher. In some situations it may also be appropriate to have experienced band/orchestra/ensemble members look after some areas e.g. theory/music reading and musicianship, care and maintenance of instruments. Inviting guest tutors to deliver occasional workshops to members can also be a very effective way to boost the skills and morale of members.

Regarding repertoire, in the case of beginner ensembles where individual expertise is not readily available, there is a multitude of some very fine tutors and books - all of which can be used for individual and class tuition. These aids are often curriculum based e.g:

  • Essential Elements for Strings - this series offers beginning students sound pedagogy and engaging music, all carefully paced to successfully start young players on their musical journey. These books can also be had for later grades.
  • Accent on Achievement for Beginner Wind Band - A large selection of carefully constructed approaches to development from beginner to grade 1. These books are also available at more advanced grades and are really useful for group incremental progress.

Tuition will ideally include a mix of individual/small group class, sectional rehearsals and full group rehearsals. Depending on the desired outcome, rehearsals are always more expedient and rewarding if groups are broken down into smaller sections - this environment is where relevant techniques can be explored and developed. If one is to push these ideals even further, individual tuition is the most desirable practice where individual students can develop at their own pace, and focus on instrumental technique, posture and practice techniques. In summary, the use of group and individual tuition to compliment the full ensemble development is an extremely valuable and productive exercise.

It should be made clear to all players that regular individual practice is required and informal small group practice sessions can also be suggested. In many cases, schools and music organisations store instruments on their premises. While this is a sensible protocol and a responsible action of the organisers, this places limitations on members’ practice. It is suggested that students should be provided with regular and preferably daily access to instruments in a group or individual capacity. Where possible, music students could be loaned instruments for a nominal sum and allowed access to take instruments home. There are many examples where this is a successful practice and currently in operation.

The following is a sample of the content for a standard weekly group rehearsal; as mentioned previously, the focus of tuition activities will be informed by the current goals of the organisation.


  • Instrumental warm-up exercises focusing on tonal development, intonation and ensemble.

Development of repertoire

  • Ideally there will be a variety of repertoire developed in each rehearsal. It is important to maintain a balance between necessary focus on particular sections of the band/orchestra/ensemble during rehearsals, while ensuring that other sections don’t feel disengaged during the rehearsal. Sectional rehearsals can deal with relevant issues particular to each group.

Break time

  • This is an important aspect of any extended rehearsal, giving players time to socialise and relax.

Recap of rehearsal activity

  • Specific tasks for each section/instrument group to focus on

Tuition aims and logistics will form an important part of an organisation’s strategic plan and will both inform the goals of the organisation and determine how those goals can be met. Having established the organisation’s tuition plans, activities can move forward on a structured basis while making the best use of available resources. As organisational aims and resources develop, so too will tuition arrangements.

James Cavanagh is one of Ireland's leading conductors and music educators. He is Head of Performing Groups at the Royal Academy of Music where he teaches Trumpet, lectures in conducting and conducts the RIAM Symphony and Intermediate Orchestras.