The “Pass-Around” Ensemble Exercise

The “Pass-Around” Ensemble Exercise

Individual accountability is essential in creating a great-sounding band. I often observe band directors who have a well thought out warm-up and fundamental curriculum, but their students only play as an ensemble, rarely as individuals or as sections during this part of the rehearsal. The result is often the reinforcement of bad habits rather than developing good ones. The pass-around exercise is an excellent way to introduce higher accountability.

Primary purposes

·       To increase awareness regarding variations in pitch, volume, tonal energy, and tone color;

·       To help students understand that dynamics often affect pitch;

·       To help students learn how to manipulate changes in dynamics without altering pitch.

The “pass-around” is a wonderful tool for keeping students engaged and accountable for their contribution to the ensemble both as individuals and as a member of their sections. The pass-around exercise illustrated here employs an “overlap” approach whereby each new instrument that enters overlaps the previous section by a measure. Before using this count structure, it is recommended that the teacher simplify the exercise where each section plays by itself, one after the other, without overlapping in an effort to draw the student’s attention first to his responsibility to his section to play with good tone and in tune. This “back-to-back” approach exposes clarity of note starts (“attacks”), volume, steadiness of tone production, and an infinite array of other sonic characteristics that will continue to reveal themselves as the students and the teacher listen and react with increasingly critical ears. A metronome, audible to the ensemble without overpowering, is suggested to shift the responsibility for instant response to the individual players.

Once a satisfactory level of achievement has been reached, then the ensemble can take full advantage of the overlapping count structure as illustrated here. Now the students shift their focus from themselves and their individual sections to the responsibility of matching pitch and volume from instrument to instrument. When the teacher feels comfortable that students’ awareness and their ability to adjust pitch and balance is adequate, it’s time to move on to the “dovetail” pass-around.

The Dovetail Pass-Around

Introduce this exercise with the full ensemble playing in unison before passing from section to section. Establish and sustain the pp dynamic level (or whatever level is appropriate) then the f dynamic, being certain that the students are not outside the boundaries of an acceptable tone. In other works, avoid allowing them to play too softly or too strongly if the core to the sound is lost. Once those limits have been established, have the ensemble shape the changes in volume in unison to define the rate of volume change. The following 12-count visual reference is offered:


Intuitively, most students will visualize the crescendo and sustained forte as illustrated in counts 1 through 9 above. However, visualizing an ascending decrescendo as shown serves several functions. First, it suggests an energetic decrescendo in that any ascending object resists gravity, requiring an active approach to getting softer rather than a passive one. Second, it suggests visually that the pitch must remain constant (a problem most commonly encountered by young flute players who often play flat as they play softer). In a back-to-back “dovetail” pass-around, we have the following visual reference:


The above illustrates how sensitively the players must match the pp release (or whatever is determined to be the appropriate dynamic) to the pp start of the next sections. Again, when a satisfactory level of achievement is reached (and this may take anywhere from accumulated hours to weeks of rehearsal) the teacher may then introduce the dovetail pass-around as an overlapping exercise, as notated previously and now illustrated below:


The color of the parallelogram matches the corresponding colored dynamic marking. The illustration suggests that as one section decreases in volume, another supports it with the energy of its crescendo. When first practiced, the most obvious inconsistency will be that of pitch fluctuation as one section becomes softer while another becomes stronger. (Hold your ears! This takes some time and patience!)

Ultimately, the goal is to increase our students’ awareness and align their priorities more closely with ours, the teacher-conductor.  This basic model, the pass-around, can be applied to individuals with a section rehearsal, to short phrases of a chorale, or to excerpts from the concert program, all in an effort to help our students reach ownership of their contribution to the ensemble.

These and other topics will be the subject of future System Blue tips. As always, if you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troyka at