A Basic Strategy for Rehearsing
A common fault with many conductors’ rehearsal techniques is to start to pick things apart too quickly. This is done with the best of intentions – we just want to make it better – but it can be inefficient and frustrating for the musicians. Even when the group is less experienced (and assuming you have chosen repertoire suitable for their level) in many cases the players will realise they have made an error and understand how to correct it. They don’t need the conductor to stop the whole ensemble and point it out, they just need the chance to play it again.
An ideal approach might be to play the piece or movement through, making a mental list of all the things that need fixed. Then, after 1 or 2 brief general remarks, play it again. On this second time through, you are ticking-off the items on your mental list as they are fixed. Hopefully, you will have played a part in solving problems – perhaps cueing somebody who didn’t enter correctly, or indicating more clearly a rallentando. If someone corrects a wrong pitch you can make eye contact to show that you noticed the initial mistake and acknowledge its correction. In this way you are already “rehearsing” in the second time through; it is a very efficient use of time; and the psychology of allowing the players to fix their own errors (whilst making clear that you were aware of them) is very powerful.
Going through this process also helps greatly with one of the most challenging aspects of rehearsing: prioritisation. You can easily find that, for example, there were 10 mistakes first time through. The players, with your help, fix 7 of those on the second time through. The 3 things that are still not correct are the things you now need to focus on. Prioritisation done!
You can now go straight to these places and play slowly, or with less people. Which approach to choose will depend on the situation, and you will get better at making this judgement. A combination of the two is also a possibility. When you start to work in this way, follow the advice above on how to talk to the ensemble: who are you talking to; where are you talking about; what do you want them to do differently expressed in a positive and brief manner.
Never underestimate the benefit of rehearsing under tempo. Even world class orchestras playing familiar repertoire find this useful. Leonard Bernstein used to say:
“When you have no time, rehearse slowly.”
Counter-intuitive at first glance, but his point was that you can often achieve more by playing something once at 75% of the tempo, than by playing it twice at full tempo. This is a time-saver not a time-waster. Most of the time, if you take something at two thirds of the actual tempo it will feel extremely slow. Inside tip: this will help your conducting as well. There is more time to think about phrasing, dynamics, articulation and other nuance if the tempo is reduced.
Playing with less people is particularly useful with young and inexperienced musicians for two reasons. Firstly, in the early stages there might be a lot of mistakes! Sometimes it can be difficult to process this and work out where to start. Cutting down the number of people playing by asking for only the brass, or just the bass line, or all the people with the melody, can make this task much easier. Secondly, with young players stamina and concentration levels are a factor. As you are hopefully following our advice about playing lots and not wasting time with too much talking, there might be a need for young players to have a bit of a rest. Working with just some sections acts as a “mini-break” for others.
Strategies for Rehearsal
(Allow around 10 minutes for this activity)
Reflect on the advice given above and summarise three options for rehearsal and the reasons for them.
I hope you came up with the following three options, although you may of course have phrased them differently:
- Play it again (this increases familiarity and encourages players to take personal responsibility for correcting errors)
- Play it slowly (particularly helpful to sort out pitch, rhythm and intonation as well as highlighting many other details more clearly)
- Play it with less people (increases awareness of who else is playing the same line and who to listen to)