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April 1997 Rehearsals Improve with Effort and Planning, By Harry Begian

Over the years my graduate conducting students have frequently asked for specific suggestions on how to run a rehearsal effectively. Although most conductors eventually realize that rehearsals are where the bulk of musical progress occurs, few agree on the best approach to these sessions. In addition to maintaining discipline and attention in rehearsals, conductors also have to establish musical expectations and goals for the ensemble.
    In studying the score before each rehearsal, the conductor should decide what tempos, styles, and nuances are best for each section; anticipate the technical problems and think about the solutions; and identify the musical climaxes and how the composer approaches and leaves them. I suggest marking the score with a soft lead pencil, being careful not to obliterate important markings or to add so many comments that the score becomes difficult to read.
    The next step is to decide on the best approach for each piece, perhaps conducting through each score several times while singing. An hour of uninterrupted time just before a rehearsal will sharpen the focus on difficult passages or measures to anticipate what explanation, correction, or drill will help most.
    Print the rehearsal order on the chalkboard so everyone can arrange the music in rehearsal order. Either the first clarinet or trumpet should give the tuning note, but choose someone who will give a consistent pitch from one rehearsal to the next. The first clarinetist is often best suited for this task because the clarinet section is the largest in the band and students can more readily match a pitch from the same instrument. Only the player who sounds the pitch should use an electronic tuner before rehearsal in an effort to keep the tuning pitch consistent from one rehearsal to the next.
    Concert Bb and F are the best initial tuning pitches for a band. The person who plays the tuning notes should be in charge of preliminary tuning because it places responsibility on individual players. Until students learn to hear and correct pitch discrepancies, they will depend on the conductor for guidance. After the initial tuning the conductor can adjust individual sections and players before moving to a warm-up chorale with the entire band.
    Although many conductors use chorales as part of the warm-up, most fail to take advantage of the full musical potential of these works. By approaching warm-up chorales as demanding concert pieces, a director can sharpen the response to his conducting gestures and set an attentive mood for the rehearsal. Through visual contact and clear gestures during the chorale, a conductor can clean up the attacks, correct balance, indicate dynamic or tempo changes, add a tenuto, or improve releases.
    After the warm-up I often like to sight-read a short piece with enough technical demands to be a challenge. Marches are well suited for this purpose because they are technically and rhythmically challenging and span a wide dynamic range. The contrasting styles, tempos, and technical demands of a chorale and march during the warm-up are an excellent beginning for any rehearsal. The remainder of a rehearsal should proceed from the easiest to the most difficult pieces. Rehearse selected passages that need attention, but don’t feel obligated to play the entire work. It is always best to end a rehearsal with a piece the band likes and plays well so players leave feeling good about how the ensemble sounds, even if it was a difficult session.
    Try to make rehearsals fast-paced, serious, and focused entirely on making music. Corrections to the music should be made on the spot instead of leaving these for a player or section to correct later. After diagnosing a problem and offering a solution, students should play the passage again. If a problem persists after several attempts, leave it for a subsequent rehearsal. Conductors who spend an inordinate amount of time on one rhythmic, intonation, or technical problem simply waste time and raise the stress and tension levels often without correcting the passage. Any problem that continues for several rehearsals should be dealt with in sectionals or private sessions.
    Directors will save valuable rehearsal time by singing the correct rhythm, pitch, phrase, or nuance. Professional symphony orchestra conductors do this as the quickest and most efficient way to convey a concept to players. The quality of a rehearsal often depends on how well the conductor and players respond to each other. Only by concentrating on the music and using rehearsal time efficiently will they produce wonderful musical results. The conductor should act like a leader by setting the rehearsal pace and guiding players toward his interpretation of the score. A hard-working conductor will inspire players to match his example.
    One of the most important objectives is to unite the ensemble to pursue a common musical concept in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Although the primary purpose of a rehearsal may be to prepare music for performance, no matter how pressured by time, directors should seize every opportunity to compliment players in an honest and enthusiastic manner. With so much rehearsal time spent shaping, correcting, and stylizing music, any sincere compliments will be particularly welcome.
    The final part of a rehearsal is for the conductor to critically review what was accomplished by listening to a recording of the rehearsal in a quiet place. Always follow along with the score in hand to note any problems to work on in the next session. The tape will invariably capture some things that escaped detection during the rehearsal. It will also give an objective overview of how well the rehearsal went and enable the conductor to identify which rehearsal techniques were effective. In hearing the recording a conductor cannot help but evaluate his manner, pacing, and whether students responded to his remarks.
    If it is possible to videotape rehearsals, this shows what and how all gestures appeared to the players. A videotape makes it possible to judge the eye contact with players. Another type of evaluation is to invite a friend, colleague, mentor, or even a musical family member to critique a rehearsal or concert. Directors are usually too closely involved in the process to be completely objective. I also recommend inviting or hiring a competent conductor to rehearse the ensemble. Watching someone else work with an ensemble is generally more effective than reading written comments or listening to the taped commentary of three adjudicators at a contest or festival.
    By diligently preparing and studying scores before each rehearsal, conductors will develop convictions about the styles, tempos, phrasing, and nuance for the compositions, and rehearsals will move along quickly as players concentrate on producing good music.
    Through audio and video recordings, objective observers, and guest clinicians, directors can steadily improve their rehearsal skills. The level of concentration and commitment in rehearsals will increase directly in proportion to the competence, preparation, and judgment of the conductor.

Harry Begian has appeared as a conductor, adjudicator, and lecturer in the United States, Canada, and Australia and is director emeritus of the University of Illinois Bands.