The Anatomy of a Rehearsal

Kenneth G. Bloomquist | April 2013

Editor’s Note: This was compiled from a series of articles that ran in The Instrumentalist from February-June 1981.

Rehearsal Room Atmosphere
    One objective of each rehearsal is that the ensemble should be able to do something at the end of the session that it couldn’t do at the beginning. This simple statement has implications that are surprisingly complex. By examining each phase of a rehearsal it is possible to come close to establishing the best way to get the most done in the shortest amount of time.
    Studies have shown that the environment has an effect on the way people work. Distractions, poor lighting, improper materials, even decor are some concerns.
    Keep a Clean and Carefully Arranged Rehearsal Room. This means that extra chairs and stands are stacked or removed, and musical instruments not in use should be properly stored. In other words the rehearsal setup should be as orderly as the set-up on the concert stage. Ideally, this would demand that the rehearsal room not be in use during the period prior to the rehearsal, but because this may not be possible, you may want to start the rehearsal a few minutes late while a few students set the stage for the efficient rehearsal.
    Maintain Proper Lighting. This is extremely important in an ensemble rehearsal. The musicians should not have to compromise posture and instrument position by leaning forward or squinting in order to see the music.
    Eliminate Outside Distractions. Personally, I like a room without windows. With windows uncovered, rehearsal efficiency can be affected by good or bad weather, visual activity outside, and noise. Drapes or Venetian blinds are a simple solution to the problem, and in some cases they improve the acoustical properties of the room as well. Placing the ensemble with their backs to the windows is also possible.
    Eliminate a Visible Clock. Ideally, time should fly in a rehearsal. Realistically this won’t happen for all performers all of the time, but clock watching in rehearsals does not help the music unless the clock is used as a metronome. You should keep track of the time or have the concertmaster keep you informed.
    Designate Areas for Storage of Books, Coats, and Instrument Cases During Rehearsals. This can be a problem in many rooms depending on the availability of space. Do not permit material other than that necessary for the rehearsal to be taken to the chair in the rehearsal room. It is messy, distracting, and provides the means for some to concentrate on other matters. Solving this problem in some rehearsal rooms may be perplexing, but it is important enough to insist on a solution.
    Have Students Maintain a Decorum As They Enter the Rehearsal Room. Students must realize that they are special people doing a special job requiring a special room. Dignity and seriousness of purpose should prevail in a rehearsal. The degree to which this can be accomplished is probably directly proportionate to the pride ot the students and the influence of the conductor. It can set the tone for the work about to be done.
    Rehearsal atmosphere can be ignored and good rehearsal; results may still be possible. But if better results can be achieved with attention to rehearsal room atmosphere, then that atmosphere must be examined and properly adjusted. Just as a church uses soft music and lighting to aid a quiet, prayerful entry into the worship service, just as a factory uses background music to provoke efficiency, just as a football team uses the crowd, marching band, and cheerleaders to motivate the team, so the conductor must use the atmosphere of the rehearsal room to benefit an efficient rehearsal.

Warm Up
    The warmup and tuning phase of the rehearsal usually reveals the philosophy, maturity, training techniques, and attitudes of a conductor. It is at this time when the self-discipline and practice habits of the ensemble and the influence of the conductor are most evident.
    Various research projects, papers, and books have validated the fact that pitch will vary on instruments relative to the rehearsal room temperature and as a result of warming up. Therefore, warming up first is necessary to be able to tune reliably.
    The warmup should be done either individually or within the ensemble with prescribed direction and pace. The warmup should make it possible for each player to execute every facet of necessary performing ability — range, facility, tone, dynamics, attack, etc.
    Individual warmup is probably the preferred method for the simple reason that each player can proceed at his own pace and in his own way; however it is not feasible because there is not enough time in a typical school rehearsal schedule and unfortunately, many students do not have the ability or self-discipline to warmup properly. The following steps can be used for ensemble warmup.
    •  Step 1 (30-60 seconds). Sound concert Bb using a tuning device, clarinet, oboe, or trumpet and then have the students match the pitch. This is not the time for tuning but the moment when the ensemble finds a pitch center from which to proceed.
    •  Step 2 (2-3 minutes). Perform a chorale, march, alma mater, or any short selection with the following characteristics: no extreme registers, full ensemble scoring, and dynamic levels that permit individuals to hear themselves.
    •  Step 3 (2-3 minutes). Play something in a contrasting style. If the warmup music was a chorale with concentration on tone and legato style playing, conclude with either a short selection that focuses on articulation or play unison pitches, chords, or scales with specified attack patterns. If the warmup number was a march, perform long tones or sustained chords, scales, or chorales that emphasize tone quality and legato playing. This warmup schedule takes only five to seven minutes. Ideally, this is not enough time, but it is realistic for most rehearsal schedules and it should permit reasonably reliable tuning.

    Ensemble tuning can take from a few minutes to a few hours, and many musicians have probably observed a rehearsal where every moment was used for tuning. While this is easy to understand and might be justifiable in some cases, it may not be the wisest use of an entire rehearsal. There are some basic ideas that are primary to understanding the problem of tuning.
    •  The student must know when he is out of tune in order to be able to play in tune.
    •  Almost everyone can learn to play in tune and recognize pitch variance.
    •  A student must learn the tuning peculiarities of his particular instrument. For example, flutes tend to be sharp in the upper register, trumpets are flat on D4, etc. When learning how to tune and in practicing tuning, students should know which pitches tend to be sharp or flat on their particular instrument, and the conductor must know all of the many tuning peculiarities for every instrument.
    •  Students should not be afraid or concerned if occasionally they are unable to decide whether a pitch is sharp or flat. Tone quality, for instance, can make tuning more difficult at times. The problem can be alleviated by making larger tuning adjustments, i.e., going very sharp or very flat before returning to the pitch center. For example, valve brasses can pull out their tuning slides and then slide up to arrive at the pitch center, much like a trombone.
    •  Be aware of the effect of rehearsal room temperature on tuning. In a room below 70° F it is difficult to stay in tune because the instruments will cool off quickly when they are not played constantly.
    The longer brass and woodwind instruments are played, the sharper the pitch tends to be, up to a point. This degree of sharpness will vary for each family of instruments.
    Here is a tuning procedure you can follow:
    •  Step 1. Sound concert Bb. If you are not using an electronic or fixed pitch device, have the solo clarinet, oboe, or trumpet sound the pitch while watching a stroboscope. It is unreasonable to expect the first chair player at any level, public school or university, to always give a perfect tuning pitch.
    •  Step 2. Have the woodwinds and the horns match this pitch. Each member must play loud enough to hear himself but soft enough to permit others to hear themselves.
    •  Step 3. Sound concert Bb again and have the brasses, minus the horns match the pitch. Again, the students should be asked to be dynamically astute.
    •  Step 4. Sound concert A for the string bass and for further tuning of the woodwinds and horns.
    •  Step 5. Play an unmeasured scale slowly to further establish the pitch center on more than one or two notes.
    •  Step 6. If time permits and the ability of the ensemble warrants it, play a chorale or series of chords to further establish good intonation on something other than unison or octave  exercises.   (Of course, this technique should also be used in the context of the music being rehearsed.)
    I also often tune a particular troublesome note or chord in the first selection to be rehearsed, or take time to point out tuning problems in a particular register of a specific instrument. In other words the tuning process can be continued. In fact I think it should go on, but within the context of the rest of the rehearsal.
    Ensembles bored with the routine of predictable warmups and tuning are, unfortunately, all too common. Challenging and interesting warmup material executed by the conductor with purpose and enthusiasm is essential. Tuning that isolates problems and identifies individuals who are in error is mandatory if tuning is to be meaningful. This is the conductor’s first moment of truth in the rehearsal. He must evaluate pitch, be able to state the direction of pitch change, and reverse a decision if he’s called it wrong.
    The director’s constant analysis of tuning and his willingness to realize that there is always something to learn about the subject is essential for the growth and effectiveness of both the conductor and his ensemble.

Problem Solving
    The main portion of most rehearsals (after the warmup and tuning) is usually spent in problem solving with the intended result being the making of music. There are many ways to solve problems. The method outlined here represents one approach with the ideas being adaptable to any routine.
    There is one truth that must be accepted before this portion of the rehearsal can be considered a success: At the end of the rehearsal, the ensemble must be able to perform something better than they could at the beginning of the rehearsal. This accomplishment might consist only of a technically difficult four measures, a complex rhythmic figure, or the tuning of intervals in a passage involving extreme registers. Whatever it is, it must be improvement that is obvious to all participants. In other words, the rehearsal must be worth having and worth attending.
    Before the downbeat is given, the following considerations should be checked.
    Music Stand Height. Is it high enough for the player to look at the music and see the conductor, at least with peripheral vision? (Marches printed on quick-step size paper may be paper clipped to the top of the folder in order to facilitate eye contact.)
    Players Per Music Stand. Are there more than two people per stand? There should not be if correct body position and instrument position is desirable. The instrument, eyes, and body should be facing the conductor.
    Posture. Is the body in a position forward on the chair, sitting erect, with the knees down and the legs relaxed with both feet on the floor) that permits maximum attention to the requirements of the rehearsal?
    To illustrate the correct placement of a music stand, ask the musicians to put their instruments in playing position and to look at the last note of the first selection to be rehearsed. Then raise your baton within the conducting field, and ask the musicians if they can see the baton without looking at it (peripheral vision). If they cannot see the baton ask them to adjust their music stands or body position so they can.
    Begin the rehearsal (after the warmup and tuning) by playing a selection, or part of a selection, as close as possible to the designated tempo. After playing a passage the analytical phase of the rehearsal begins. The key word is isolate. Identify the elements of the music by isolating them and pointing out the problems to the students. Assume the band has played through a traditional march and is going to rehearse by practicing only the first few measures. Isolate the component parts of those measures.
    First Attack. Did everyone start together? Did the musicians take a rhythmic breath with the preparatory beat? It is important to know that the air stream on wind instruments should not be stopped or frozen before release. The air never stops moving.
    Balance. Is every chord heard in such a way that no single pitch can be heard more than another? (Of course melodic and occasional harmonic considerations may alter this equality.) I usually balance chords by starting with the lower pitches and building to the soprano instruments. You will most likely find yourself asking for more volume from the middle or alto line or second and third part instruments and less from the first or top soprano line instruments. A good rehearsal device is to play an alia breve march in slow 44 time or the quick 68 march in a slow six beats per measure. When doing this, listen only for the balance of parts.
    Blend. Direct your attention to the instrumental blend by listening for tone qualities that do not fit the ensemble sonority. Bad blend or tone quality can often be mistaken for bad balance — and certainly the two can be interrelated. It is in this phase that the conductor must identify individuals and initiate remedial work. If a student’s tone quality cannot be changed, it may be necessary to ask the individual to play softer than is indicated in the music. This need not be a demeaning experience for the student, it is simply a corrective action, the same as correcting wrong notes, rhythmic mistakes, and intonation problems. The sonority of the entire ensemble is largely dependent on this isolated area.
    Tuning. It is important for musicians to know what the chords sound like when they are played in tune. Whatever tuning reference is used make sure it is in tune before starting to tune intervals and chords. I often use the tuba as the starting point. It is common for that instrument to go sharp after a “heated” rehearsal, but it is advisable to check the pitch on an electrical tuning device before beginning the process. When musicians do hear a chord in tune it is usually easier for them to repeat it by doing what they did again (lipping up or down) and listening for that gorgeous in-tune sound.
    Style. This area is too often ignored as an ensemble technique, particularly if there are strong lead players executing their parts correctly. It is mandatory to know which style is required – detached, legato, cantabile, classical, romantic, baroque, etc. – and find an example to imitate. Sloppy or inconsistent execution of style separates the good band from the great band. Conductors usually take special note to find out the style of a selection, to understand it, and to be prepared to make value judgments as to its execution during the course of rehearsal and performance.
    Phrasing. The shaping of a phrase is too often confined to starting and stopping the band together. Though this is important it should not be the only end result of good phrasing. The conductor needs to teach all aspects of phrasing, (including breathing, dynamics, accent, emphasis, tension, release, and precision), being sure that those who are playing non-melodic lines also know where the phrases are. These players then must feel the melodic progression and shape their lines the same as the melodic phrase.
    Playing Facility. Conductors must be concerned with getting correct notes at the correct time. The danger is being satisfied with correct execution as the end result. Actually it is the beginning of making music.
    After isolating these components the band should be able to execute a musical phrase perfectly. If the music isn’t performed as well as the finest ensemble, further remedial action and work is required. It may be impractical or unnecessary to emphasize each isolated component in each measure of each selection. Transfer of learning and musical expertise may negate the need for continuous isolation. It is important to be prepared to diagnose trouble, isolate the problem, solve it, and get on with the rehearsal.

Content and Planning
    Some of the many factors influencing the content of a rehearsal include the age of the members, the length of the rehearsal, the difficulty and the style of the repertoire, the proximity of the rehearsal to the concert, and the performance ability of the musicians. Consider the following plan, based on 60 minutes of rehearsal:

Section I. Warmup and Tuning (10 minutes)
    It should be mentioned that the students’ schedules prior to the rehearsal will determine the content of this section. If individual warmup and tuning time is available, this section can be short. If warmup and tuning can be done only in rehearsal, this section will need to be longer.

Section II. Problem Solving (30 minutes)
    If all execution problems have been solved, more rehearsal time could be spent on other sections. If problem solving is needed, here are some points to consider.
    •  Don’t work too long on a seemingly impossible passage. Repetitive, shorter drills accomplished during many rehearsals may be a better way.
    •  Don’t spend too much time with only a part of your ensemble. You could bore and lose the others quickly.
    •  If all players are involved and progress is evident, extensive time can be spent on isolated
    •  Don’t let individuals hide. Ask your students to play alone, in pairs, or small groups. They must realize they are all equally important.
    •  Don’t stop unless there is a problem; and each time you do stop, express a specific, clear, and concise reason.
    •  Don’t be too talkative; let your baton say it.
    •  Recognize accomplishments and establish new goals.

Section III. Reviewing and Solidifying Material (15 minutes)
    This section of the rehearsal is usually the most enjoyable because everyone feels the results of their musical efforts.
    Playing through the portion of the music that has just been drilled will solidify the problem solving that has just taken place. It provides proof of accomplishment.
    Continue to play the repertoire that has been learned in the past days and weeks. If reviewing is not done on a regular basis, problems which were once solved will soon need to be solved again.
    As the run-through takes place, continue to point out melody lines, supporting lines, harmonic structure, counter-melody, form, style, etc., working toward student understanding of the repertoire.
    This process is sometimes called “routining” because it permits the musician to develop reliable performance habits based on a familiar routine that leads to self-confidence. If the performer can execute the repertoire with a degree of relaxation, then thought can be directed to the real task of musical expression.

Section IV. Sightreading (5 minutes)
    This aspect of music making is of great importance for the performer, particularly when auditioning for ensembles at the high school, college, or professional level. Most auditioners, conductors, and teachers equate the person who is a good sightreader with the one who will require a minimum of rehearsal to achieve a high level of performance. Although this is not necessarily true for every performer, there is evidence to support the practice of evaluating a musician’s capabilities through sight-reading. It should be included in a daily rehearsal routine. The ability to sightread effectively can be learned by most musicians. Here are some considerations that must be brought to the sightreader’s attention,
    Rhythm. The single, most important aspect of effective sightreading is comprehending the rhythm. To practice, set your instrument aside, and concentrate on the notes alone. Set a tempo and use a single pitch to sing the rhythm.
    Facility. Limited technique hampers sightreading ability. If the player comprehends the rhythm, it is then important to keep the tempo going and “fake” through the notes until adequate facility is gained.
    Reading Ahead. The musician’s eye movement must be steady, always looking a few notes to a measure or more ahead of the notes being played. If a mistake is made, the player should not look back to see what went wrong, or his problems will increase.
    Posture and Position. It is essential that the musician use every aid at his disposal.
    A Check List. Scan the following before sightreading: key signature, time signature, tempo, repeat signs (Coda, Dal Segno, and Da Capo), style indicators (Maestoso, Grazioso, Grave, etc.), dynamics, and problem areas (rhythm patterns, unusual intervals, awkward fingerings, accidentals, phrasing, and range).
    With some practice this scanning can be done in a matter of minutes. It is important to practice the technique of preparing to sightread before the actual challenge of playing the music at first reading.
    The time frames for each of these four sections of a rehearsal can be shortened or lengthened to suit the conductor, based on the performance needs at the moment. It is my belief that all the sections should be used at each meeting. Close attention to content and planning will provide the excitement, challenge, accomplishment, tension and relaxation which should be a part of every rehearsal.

Conductor Concerns
    Special attention is given to the rehearsal conductor in this final part of the “Anatomy of a Rehearsal.” The conductor’s intelligence, talent, organizational skill, knowledge of the profession, and courage to honestly self-evaluate are measured in the degree of success or failure of the ensemble rehearsal. These obvious concerns are identified to complete this anatomy.
    Knowledge of the Literature. It should go without saying that the conductor should know the score. Faking with little more than a beat pattern, is not enough. The score should be researched, studied, and marked to assure a meaningful rehearsal. Research should include knowledge of the composer, period, and style, as well as performance requirements peculiar to the selection.
    Organizing the Rehearsal. The conductor should plot each phase of the rehearsal, identifying goals and planning their accomplishment. The informed conductor should be able to anticipate the problems that will be encountered in a rehearsal and be aware of the time needed to be spent on each. Understanding the score and knowing the ensemble’s weaknesses will help the director to plan an efficient rehearsal.
    Pace. Keeping the rehearsal moving is important. Good pacing is directly related to the conductor’s leadership skills and effectiveness in dealing with people. The conductor’s unique personality as well as complete preparation and planning for rehearsals is important. Look around at the faces in your rehearsal room and have the courage to assess your effectiveness. Pace could be a factor.
    Percussion Section. It is awkward to isolate a section as needing attention. However, anyone with public school experience knows the percussion section is of common concern. The playground atmosphere of the fascinating equipment is a natural environment for non-musical activity. Organization is essential and prescribing the exact arrangement of instruments is just as important for the percussion as it is for the winds. Choosing a percussion section leader and assigning jobs to individual section members is a director’s responsibility that requires careful consideration. Provide extra chairs for percussionists not involved in a particular selection.
    Self-Evaluation. Much evaluation is left up to the annual contest rating, but regular self-evaluation can serve as one facet of an ongoing analysis of personal effectiveness. Conductors, you should have the courage to listen to recordings and compare what you hear with the sounds coming from your band, go to conventions and concerts and listen honestly, go to contests and take what is coming to you, invite proven conductors to work with your ensembles, change rehearsal techniques and/or examine your philosophy of education if things are not working, and invite student evaluation.
    There are many ways to improve. These are some. Good luck.