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January 1977 Unforgettable Lessons from Leopold Stokowski

We were all there. The University of Miami Symphony Orchestra, rehearsed, capable, and hot. The concert was to take place the following weekend, and our guest conductor for the occasion had just arrived. Leopold Stokowski. He stood quietly on the podium, dignified, powerful, and with the awe of us all surrounding him. He was being introduced by John Bitter, our regular (not to say ordinary) conductor and former pupil of Maestro Stokowski. The day was especially hot and the introduction, because of the circumstance and association, extra long. Accolades like “superior musician” and “pioneer” began to make their way back to the trumpet section where I sat. “Inspirational,” they continued, “influential.” The maestro looked down at the music (among other pieces, this concert was to feature the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4). His face was expressionless, the thin strands of white hair in careful disarray.

   Finally the introduction came to an end. Mr. Stokowski was presented to us, and the applause burst forth from the orchestra with a spontaneity and obvious sincerity that impressed me very much. We waited for the acknowledgement from the maestro. A “thank you” for certain, followed by the usual “nice to be here” and perhaps a story or two of the Stokowski-Bitter association that would start the rehearsal off on a cordial and familiar footing. We waited. Still, the gaunt, lined face looked at the stand. Silence. Then, the head finally lifted and he spoke: “Tchaikovsky please, 1st movement.” After that, things happened so fast our heads spun. No one had his music ready, and the resulting shuffle of parts was clearly annoying to Maestro Stokowski. “Letter A,” was followed all but simultaneously by a downbeat. Letter A? Half of us hadn’t found our music yet. The trumpet section, never noted for being on top of things, grumbled the loudest.
   Well, it went on like that for the entire week. We were angry at first, half at Mr. Stokowski for moving at an intolerable speed and half at ourselves for letting his half make us angry. The second rehearsal found us determined to stay with him, and towards the end of it we were all speed readers. You would have thought Evelyn Wood was on the podium. Well, it got better and better. Rehearsals became a challenge, and the intensity with which Mr. Stokowski approached each note began to be infused in us as well. Everything improved. Everything! As this transformation was taking place, I began to develop a warm affection for him. He had a technique of rehearsal I had never seen before. It moved very fast but always with a purpose. We soon learned to stop when he did, for the direction (which soon supplanted correction) was only given once.
By concert time, we were all inspired  as we had never been before, and speaking for myself, as I have not been since. The concert was outstanding. I have played many concerts since, but will remember that one above all others.
   That was almost twenty years ago, and I think the principle still holds. Maestro Stokowski had shown us not only outstanding musicianship, not only total dedication to his art, not only inspirational leadership, but a rehearsal technique as well. It was a technique that was comfortable to him, and one he made comfortable for us. When I decided to move from performance in the trumpet section to conducting, it soon became apparent to me that knowledge of the music and ideas on its interpretation were not enough. The how of music making is also crucial. In short, a personal rehearsal technique is a part of one’s conducting musicianship that must be practiced, developed, and natural.
   A reporter once asked Spencer Tracy if he had any advice to give young, aspiring actors; some wisdom he had gleaned from all his experience; some pearl that would inspire the neophyte to stick in there, no matter what. Tracy’s answer? “Learn your lines.” The same is obviously true for us. Nothing, no rehearsal technique, no pyrotechnical baton technique, no amount of dramatic words and gestures will save a rehearsal for which we are not prepared. Leopold Stokowski’s dramatic entrance into our first rehearsal years ago would be recalled as so much charlatanism if he had not immediately shown himself to be the consummate musician he is. So let’s leave that as understood. Learn your music; know it thoroughly. Only after that can you start thinking about your rehearsal techniques.
   The technique of rehearsing an ensemble is often either taken for granted or overlooked altogether. How many times have we tossed off an unproductive rehearsal as “just one of those days,” or found fault with the members, or blamed it all on the low pressure area that was settling over the community. I have heard them all and, like you, have used those excuses and probably others. The fact is, however, bad rehearsals are almost invariably the fault of the person on the podium.
How to avoid it? The first step would seem to be an admission that all rehearsals will not be jewels. You will not receive that warming shuffle of feet each time you finish. There will still be times when your members will be looking at the clock after only fifteen minutes of the rehearsal have passed. Next, have a plan, a style if you will, and follow it. Schedules and personalities are different, of course, and one plan will not work for all. However, some plan will work, some variant, if practiced prior to the rehearsal.
   I think it best if I tell you what I do during the rehearsal rather than suggest something for you to try. First of all, I keep the hour immediately prior to the rehearsal free, allowing nothing save an emergency situation to interrupt. During this time I map out specifically those things I want to accomplish during the rehearsal. I mean pieces, movements, rehearsal numbers, and specific notes of specific instruments in those specific places. If letter A is a problem, we start there. What’s the matter? Intonation? (Always.) Balance? (Often.) Trumpets have the wrong music up? (All too frequent.) An immediate attack on a problem starts the rehearsal off on a footing that says at least two things to the ensemble: (1) we’re under way, and I (the orchestra member) had better be ready, (2) the conductor has rehearsed his score and is ready for this rehearsal. Am I? Nothing will inspire your members to the careful preparation of their parts faster than your demonstration of the careful preparation of your score, which they will realize, contains all their parts. When you encourage them to practice their parts by themselves, you are in addition strongly implying, “because I’ve practiced mine.”
   Once a score has been thoroughly worked on with respect to the ensuing rehearsal and the purposes of the rehearsal established, I write it down. I’ve found that it’s a big help to write the order of the rehearsal on a separate sheet of paper which I place on a stand to the side of the podium. By order, I mean the priority of things to be done. In my preparation for the rehearsal, I list rehearsal spots in the order they occur, going back later to number them according to their importance for that particular rehearsal. But having carefully organized my rehearsal into areas of priority, I studiously avoid trying to cover everything on that sheet. It’s for reference, and I feel that allocating specific amounts of time to each area is too frustrating for me. Sometimes I get well into the list, other times only to the second or third item.
   This ties in with something else that is really the crux of my rehearsal procedure: A rehearsal must be kept moving at all times. Anytime you find yourself in a situation where you can’t say anything constructive (which of course includes praise for a job well done) and find yourself either at a loss for something to say or reduced to the giveaway phrase “let’s do it again from the beginning,” your rehearsal is lost for the day, and everything, most of all the music, will be better served if you close it up and go home. Keep it moving! For example, I make it a practice to begin talking immediately after indicating that we are stopping. It serves several purposes. One, that the comment or correction is important enough to stop for. Two, that, by speaking to it immediately, I have attached a certain amount of urgency to it, and by not letting anything else enter their minds between playing and correcting, I have probably avoided a slump, however slight, in the energy of the rehearsal. Also, I rarely stop for obvious errors. The error of a missed note, or entrance is apparent to all, and time is lost by stopping to underline it. Repeated offenses of the same nature require attention, of course. And, errors of intonation, however obvious, are corrected immediately; not grimaced or laughed at; and certainly not passed off with a generalized correction of “you’re out of tune.” This latter evasion is simply an admission that you don’t hear it any more critically than that. Rather, a short, decisive indication of whether the person is flat or sharp is given immediately.
   Also, when a problem area has been isolated and the section(s) identified, we all have those performers try their parts alone right then. On the first hearing, you must make the decision on whether or not the problem can be solved today and, if not, just how much progress toward that end can be accomplished. It’s crucial, I believe, for that decision to be made on the initial hearing and the problem left, without regrets, when you’ve done all you can. How many times have you witnessed or been part of a rehearsal in which the conductor rehearses a section over and over, when everyone in the room (with the possible exception of the conductor) knows it simply will not improve any more today? Hear, diagnose, give specific direction for the solution, rehearse until the problem is either solved or until everyone understands what he must do individually to effect a solution, and move on.
   There will be times, of course, when just a little extra time will eliminate the problem that day. It’s almost always worth the extra time, providing you don’t overdo it. One way I’ve found to make this extra effort and time a little less trying on those sections not directly involved is to include one or more of them after the problem has been isolated and rehearsed several times. For example, if the initial area of concern involves the violas, you may have as many as fifty or sixty other members sitting through your rehearsal of the viola part. Their interest in the violas’ difficulty is short-lived at best, and you will lose them – irretrievably – if you aren’t aware of them, as well as the errant violas. It’s a case of the cure being worse than the disease. The viola part may or may not improve, but, the longer you exclude the rest of the ensemble from the rehearsal, the more surely are you diminishing their energy and interest. All right, you’ve made the decision that you want to spend an extra five or six minutes on this section because you can get it all cleared up today. Fine. But on the next time through include, say, the bassoons or flutes or whomever, just to keep them involved in the rehearsal. It matters little that these extra parts do not in any way resemble the problem the violas had to begin with; what’s important is that others are involved, and the orchestra has moved along a little faster and more smoothly. And, if you vary the “extra” sections, you’ll find that everyone is more alert and, more importantly, listening better. Incidentally, I have found this to be especially effective in keeping the wind section of an orchestra involved. By the very nature of the string parts, the winds are often the ones left sitting most of the time.
   The final ingredients to successful rehearsals are, I think, introspective, very personal, and difficult to write about objectively. They involve attitudes and the realization of what kind of person we really are when in the role of conductor. It has often been said that conducting is an extension of one’s personality. That’s true, of course, and the key word is, “extension.” We must really know ourselves before we can be ourselves. Some isolated reflection into what kind of person we really are, is necessary before the personality can be extended sufficiently. The attitudes we take to each rehearsal also play a large part in the predetermination of the success or failure of that day’s effort. Whatever your attitude, it must reflect your feelings honestly. They will vary, of course. There will be days when pressures, related or not, will affect the way you present yourself to the ensemble and to the music. Take stock of yourself; be honest and thorough in your self-evaluation of attitude, preparedness, and yes, degree of inspiration. It really helps.
   Finally, a short word about our feelings concerning rehearsals. How do we  view them? What are the main reasons for today’s get-together? Aside from the obvious learning process, there is a larger reason that pervades every one I conduct. Music, unlike any other art form, is an instantaneous phenomenon. Each note, alone or in combination, is special, and will sound different each time it is performed. There can be no exact duplication of any performance, no dwelling on a particular sound the same way each time. This is true whether you are on the second or seventeenth repetition. Each time is unique. If you can convey to your ensemble with your own preparation, dedication, appreciation, and attitude, just how extraordinary each sound is, each time it is performed, and how fortunate we are to engage in its beauty, the real gift of music will make rehearsals the most rewarding times of your life.                     

Legh W. Burns has been the music director and conductor of The Saratoga Chamber Orchestra since its inception. He is Professor Emeritus of the University of Oklahoma School of Music and former first trumpet with the United States Air Force Band in Washington D.C. where he founded and conducted the Washington Chamber Ensemble. He has taught at Springfield (IL) Junior College and the University of Denver, where he founded the National Trumpet Symposium. He has studied conducting with Renee Longy, Modest Alloo, Pierre Monteux, and Richard Lert.