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January 1981 “If I Only Had Less Rehearsal Time” By Donn Laurence Mills

School orchestra directors have too much rehearsal time. Unlike professional situations in which rehearsal schedules are adjusted to fit the demands of the music, we make our music fit the demands of the schedule. If we’re allowed 50 minutes per day, that’s what we use, whether only 30 minutes or many hours are required. With sometimes six to eight weeks to prepare a program, those 250 minutes of rehearsal per week can add up to a lot of boring repetition. Does it take that long to prepare a concert?
   Ideally, there are three stages to concert preparation: reading, rehearsing, and refining. However, more frequently the stages are: hash, re-hash, and panic!
   An orchestra tends to slow down its musical metabolism to match the time span allowed. During the first rehearsal or two we are excited by the new sounds. Then there’s the long period of going over and over those same sounds ad nauseum. Progress is slow and rehearsals drag. Then comes stage three – the week before the concert. Excitement mounts. It’s desperation time: gotta get that passage licked, put on the pressure, get angry, why haven’t they practiced at home?
   Miracles, of course, do occur. Somehow the concert pulls together at the dress rehearsal and comes off rather well. At this point conductors have been known to remark, “If we’d just had one or two more rehearsals….” Actually 80% of the improvement was made during the last couple of rehearsals. Why? Because that’s when everyone begins to get serious. This principle holds true whether we’ve rehearsed for months or hours. All those tedious hours of nonpressured, unexciting rehearsal time produced little more than chances to keep up the embouchures.
   Not long ago I conducted a festival, which was based upon a “do-it-quick” concept. Unlike All-States, where the area’s best talent is chosen and the music is sent out in advance, this festival’s participants were typical high school players who had not seen any of the music before.
   There were only two rehearsals (9 to 11:30 a.m. and 2 to 4:30 p.m.) plus a one-hour sectional sandwiched-in between the full rehearsals. A concert was scheduled for that evening at 7:30. We’d programmed one easy piece, one of intermediate difficulty, and one really tough work. The organizer had taken care of such matters as seating and equipment efficiently, so no time was wasted on getting organized.
   Students were quickly caught-in the pace. Pencils were busy; there was no talking, no discipline problems. Concentration reflected in every face. The rehearsal plan was laid-out in detail from reading to polishing. If the schedule said 10 to 10:05 for a particular passage, that’s all it got.
   The concert was as good as (maybe better than) similar affairs with considerably more rehearsal time. There was an unusual excitement present and an air of individual responsibility right back to the last stands. Students met the challenge with enthusiasm and determination. At the end they cheered themselves.
   The pros are right. They don’t over-rehearse. They bring a piece to the peak of perfection just at the concert. We can do much the same with school orchestras by observing the following:

Choose music wisely. Balance the challenges with some easy pieces to help prevent frustration.

Layout rehearsal plans by the minute, not the hour.

Set up specific short-term goals for each rehearsal and don’t accept failure.

Work fast. In this case, haste does not make waste.

Utilize sectionals. They help eliminate the need to single out one section at the expense of the rest of the orchestra.

Put responsibility for technical matters on the players. They’ll practice the parts at me home if they know they won’t be able to during rehearsal.

Sneak in more out-of-school concerts. The more you play, the better you get.

Use unneeded rehearsal time for chamber music, theory study, and clinics with guest teachers, extra readings, recording. Variety is the spice of music, too.

Consider your concert a battle You, the General, plan the strategy with considerations for the strength of the enemy (the
 music), your equipment (players), position (time-frame), and morale of the troops  (keeping everyone interested and motivated). A good concert is a victory.

   Donn Laurence Mills is the NOSA contributing editor. He holds music degrees from Northwestern University and Eastman School of Music. A conductor and music educator, he is also the American educate director for the Yamaha Music Foundation of Tokyo.