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If Only I Had Less Rehearsal Time

Donn Laurence Mills | July 2009

    School 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, rehash, and panic.
An ensemble 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. Some-how the concert pulls together at the dress rehearsal and comes off rather well. At this point conductors have been know to remark, “If we’d just had one or two more rehearsals. Why? Because that’s when everyone begins to get serious. The principle holds true whether we’ve rehearsed for months or hours. All those tedious hours of non-pressured, unexciting rehearsal time produced little more than chances to keep up the embouchures.
    Not long ago I conducted a festival that was based upon a “do-it-quick” concept. Unlike All-States where the area’s finest 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 plus a one-hour sectional sandwiched in between the full rehearsals. A concert was scheduled for that evening at 7:30. We 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 up in the pace. Pencils were busy, there was no talking or discipline problems. Concentration reflected in every face. The rehearsal plan was laid-out in detail from reading to polishing. If the schedule said 10:00 to 10:05 for a particular passage, that’s all it got.
    The concert was as good as (maybe better than) similar performances 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 task 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 ensembles by observing the following.
    Choose music wisely. Balance the  difficult works with easy pieces to prevent frustration.
    Plan rehearsals 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 ensemble.
    Put responsibility for technical matters on the players. They will practice the parts at home if they know they won’t be able to during rehearsals.
     Sneak in more out-of-school concerts. The more you play, the better you get. Use unneeded rehearsal time for chamber music, theory study, clinics with guest teachers, extra readings, and 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.