As music educators who conduct bands or orchestras, the majority of instructional time we have with our students is spent in a large group rehearsal setting. During that time, we must accomplish an incredible array of tasks, and we want our students to leave rehearsal feeling that they have learned something, felt something, and grown through music. Creating rewarding musical experiences for students should be the principal purpose of every rehearsal, through the refinement of the highest-quality and most appropriate repertoire. While we try to accomplish a multitude of goals in rehearsals, most of them can be placed into four primary categories:
To refine the music technically and expressively. We want to make sure students play their parts correctly, and contribute to the overall musical meaning. In rehearsal, we transform what the conductor Sergiu Celibidache referred to as multiplicities (many people doing different things, independent of purpose) into unicity (everyone doing the same thing, for the same purpose). Getting the right notes and right rhythms is a first step, but we must work to get beyond that by unifying balance, dynamic contrast, articulation, and phrasing. We should find ways to rehearse the objective elements (notes, rhythms, intonation, and balance) and the subjective (phrasing, emphasis, and emotional content) in every rehearsal. People occasionally talk about how little rehearsal time is left after working on technical aspects of the music. If it is impossible to work at even a basic level of music making in the first rehearsal on a piece, the music might be too difficult.
To develop the listening, thinking, and observational skills of the players. The world’s finest orchestras perform like huge chamber ensembles. If you have ever watched the Berlin Philharmonic perform, live or on video, you see that every member is completely engaged with listening, watching, moving, and matching all aspects of their playing. In rehearsal, we cultivate this ability in students by asking questions that encourage them to focus on the players around them and allow them to contribute their own ideas. I often ask students to visualize a transparent bubble surrounding them and isolating them as they play. They can then be asked to include the person on their right or left in the bubble, then the person in front or behind them, then eventually include more and more people until the entire group is encapsulated in the same environment. The idea is to be aware of everyone around them while remaining mindful of what they are doing individually.
To introduce and review concepts that can be transferred to other contexts. In his article Some Things I Believe, one of my mentors, H. Robert Reynolds, wrote, “The good teacher helps a student to become independent, to play well without having to rely on the conductor for every bit of information or direction. To achieve this goal, we must use every opportunity to transfer concepts.” If we fail to help students recognize the common threads that connect the elements of what they are doing, the process grinds to a halt, and students rely upon us for all the information. Guiding students to greater understanding of technical and musical principles so they can apply their knowledge with fluency reflects a truly trained level of musicianship.
To create a responsive aesthetic environment. The rehearsal room should be filled with focused energy that flows between conductor and ensemble. Making music is a continuous process of listening, adjusting, and responding that engages everyone. It should not be driven solely by the conductor from the podium. If the ensemble only receives information from the conductor and waits to contribute until they receive direction from the podium, members’ individual voices are diminished. Rather than constantly playing to the conductor, we should encourage the members of our ensembles to connect with each other, allowing us to promote communication rather than control their actions.
Everything comes form score study. All rehearsal successes develop from an understanding of the score. The score study process usually takes place in several stages. H. Robert Reynolds compares the initial phase to “looking at a magazine in the waiting room of the dentist’s office.” While we wait, we try to get a general idea of the magazine’s contents. Getting familiar with a score is similar. Look first for big elements such as the character, obvious formal sections, tempo relationships, and key areas for investigation, and then make a list of them. As the list grows, dig deeper into the music. After developing a sense of the big picture, start analyzing the harmony, because it affects form, phrasing, and points of emphasis and reveals answers to many interpretive questions. This process is about discovering why the composer made certain choices, so we can make decisions about what we want to hear. Only when we know what the composer wrote and why can we consider how to shape the sounds.
Plan for the short and long term. Effective rehearsal planning lets us envision a path to big-picture goals and to promote short-term success. In planning rehearsals, we need to know how many rehearsals we have before a given performance, as well as how much time we plan to spend rehearsing each piece. Without this information, we can easily run out of time. I sketch out about two weeks of rehearsals at a time, knowing that the specifics of the plan can be adjusted on a weekly basis. Players prepare better if they know what to expect in every rehearsal. This is true for young students, university students, or even professionals. If a schedule is posted stating that on Tuesday we will rehearse in detail from [D] to [M] in a certain piece, players quickly learn that the schedule is like a homework assignment. Advance planning trains the students to be prepared.
Within each rehearsal, we should balance detail work with big-picture work. Too much detail work bogs down the process. Too much big-picture work, and students are not learning how to create a refined performance by solving small-scale problems. Consider the full rehearsal cycle as a continuum, beginning with the first rehearsal and ending with the concert. We should begin by emphasizing the subjective and expressive elements, gradually focus on technical refinement over time, and then pull back to the big picture again. Within every rehearsal, the students should feel that they have achieved something musical and expressive and that they have also elevated their level of technical execution.
Manage the time effectively. In every rehearsal there should be as much playing as possible. The key element is knowing exactly what we will do before we stop, so some players can be playing again within 10 seconds or less. This ensures a fast-paced rehearsal that maintains the attention of every player. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then we should consider how best to communicate our musical ideas by singing or in gesture, not by talking too much.
Balance the amount of verbal and non-verbal instruction. We should teach students the non-verbal language of conducting. This non-verbal language is incredibly nuanced if we go beyond the printed page and reflect what our ear desires to hear. If our gestures focus only on the objective information in the score (meter, dynamic, and tempo), we are not conveying the subjective essence of the music (shape, emphasis, and timbre.) We end up talking too much in rehearsal when our gestures are misinterpreted or contradict what we intend. How many times have we stopped in rehearsal to say, “Please play that quieter” when the problem was caused by gestures that were too big?
Sometimes it may be necessary to teach our students to understand our gestures. The best way is to accompany verbal instructions with corresponding conducting gestures. For example, if we ask for something to be played shorter, our hands should simultaneously make gestures signifying staccato sounds. If we want something to be more legato, try making smooth, flowing, horizontal motions with the instruction. By teaching students to connect the intention with the gesture, they respond instinctively when they see the conductor moving.
Create a dialogue rather than a monologue. Rehearsals should not be a monologue, in which the conductor controls everything. During rehearsal, the conductor makes a request and the players receive it and respond. The conductor receives the response and adjusts. This shifts rehearsal focus to what the ears hear, not on what the eyes see on the printed page. A passage marked staccato tells us what sound we should strive for, but we have a responsibility to consider the specific meaning of the marking in context. An open dialogue between players and conductor is powerful and inspiring. It requires trusting players to keep a steady pulse or be prepared with notes and rhythms, and allows conductors to address other musical issues spontaneously in rehearsal.
Make specific comments. When we stop, avoid saying, “Let’s do that again,” without explaining exactly what should change the next time. If in measure 23 the trombones are having trouble playing a slurred 16th note passage on beats three and four, they need to know what the problem is. Offering a solution: “Trombones, at measure 23, please move your slides faster to avoid glissing through those slurred 16th notes, and maybe try an alternate position for the D.” This specifically addresses the problem and solves it in a positive way.
Break down the texture to rehearse specifically. We should note the amount of tutti playing in rehearsal. If everyone is always playing, our work will be more general. Quick refinement can be accomplished by isolating players with the same music and providing specific feedback. If the violins, flutes, clarinets, and xylophone perform the same difficult line, taking the time to work on their part alone will be worthwhile. If they receive clear guidance and listen to each other, they will quickly improve. As the various layers are reassembled, we can stress the importance of listening, clarity of the texture, and the hierarchy of balance between parts.
Engage all the players, especially those at the backs of the sections. Conductors sometimes devote too much attention on people sitting at the front of their respective sections. Their musical role is more obvious, and we count on them as leaders. In an ensemble, every player is important, and we need to find ways to acknowledge and value the contributions of each person.
When asking questions in rehearsal, I call on people seated further back in a section so their ideas can be heard. Other strategies for engaging every player include shuffling the seating in the ensemble by allowing them to sit wherever they want or having everyone sit in a large circle. When using either of these ideas, walk around the rehearsal room instead of conducting from the podium. This brings the conductor into closer to different groups of students and encourages the students to interact and hear the music from a new vantage point as equal participants. With orchestras, it helps to rehearse the strings without the front stands, allowing the section leaders to turn around and watch their sections. This encourages everyone to contribute more fully and allows leaders to learn more of what is happening behind them.
Refine intonation by guiding listening. Ensemble intonation depends on good listening skills and each player’s ability to control timbre and pitch on their instrument. If they struggle to produce a high-quality tone, it will be impossible to get the ensemble in tune. If they make good tones, but are not yet able to play in tune with themselves intervallically, tuning between parts will be impossible. These fundamentals require attention in every developing ensemble. Once there is a solid foundation of tone quality and instrument control in place, tuning refinement can begin.
Students are frequently encouraged to listen to fix intonation. While this is a generally good suggestion, it would be more helpful to define what they should be listening to and how it should affect their playing. Do they know which voice they are depending upon to play better in tune, and can they hear it? What modification does that relationship cause? Remind students that they need to lower the third of a major chord and raise the fifth and listen for when it is in tune. When working on intonation, go slowly to give students time to listen and experiment with pitch adjustments. Saying, “Let’s play measures 24-26 like there is a fermata on each note,” or “Let’s play the introduction to the march as if it were a chorale,” allows time to refine the tuning.
It also helps to isolate the melodic line – or the highest line of the texture – with the bass line. If the vertical relationships between these two parts are in tune, the middle voices will play in tune much more easily.
Monitor compliments and criticisms. Everything we say in rehearsal matters, as does the tone of our comments. To maintain good morale in the ensemble, it is best to be positive as much as possible, even making corrections. Conductor Cliff Colnot refers to this as “contingent-positive” feedback, in which there is no negative judgment and the constructive feedback is presented with a positive suggestion for improvement. Instead of saying, “Saxophones, it’s too loud” we can say, “Next time, could that be quieter so we can hear the flute solo?” The psychological response to that small difference is significant.
Rewards are meaningful only if truly earned. When we stop the ensemble to rehearse something, we should avoid saying “Good” when it would be more honest to say, “Thank you” or “It is really improving!” Then when say something is good they know we mean it. Simultaneously, we can sustain enthusiasm by praising individuals or sections as they demonstrate high achievement. Saying, “Basses, I loved the way you breathed before playing that pizzicato together,” both rewards the basses and shows everyone the level of achievement they can reach.
Reminders for Refined Music Making
A set of fundamental musical principles should be discussed and reviewed at various levels in every rehearsal. The following ideas form the foundation of my approach. Improving effectiveness in rehearsal is a constant goal, and my mentors have influenced that process for me. Remembering these few basic concepts and emphasizing them frequently will lead each student to a greater understanding of ensemble playing.
Attend to the entire note. Every note has three parts: beginning, middle, and end (articulation, sustain, and release). Students tend to focus too much on the articulation, or attack, producing inconsistency between players. Emphasizing the shape of the middle of the note, and the release or connection to the next note, leads to greater uniformity and better sonority. Singers give much of their attention to the quality of their vowel sounds. Imagine if all they focused on was the initial consonant of each word.
Listen to and align rhythms with the fastest moving notes. For an ensemble to play together, players must always listen for the parts moving at the fastest rhythmic rate. All other rhythms are then obligated to relate to that subdivision: eighth notes must listen to and align with 16th notes, and half notes must align with quarter notes. When an ensemble understands these relationships and listens this way, the level of subdivision and precision increases. Try rehearsing with temporary dynamics, asking those with faster rhythms to play louder and those with slower rhythms to play quieter. This fosters a better awareness of each part’s role within the texture.
Rhythm has a natural hierarchy within a measure, but bar lines should not be heard. Within each measure, the downbeat typically receives the most emphasis, the second beat is usually the least emphasized, and the final beat is preparatory for the next downbeat. A problem can result when this hierarchy is limited to the measure-to-measure level of playing often heard from younger performers. Students need to be reminded that the bar lines are only there as a convenience for organizing the parts. Composers usually do not think in terms of two-, three-, or four-beat groups. They write in longer lines and gestures, which we shape within the ensemble. We should search for the most important arrival point within a entire phrase or formal section and shape everything to coordinate with this emphasis.
Dynamics are relative. My colleague John Locke says, “Good players don’t need dynamics, and not-so-good players ignore them.” Individuals who know the role of their part in the texture understand how loudly they should play. They understand if they have melody or accompaniment, an important supporting line or sustained harmonic support, or when their part becomes momentarily important before subsiding back into the texture. If the Chicago Symphony received a set of parts to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with no printed dynamics, they would still play the piece with clarity of texture because they listen and they understand how the whole context fits together.
Students should strive for a similar level of understanding. Often every part is marked with the same dynamic, which does not account for the wide variety of requirements of each individual. For example, if everyone’s part is marked ff, the flutes in the upper register might need to play mf, the tubas might need to play f, and the supporting brass chords might need to play mp to allow the melody in the horns and clarinets to be heard. Without these adjustments, there is no hierarchy within the texture, and the audience does not know what to listen for.
Balance textures and chords regardless of the orchestration. Part of the conductor’s responsibility is to manipulate the dynamic markings create the best sonority of the ensemble. Taking that point further, we should observe how the score is orchestrated in terms of the number of players playing melody or accompaniment, or the root of a chord vs. the third or fifth and then make adjustments accordingly. In balancing chords, we always need to hear more root and fifth than third or seventh, regardless of how many people are playing each note. Students should be taught to listen in specific ways to make these subtle changes.
In octave doublings, lower voices must play louder. Because higher tessitura notes project more easily, it is always necessary for lower voices to play louder. This is especially true in octave doublings; the lower octaves should often play twice as loud as they hear the upper voice playing. If there is a doubling at the octave between first and second violins, or flutes and second clarinets, and everyone is marked mf, people playing the lower octave should actually play f. This will result in a warmer, richer timbre throughout the ensemble, in which everyone is always learning to listen to the lowest sounds they can hear. Players need listen to how their parts relate to those around them and work toward optimal balance.
Create consistent melodic contour. As melodic lines move, they are subject to the acoustic phenomenon that makes pitches sound louder as they ascend or quieter as they descend. Players need to know these tendencies and counteract them by adjusting the dynamic shape for smoother, more consistent volume within the melody. Otherwise higher notes tend to pop out unnaturally, and lower notes disappear into the texture.
Emphasize non-chord tones. Points of harmonic dissonance need to be brought out of the texture expressively. This must not be done in an abrupt way but instead should be shaped with preparation and resolution. A heightened sense of meaning and expression can be created by a slight crescendo preceding the dissonance, to draw attention to it, followed by a diminuendo as the harmonic tension dissipates. Students tend to hide non-harmonic notes in the texture or play them too abruptly.
Make repetition engaging. Encourage players to do something interesting when their parts repeat. This is an opportunity to solicit their ideas about the possible range of shape they can create. Can they hear and follow the harmony with their repeated rhythm? Should the intensity level increase toward an arrival point? Are they shaping each repetition with an awareness of the overall context of the phrase? It’s tempting to do the same thing over and over again, but repetition can also be interesting and expressive.
When change happens, change the energy level. Along with the temptation for static repetition, students also tend to contribute a constant level of energy regardless of the musical circumstances. Reminders are needed to draw attention to how much energy is needed to communicate meaning to the audience. Are they adding energy when the style changes from cantabile to marcato, or when their role in the texture changes from accompaniment to melody (or the reverse), or even when they make an entrance after resting? Ignoring the intention behind those changes usually results in everything blending in together, making the meaning blurry for the audience. Fueling change with different energy usually results in a clearer presentation of the music.
Where there is contrast, maximize it. Human nature leads us to be conservative with contrasts. We don’t want to go too far and risk standing out, so everything gravitates to the middle. In music making, contrast is essential. Sudden dynamic contrasts, or contrasts of expression, always need to be exaggerated. Cliff Colnot encourages players to be courageous with contrasts. That suggestion encourages the players take a chance, which nearly always results in more fulfilling expression.
Rehearsals draw upon all of a conductor’s resources, experiences, and knowledge. We must know the scores deeply, understand the pedagogical concepts necessary for helping our students and encourage them to develop a core set of fundamental ensemble playing skills. When all these aspects flow in rehearsal, our ensembles learn faster, perform better, and develop greater individual musical understanding and independence.