The first installment of this short series of blogs emphasised the importance of rehearsals not only as a means to an end, but as an aim in themselves. The second blog gave an idea of the central elements of a rehearsal process. This time I am going to concentrate on a single rehearsal.
I have often heard or read presentations about rehearsal technique and preparation for rehearsals. Surprisingly seldom have I come across talks, texts or presentations that would concentrate on how to structure a single rehearsal. And yet, this is what we actually do. Even if it sounds naïve, we can only lead one rehearsal at a time.
If we do not approach rehearsals by looking at an individual rehearsal, we might overlook a very important factor. Namely, rehearsals are judged more by how they feel than what they produce. I believe this is true as far as both choristers and conductors go. In evaluating a rehearsal, what is crucial is how they felt, both during the rehearsal and especially at the end of the rehearsal. If everyone, including the conductor, goes home with light feet and energised, the rehearsal has been a success. But how does one achieve this?
The most important phase of a rehearsal is its ending, the last 15 minutes or so. This almost goes without saying, but at least my success rate in ending rehearsals on a high is much lower than I would like. The rules are simple: end with optimistic music the choir knows well enough to sing well. If the piece is a bit of an ear-worm, all the better.
If it is that easy, why not succeed every time? For me, the answer is that the rehearsal is a living beast that does not always obey my plans or my will. I often find myself cramped: I know what I need to get through and time is running out. What normally follows is working to the last minute on something desperately difficult and ending the rehearsal on a limp ‘Well, that was a little better. Let’s pick up from here next time.’ To avoid this you need to reserve time for the ending. Remember its importance and leave something else for next time.
The second most important time in a rehearsal is its beginning. In many ways, this phase is more demanding for the conductor than the ending. Early in the rehearsal, we need to get the energy flowing. And the one person in the best position to achieve this is the conductor. In many ways, it is about recreating the choir, about reminding the singers of how to sing in the choir, about getting the singers attention and about engaging them in the process. We need to be on the ball and prepared to be inspiring, demanding, energetic and enthusiastic. It might be worthwhile creating a little time for oneself before the rehearsal to be all this. The upside is, if the beginning goes well, the energy will start to flow back from the choir – and after that, you will find yourself carried by this flow.
Whether your choir does a warm-up or not, start on time. This gives backbone to the whole rehearsal and motivates people to show up on time, even at the following rehearsal. Waiting for the majority to arrive is a slippery slope and you will find yourself starting a little later each time. And eating up more and more important rehearsal time.
I would suggest that if you do a warm-up, it is worth letting the singers grow into it instead of going gung-ho off the bat. Really energetic, up-beat warm-ups do work, but I feel that the singers are seldom mentally up to these. The idea is to prepare the singers for a rehearsal and to focus their energy for what is to come. I try to create a relaxed physical environment, in which singing feels easy and natural. Whether you do a warm-up or not, it is good if the first piece of a rehearsal is something fairly pleasant to sing. By this I mean not overly demanding and something that allows the singers to ease into the rehearsal. And whatever you work on in this piece, it should preferably have something to do with forming the music or the sound of the choir rather than learning intervals. The way I think is that this phase is about establishing standards for the rest of the rehearsal.
Next, dive straight into the most difficult task of the rehearsal. Everyone is at their freshest at this point and getting the big, bad wolf out of the way will make everyone’s life easier, including the conductor’s. If you have read of the instant gratification monkey (http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastinate.html), you will recognise the monkey’s whisper in your ear: ‘do something that is fun and rewarding, you will have time to cover the difficult piece a little later in the rehearsal’. The only problem is that you seldom do and by the time there is an hour left of the rehearsal, the panic monster will be screaming in your other ear. And the ending of the rehearsal will in all likelihood be panicky and anything but up-lifting.
One characteristic of the big, bad wolf pieces is that at some point, energy levels will drop alarmingly. Learning a difficult piece is often slow and distressing. The most important thing when this happens, is that the conductor does not join the party. At this moment, we need to be leaders. Keep the energy up. Choose surprising combinations; activate the singers who have been inactive the longest; ask the singers something; demand something else than just intervals and rhythms; and above all, find some humour somewhere. Or just point out what is happening and explain that this is just natural, but if we lift ourselves a little, we will get through this quicker. The key is to understand that these moments are part of learning really demanding things and we just need to survive them.
Before taking a break – which should preferably be taken punctually – it is good to have a mini-ending, i.e. singing something a little easier and more up-beat. It can just as well be a passage of what you have just worked on, if you feel the choir can get through it well enough (perhaps with a little help from the piano). When you declare the break, tell the choir the exact length of the break, or preferably, the time when the rehearsal will resume. And then resume at that time.
After the break, the remaining part of the rehearsal can be built in a similar way to the first half, with the exception of reserving more time and thought to the ending. I often try to make the second half less arduous as far as learning difficult music goes with perhaps a little more emphasis on vocal technique. The singers will be more tired, but also more attuned to singing together, and working on pieces that already have taken shape might be preferable. End well and end on time.
One thing that will keep rehearsals fresh is variation. Within a single rehearsal you can vary your approach considerably. Being very efficient (using very few words) when working on something new and demanding to being eloquent or using weird metaphors when working on something that the choir already knows, creates rhythm within the rehearsal. The same goes for how demanding you are. I would suggest it is good to be very strict (create standards) and demanding at the top of the rehearsal and ease up a little towards the end (create good-feel).
All in all, the criterion for the success of a single rehearsal is how it is perceived and received. This holds true for the conductor, as well: if you feel good about the rehearsal, it was good. If you do not, try to analyse what went on and what went wrong, and try to fix it next time. Just as a word of consolation: I am disappointed with the majority of my rehearsals. A really good rehearsal is a difficult thing to pull off. But when you do, it gives such pleasure to both singers and yourself that it is certainly worth striving for.