2.1 General Strategies for Improving Your Rehearsal Technique

Chamber Music is an excellent way to learn how to rehearse because by its very definition you don’t have a conductor telling you what to do. I was a member of a successful chamber ensemble for several years. After starting to conduct and often being complimented for my rehearsal technique, I realised all those hours of chamber music rehearsals had been so useful. The crucial point is that in a chamber music rehearsal (assuming you are taking it relatively seriously and not just playing string quartets in the garden for fun) you have to be actively involved: listening critically to yourself and your colleagues, always considering what to do next in terms of making it sound better, preparing the music more thoroughly in advance of the rehearsal than might be the case in a larger ensemble, considering the personalities in the room and finding a diplomatic way of telling your colleagues they are playing it wrong. 

In short, playing chamber music requires you to take a greater degree of responsibility for the whole than is often the case in an orchestra rehearsal. So, take any opportunity to play chamber music with friends and colleagues as a way of developing rehearsal skills that are highly applicable to conducting.

Another strategy is to think like a conductor when you are playing in an ensemble. Try not to be a passive consumer of the conductor’s instructions: don’t switch off as soon as you realise they are not talking to you, and resist the urge to pick up your phone whenever you have more than ten measures off! Instead, get hold of a copy of the score and have it with you as well as your own part. Decide what you would do next in the rehearsal if you were conducting rather than playing. Did the conductor do the same, or not? Was their strategy better than yours, or not? Why? Did you feel engaged by what the conductor did? How was the balance between playing and talking? Did you feel prepared by the time of the concert?

Another option is to attend rehearsals as an observer. This will be particularly useful if you are a keyboard player or composer and opportunities to play or sing in ensembles are limited. (However, if this is you, we strongly recommend learning an instrument to a good enough level that you can play in ensembles: it will teach you invaluable skills.) Of course, much of the advice in the previous paragraph applies here also. The other advantage of observing is that as a player you are somewhat limited by your level: if your playing is a bit dodgy you aren’t going to be sitting in a major professional orchestra! 

This is an important point, especially as you begin to conduct more regularly. Be sure to attend rehearsals where the level of playing is higher than that which you are operating at. This is vital if you are spending a lot of time rehearsing inexperienced players. Being in the room with better players keeps your ear attuned to higher levels of artistry and prevents you from becoming “stuck”.

Never be afraid to ask questions of the conductor in a break or after rehearsals. Most conductors enjoy the chance to talk about themselves! Occasionally you might get the sense the Maestro would rather be left alone, but in most cases they are happy to chat and answer questions you may have about why they did what they did. They will most likely also be interested in your opinion of what it sounds like, especially if you were in the audience seats.

Something that is often neglected is the value of talking to the musicians. If they don’t know you, they might be wary of sharing their opinions about the conductor (or perhaps not!) but it is useful to talk to them about their needs in a specific piece, or venue. If you have the opportunity to attend rehearsals regularly of the same orchestra working with different conductors, and are able to build relationships with a few players, it can be fascinating to find out what they think. The only thing you can guarantee is that if you ask several musicians their opinion of a conductor you’ll get several different answers!

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