Rehearsal 5

Rehearsal Conducting

Rehearsals and concerts are different. Of course, that’s extremely obvious in some ways, but let’s consider some of the specific ways in which the statement holds true.

A large part of the conductor’s role in rehearsal is giving feedback: corrections of pitch and rhythm, adjusting balance, unifying articulation and phrasing, to name but a few possibilities. Some of this can only be done verbally, and of course we also need to give space for the musicians to ask questions and sort things out amongst themselves, but the more that we can “rehearse with our hands” the more efficient we will be. 

We have said already that musicians don’t like conductors who talk too much. Why is that? Firstly, musicians know that the more times they have played something, the more familiar they will be with it. This is fundamental in helping them perform to the best of their abilities in the concert. After all, a large part of learning any aspect of musical performance involves repetition. It’s also often said that the point of music is that it defies verbal explanation: if words were sufficient, we wouldn’t need the notes. 

On a more practical level, musicians are instinctively aware of how much time can be wasted if the conductor is constantly stopping and starting: just stopping the group, waiting for silence, and saying where to start from, probably takes 15 seconds – and that’s before giving any information. Even if you say only three things (a good general rule), you are succinct with your language, and there are no questions, the time spent not playing is likely to be around 30 to 45 seconds every time you stop. So, even my very basic grasp of mathematics tells me that if I stop ten times in the course of the rehearsal instead of twenty, I buy myself at least an extra five minutes. What a luxury!

But wait a minute: after musicians have complained about conductors who talk too much, the next thing they mention is how much they dislike the ones that just play through the piece from beginning to end without sorting anything out.

The solution is to be able to “rehearse with our hands” – actually not just our hands, but our face, eyes, and body as well. In order to “rehearse with ours hands”:

  • We must be able to hear something that we want to correct or adjust and be flexible enough with our gestural language to respond immediately. If the physical reaction is too slow, the information will not be communicated effectively.
  • The information we give must be unequivocal. The goal is to make it crystal clear to some or all of the group that you want to change something in a very specific manner.
  • By its very definition, all of this is taking place after the event. It is reactive rather than proactive, a very different thing to the fundamental notion that a conductor’s gesture should be preparing or influencing something that it is about to happen.

There’s a saying amongst orchestral musicians that are tired and frustrated by verbose conductors, that goes something like: “Maestro. Just tell us if you want it longer or shorter, louder or quieter, faster or slower.” How simplistic and naïve of them to misunderstand the complexity and nuance of what we do, a conductor might exclaim!

But wait one more minute: let’s stop and think about this. Doesn’t a very large proportion of everything we ever say in a rehearsal fit into one of these six categories of longer-shorter-louder-quieter-faster-slower? Yes, and there are infinite degrees of subtlety within this. Are we asking everyone to play shorter? Just one section? One individual? Are we asking for it to be 1% softer, or 10% or 73.9%? Do we want it to get slower in the context of not rushing, or as a subtle interpretative decision? Does the request to play longer apply everywhere or only in this Hall? And so on. 

The point is, if we can develop unambiguous physical gestures that communicate longer-shorter-louder-quieter-faster-slower, we can “rehearse with our hands” and achieve the holy grail requested by our musicians of not stopping and talking too much but also fixing and adjusting as we go. This will leave the quota of words that an ensemble will tolerate from the conductor over the course of a rehearsal to be used for the things that do need to be discussed. 

To summarise, if you can show it, don’t stop and say it.

Teach me how to do this, I hear you cry! Actually, we are talking about fundamental human body language here, nothing too fancy and remember we want super-clear information:

Longer a long, horizontal movement of your arm, a bit like someone playing a cello, works really well

Shorter short, staccato gesture with the fingers, maybe with thumb and forefinger together

Louder a welcoming, gathering gesture with arms outstretched or the palm of the hand facing upwards

Quieter raising the palm of your hand to the players or a “shhh” gesture with forefinger over the mouth, or bringing your hands back towards you and to your sides, or breaking eye contact while shaking your head (it’s good to have several options!)

Faster (faster and “don’t slow down” are the same thing) a circular, flowing movement like a wheel turning

Slower (slower and “don’t rush” are the same thing) an exaggerated, angular beat pattern with lots of stop and start in the motion

These are just a few suggestions, developing a variety of options for each instruction will help.

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