Virtual Discussion Panel
:: Baton down the hatches
:: 10/9/07 - 10/19/07

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Robert Levine's Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Senior Editor

We've suggested discussing rehearsal technique for our second day. In essence, we've asked the panelists to think about what particular rehearsal techniques drive them nuts (and why), and what techniques conductors could use more often than they do.

Please consider sending in your own rehearsal technique pet peeve(s) (register with Polyphonic and use a comment box) but again, we ask that you name no names.

Robert & Ann

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Comments for Robert Levine

I wanted to be a conductor very badly. I took French Horn lessons, trumpet lessons, bassoon lessons, flute lessons; I played clarinet already, a few trombone lessons, and talked to every player I could find about their instruments and the problems connected with them. Unfortunately or fortunately, I was too accomplished a violinist to have the time to devote to conducting. I can play and listen to all that is going on because I study the scores before rehearsing the music we are to play, which is more than many conductors do.!!!

After sitting in an orchestra for 60 years I feel that I know what the musicians WANT to see. We have many "charletons" in front of orchestras these days. Robert McNally
cemeritus on October 13, 2019 at 10:52 PM
So far everything I have read here on this topic makes absolute sense to any professional musician. I would recommend this page, with every single comment, to any aspiring conductor, or conducting student, or even a professional conductor who wonders why faces glaze over at his/her rehearsals.....

One comment I have not seen yet is this: many of the older and (in my opinion) greater conductors used to say at a dress rehearsal (which had an evening concert on the same day), "Please, don't play fortissimo: save your lips for tonight" (of course meaning brass and woodwind embouchures, and also perhaps the endless string tremolos in Bruckner, etc.). We NEVER hear that today in the orchestra I play in.

Thanks for this interesting discussion.
Molly on October 14, 2019 at 8:24 PM

William Buchman's Statement (Click to Hide)

William Buchman  

William Buchman

Assistant Principal Bassoon, Chicago Symphony

Here are some of my pet peeves, in no particular order:

- Saying you want to just "start the piece again" in a rehearsal, then running practically the whole thing. It makes me think you don't have an idea what you really want to accomplish.

- Playing through something, then playing through the same thing without any comment. Did we do want you wanted the first time or not? If so, is there something you want to reinforce by repeating it? If not, what do you want to change? Tell us!

- Stopping every few bars to correct details. We get no sense of the flow of the music, and have no chance to adjust to your technique and your approach. Give us the big picture of what you want and let us work out the details as we play.

- Balancing the orchestra by altering printed dynamic levels. Instead of saying, "Mark that down to mp," I'd rather you said "We need to hear the flute here, so be sure your f doesn't cover that up." That kind of comment gets us listening to each other better.

On the other hand, things I like:

- A dress rehearsal being used as a practice performance. It's our chance to see how the concert will feel. It's too late to still be rehearsing details and making major changes.

- Positive comments that make us want to work harder, in contrast to criticisms which don't.

- Taking the time to learn the musicians' names. I'm always impressed when a conductor refers to "Mr. Combs" instead of "first clarinet." It's a huge sign of respect, and it's probably less difficult that it looks. I'm OK with cheat sheets.

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Don Ehrlich's Statement (Click to Hide)

Don Ehrlich  

Don Ehrlich

Retired Asst. Principal Violist, San Francisco Symphony

OK, Rehearsal Techniques.

William Buchman hit one nail right on the head when he decried the kind of rehearsal technique where the conductor stops to make a correction right away. I was in a rehearsal when the conductor managed to stop the orchestra over 100 times in just the first 90 minutes of the rehearsal. I guess he was trying to impress us with his ear, or his ability to hear mistakes. But what happened was we got bored, we made further mistakes, he stopped more, it was ugly! The only reason I wasn't bored was that I was busy counting the number of times he stopped.

In the same vein, I had a conductor who managed frequently to stop the orchestra two or three bars before the end of the movement, to correct something. Couldn't he have gone to the end and picked up the problem afterward?

I like conductors who will read to the end, and then rehearse the ending first. That way we know we'll be great when we get to the end of the movement. Rehearsing from the end of the piece is often better, I think, than from the front -- at least you don't over-rehearse the beginning to the detriment of the ending.

The rehearsals are the time that the conductor has to impart his/her view of what we are to accomplish. It's OK to spend time on the details. It's not OK to learn the piece in front of us. Sure, minds can change and details evolve; but it's not a good idea to stand in front of a group of pros and use that time to figure out what the piece is about.

An effective conductor also has to be able to manage time, to look into the future (when planning rehearsals) and figure out how much time to devote to any given piece. It doesn't do any good to spend 45 minutes on a simple overture when there's a difficult symphony coming up.

I have been in rehearsals when the conductor spent so much time on other pieces s/he managed not to give the soloist enough time to get through the solo. It's our job, the conductor's and the orchestra's, to help the soloist feel comfortable. How can that happen if we can't even finish that piece?

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Craig McNutt's Statement (Click to Hide)

Craig McNutt  

Craig McNutt

Timpanist with Rhode Island Philharmonic & Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Before I list any particular rehearsal techniques, I would like to acknowledge the fact that there are almost 100 members of the orchestra facing one conductor, so everyone should be sensitive to this imbalance. I am sure if I was the one up there I would feel some degree of anxiety, especially if I was working with in orchestra in a guest capacity. With that in mind...

1. While you're up there doing your thing, take a second to gauge how the orchestra is responding. Do they look nervous? Bored? Annoyed? Despite popular lore, musicians do want to make music, but if they don't perceive themselves as a welcome addition to the process, it can really be a detriment.

2. Give us a moment to process your requests, both musically and otherwise. Just as a sports car handles better than a SUV, a large orchestra requires a little bit of time for everyone to get on the same page. Remember (see my previous post), rehearsal is a process, not an end unto itself.

3. Beat patterns - certainly one of the most interesting thing about watching conductors is realizing how something as descriptively simple as a beat pattern can be interpreted with seemingly infinite variation. And that's good for making music. However, if you think I am not with your beat pattern, it's due to the fact that I misinterpreted it, not that I was "not watching." Musicians already working in the symphonic world are trained well enough to watch your conducting - we just can't keep our eyes glued to the stick/hand due to all the little black spots on the page. Sometimes, the complexity of a musical passage requires us to focus on the technical aspect of our instrument. We'll get it the next time if we missed it the first.

4. If you like metaphors, that's fine, but know that they might mean different things to different people. If, after telling me you can't hear my chime part, that is should sound like "bells in the distance," does that mean I should play it louder or softer? More attack or less? No, we don't want music making to be all clinical, but sometimes nuts and bolts saves a lot of time and hassle.

5. (Specific Percussion Problem Alert!): Percussionists went to school for many years to learn about hitting stuff. One thing (hopefully) learned is touch, where you can color the sound without changing mallets. So before asking simply for harder or softer, I think it would be nice if the question/request was framed in a more typically musical way. Do you want more length? A longer attack? More depth of sound? Yes percussionists have all of those mallets to choose from - but we like to think we can do more than simply hit the instrument one way.

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Comments for Craig McNutt

Great comments, Craig - I second all of them. May I ammend comment #5 to a Specific String Problem Alert: String players have learned to color their sound without changing bowings. Instead of automatically changing the bowing, it would be better if a conductor were to let us know what s/he wanted: Louder? More attack? More legato? Don't just automatically change the bowings (especially if you aren't a string player to begin with). It never ceases to amaze me how many pianists/oboists/percussionists will jump to change a bowing. Conversely, one of the best conductors I've played under almost never changed bowings. He was a violinist.
m2violin on November 1, 2019 at 2:31 PM

Gaylon Patterson's Statement (Click to Hide)

Gaylon Patterson  

Gaylon Patterson

Violinist, Memphis Symphony Orchestra

A good rehearsal is...

...well-planned. A rehearsal outline, with reasonably accurate time allotments, is step one. As a violinist, I pretty much play everything all the time, but it saves time and helps with pacing when I know what's coming at me in the next two and a half hours. We also have a lot of music to learn, and it's sometimes good to know that we won't play the concerto until Thursday, so practice time on Tuesday can be better spent on the symphony. A plan that has logical instrumentation progression, usually biggest to smallest, is appreciated by those who don't play every piece. At least that's what they tell me. I'm a violinist, so I almost never get to knock off early anyway.

...varied. Two and a half hours of Bruckner tremolo is both mind-numbing and a tendon disaster. Good rehearsals vary the technical demands.

...efficient. If something isn't working, it's the conductor's job to figure out why, and to figure it out soon. If a problem in a passage doesn't solve itself on the first repetition, then belaboring it without analyzing the challenge doesn't help. Frustration sets in quickly (and should be apparent to an observant conductor) and is antithetical to good music-making. Minor technical errors generally don't need to be pointed out, since they are usually self-resolving. Intonation is one area that often does need the conductor's ears, and again, just playing the chord over and over is unhelpful, while carefully tuning it helps a great deal.

...geared toward performance. At some point, we need to get a feel for continuity and architecture, especially in a piece that's new to us. Just running through repertoire without solving problems is a waste of time, but by the final rehearsal, we do need a chance to work through the pacing, and to figure out how to plan our stamina.

...respectful. We musicians are good at self-validation, since we don't get much positive feedback. That doesn't mean that acknowledgment of good work isn't welcome. Constant praise is fatuous, of course, but positive reinforcement is a good thing. Even "thank you, that's better" after correcting a passage helps our collective confidence. If a musician asks to repeat a passage, or if, say, (ahem) the principal second asks for a few seconds to adjust a bowing or suggest a technique, that's a good time to trust the musician's judgment and defer. In the long run, we really are saving time.

...clear. I always enjoy it when a musician says, after a conductor's extended evocation of what s/he envisions, "So you want it louder?" It's possible, and maybe even useful, to say you want it louder AND to explain why. Actually, I do enjoy the justification of an interpretation. I may not agree, but it's so much more satisfying for me to help create a conductor's concept when I know what the concept is. Absent any explanation, the interpretation becomes paternalistic, and condescension is one thing I just can't stand. And metaphor and abstraction are fine, just not at the expense of clarity.

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Comments for Gaylon Patterson

My personal pet peeve, as a violist, is conductors who talk to a section while we're playing. I have a large viola 1 inch from my ear, making lots of sound. But more to the point, I have a large reverberating wooden box tucked under my chin bone, and I'm receiving additional sounds through bone conduction.

There's really not a chance that I will hear what you have to say, and we waste so much time tapping the folks on the front stand to try to find out what direction we missed.

If you want to tell us something, wait until you've stopped us, or remind the principal to ask about a point so it can be repeated to all. Don't assume any of us past the first stand have heard a word you said!
AnnDrinan on October 13, 2019 at 12:32 AM

Francine Schutzman's Statement (Click to Hide)

Francine Schutzman  

Francine Schutzman

OCSM President, President Local 180, & Oboist with National Arts Centre Orchestra

Pet peeves about conductors' rehearsal techniques:

1) not letting us get a sense of the movement as a whole before the picking starts.

2) picking too much. TRUST US (have we heard this before?)..

3) talking too much in general, but then, when there's a funny story to break the tension, telling it in a soft-enough voice that only the first few stands of string players can hear it.

4) addressing remarks that are meant for the whole orchestra to the first violins alone.

5) addressing remarks that are meant for the whole section to the principal player alone.

6) making all the beats look the same.

7) starting the first rehearsal with the most delicate slow movement.

8) not acknowledging that someone has taken a conductor's suggestion and actually done something to said conductor's liking.

9) dwelling on a player's mistakes. Give us a couple of tries.

10) not helping the players fix intonation. Sometimes you need an outside ear as a referee.

11) not fixing things that are obviously not working (ensemble, for example).

12) not wondering if a wrong note that gets played a third time might actually be a misprint.

13) keeping the rehearsal order a deep, dark secret.

14) wasting rehearsal time having us mark our parts.

15) doing pretty much anything that causes anxiety in the players, such as glaring.

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General Comments on This Discussion (Click to Hide)

Great posts, all.

I have another to add. If you are new, don't diss your predecessor. It could be that the players actually felt favorably toward that person. Let your work and integrity speak for themselves. That's what we players have to do.

And echoes to the comments about good technique. We just finished a week with a previous conductor who is so clear we were able to really make music, without the stress of worrying about tempo changes, going with the flow of changing from subdivisions to large beat patterns, etc. What a joy!
CindyB on October 9, 2019 at 3:18 PM
Wow, this is an interesting discussion!

It seems as though many conductors missed the first day of conducting school- "One is Down."

What I would like from conductors is a simple, clear downbeat in every bar. Do whatever you want the rest of the time, just show me "1".
marktuba on October 12, 2019 at 1:24 PM
One more quality that inspires an orchestra to give its best: TRUST.

A recent young conductor trusted us enough NOT to rehearse an encore with us (there was very little time left in the one rehearsal he was given for an entire program). Result: a fiery performance and gratitude from the orchestra for the confidence he showed in himself, and the trust in our ability to respond to him.
Molly on October 14, 2019 at 8:31 PM
If you are a conductor who has never played a wind instrument, LEARN HOW TO BREATHE with your upbeats; audibly and purposefully. Doesn't have to be vulgarly loud, but giving a token, shallow intake of air or even none at all leaves wind players gasping.
chausse.1 on October 25, 2019 at 5:51 PM

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