Breaking the Ice

Breaking the Ice

I’ve been spending some time at the Philharmonie this week, in my first week of rehearsals with the Scharoun Ensemble. It’s been almost a year since my last proper rehearsal with a chamber group, so initially I did feel a little rusty. While rehearsals with orchestra are certainly their own breed of challenge, it’s a different ballgame without a conductor around to mediate. Orchestras contain a lot of people, but under normal circumstances the composer will have little direct interaction with any of them; sitting in a room with eight people is much more personal.

Breaking the ice at a first rehearsal can be tough, but it becomes easier the more one is willing to take advantage of the unique opportunities of the chamber rehearsal: the chance to talk, and actual time to do so. It may not seem like much, but it’s a hell of a better deal than what most orchestras will be down for—maybe 20-25 minutes tops on the new piece, most of which you will you will be sitting out while the conductor gets the group into shape. So here are my observations on making the most out of rehearsal time, informed by a solid history blunders as well as successes:

  • Go out before the first rehearsal. Ever go out and celebrate with the group after the big night? My experience suggests that a casual gathering without instruments and away from the rehearsal space might be the best way to meet an ensemble—as people first and foremost. It’s so easy for a first rehearsal getting off to shaky start, but by meeting each other in advance you’re going a long way to ensure that your relationship won’t.

  • Do explain your musical thinking, but briefly, once. Time is so scant in orchestra rehearsals that it’s rarely appropriate to launch into a discourse about how your piece is put together. However, with the slightly less breakneck pace of the chamber rehearsal there usually is room for speaking in composer-talk if it provides a positive force in the rehearsal process. This week I rehearsed a piano/clarinet quartet piece in which I envisioned the ensemble as a woefully under-rehearsed and over-boisterous rock band. This information proved crucial in the players’ understanding of the piece as it brought together many disparate details that had been giving them trouble (finicky rhythms, phrases that seemed to trail off as if “lost”, etc.). Also, once the point is made don’t spoil a good thing by referring back to it constantly, and don’t get caught up in communicating your piece to the players on a compositional level when doing so won’t help.

  • Pick your battles. Sometimes it becomes clear that we are not going to hear a performance of our piece the way we had hoped or intended; do the best you can, but don’t jeopardize your long-term relationship over it. Even when rehearsal is going well, try to prioritize what is essential and what can wait, and try not to stop anyone unless they’re just hopelessly off the mark in some fundamental way. And make sure that your first comments to the players are significant and not about some random detail: this is when they’ll be most receptive to your ideas, so don’t bury the important ones under a staccato mark that was left out.

  • Show initiative but be flexible with your role. Some ensembles I have worked with blast through rehearsals with only a cursory nod to the composer, while a couple appeared lost (or at least expected me to take a proactive role in leading the rehearsal); most ensembles fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum. So in addition to knowing the score, you’ll want to spend some time making a good plan of attack for rehearsal. Most ensembles will prefer to rehearse themselves with frequent appeals to the composer, but it never comes off bad to show you’re invested in the outcome. And once in a great while you might just encounter a group that has no clue as to how to proceed. You’ll want to be ready, because…

  • Impressions are important. Just as you’ll want to make a good impression on the personal level, you’ll also want your musical ideas to make the best impact they can. You can afford to take your time here—being clear is more important than being fast. Most importantly, by articulating your ideas calmly and clearly you’ll inspire confidence, and having the ensemble’s confidence goes a long way. Sometimes, even right through the concert and into rehearsals for the next composition.

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One thought on “Breaking the Ice

  1. rtanaka

    These are pretty good guidelines that I think would serve most people well. Most of it is just a matter of using common sense and being able to put yourself in the performer’s shoes. I always have my parts checked by performers prior to the first rehearsal to avoid any major mishaps, which I would also recommend doing.

    I can’t over-emphasize how important it is for the score to be clean, clear, and legible. Every time a performer asks “what’s this”, that’s 5 minutes of wasted time that could’ve been spent on something else. I think composers should attend rehearsals with the same level of urgency as performances, because in a lot of ways those sessions can be more rigorous than the actual performance itself.


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