Musicians in an orchestra rehearsing with a conductor
How to be While in Rehearsals

How to be While in Rehearsals

Musicians in an orchestra rehearsing with a conductor

The American Composers Orchestra in rehearsal, photo courtesy ASO

There’s nothing quite like sitting through a rehearsal of your new work. Many readers of this site will know this feeling. You are simultaneously evaluating the piece, assessing the performance, and keeping a mental tally of things you need to tell the musicians. I know people who have purposely worn dark colors to rehearsals because of the secret world of sweating that happens with a new work.

From the other side, as a conductor, I’ve learned over the years that each composer’s demeanour in rehearsals is unique. In the same way that everyone writes music differently, each composer has his or her own style of collaborating. Some want to play a very active role and some like to sit at the back and give an occasional thumbs up. Many of you are black belts at this, but for those composers just starting out here are some tips for having excellent collaborative skills in rehearsal.

I’m sure that you do this anyway, but when in doubt about how to behave in the rehearsal room (or in meetings or when drafting emails, for that matter), always default to professionalism.

Your score and parts will represent you a hundred times more than anything you do in rehearsal. Make sure that your score and parts correspond in all aspects to this MOLA document. It’s a compliation of what orchestra librarians accross North America have agreed is the best way to present your music. Following these guidelines is how you will avoid glimpsing voodoo dolls of yourself with pins in them on the musicians’ stands.

Speak the language of music when providing feedback. I’ve found that many composers want to poetically convey the feeling of a passage when it would be better to give musical details. For example: “pianissimo instead of mezzo piano at measure forty eight.” Talk in terms of dynamics, articulations, tempos, sul pont vs sul tasto, accidentals, and so on. Speaking poetically about the piece as a whole is a great inspirational strategy, but in fixing individual moments, try to offer the musical specifics.

Don’t be embarrassed about changing dynamics. There have been premieres where we changed nearly every dynamic in the piece during rehearsals. If you need to fix things because you are hearing it in the hall for the first time, don’t be afraid to do it either on the spot or by providing a concise list by the next rehearsal.

Be authentic. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s O.K. to say you need to think about it.

Keep an eye on the clock when providing feedback. Your conductor has calculated the rehearsal time down to the nanosecond. Listen for cues from him or her as to how long you have to talk. It’s rarely enough time to say everything you would like to, so you often need to prioritize on the spot.

Roll with it. Sometimes musicians joke around a bit in rehearsals, especially if it’s been a tough week. Don’t take it as an affront to your music. I promise they are taking it seriously. They know it’s their responsibility to play every premiere as though it’s the greatest piece ever written. Based on my experience, on the night of the show, they’ll knock it out of the park.

Learn to conduct. I often hear from older composers (older than I!) that one of the things they regret is not learning how to conduct when they were younger. If you are in a composition program and there is a conducting program at your school, try to take some of those classes. It’s difficult to find conducting opportunities once you are out of school. The thing about conducting is that you have to want to do it and to make it happen on your own. And like anything really hard, it takes about ten years to learn how to do it properly, so starting early is a good thing. However, once you have a reputation for being able to competently conduct your own pieces, it’s a great way to eliminate the middle man and give feedback about your music directly to the players.

And last but not least, remember that your reputation will precede you. Always speak well of your colleagues, even when they are not there. When one composer is celebrated, don’t let jealousy cloud the accomplishment. It’s good for everyone as it brings more attention and opportunities to the community as a whole. New music is the little guy and we are all in this together, so be sure to support your colleagues whenever you can.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

7 thoughts on “How to be While in Rehearsals

  1. Ella

    Thanks for ad[dressing] these concerns, Brian.
    Most especially, the link to the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association [MOLA] publication.
    The Conductors Guild workshops at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music ( showcase new composer works, as an important working element. Scores and parts are picked at from all angles – the lead composer in residence, the lead conductors and of course, the players themselves give feed-back to the composers.

  2. Scott Voyles

    This is an excellent topic, Brian, and one that should be openly discussed much more!

    As a conductor, having worked with hundreds of young (and established) composers, I would love to build on some things that you mention here.

    First of all, do everything you possibly can to help us help you. This means first and foremost, meeting your deadlines. We simply cannot help you as well as we can (or want), if you don’t give us the chance. Maybe you think the musicians won’t look at the music until the week of the rehearsals, but I promise you, most of us are working on it before (especially the conductors!!!).

    Also, while the MOLA guidelines are an excellent resource and an absolute first stop, you should also discuss with the conductor/ensemble if they have preferences. For example, I personally love when every bar is numbered, the scores are smaller, and spiral binding. When I get scores like this, I carry them around with me all the time, and the act of learning your music is more enjoyable. These are very small things that make a world of difference. Again, when you make our work a little easier, it pays you dividends.

    When going into rehearsals, you might quickly discuss with the conductor how best to give information and/or feedback. If you’re a bit nervous or inexperienced, maybe it’s better to give your feedback to the conductor directly and let them translate it to the ensemble. This is also a great way to learn to speak to an ensemble in a direct and musical way. Also, and this comes with a lot of experience, be realistic in your expectations in rehearsal. Sitting in the corner of the room with your microtonal keyboard when all we need is to get the rhythm together, is not productive.

    I would close by seconding the idea that composers (indeed all musicians) should learn to conduct. My experience in teaching composers to conduct has proven how important to the synergetic working relationship this can be. Also, try to examine how different instrumental/vocal groups in ensembles work: when learning a piece, string, wind and percussion players all approach musical material in slightly different ways at first sight (intonation, rhythm), etc. They each have their own process, so try to have patience when one aspect doesn’t work quite yet.

    Conducting is part information, part inspiration, and the best experiences I’ve had with composers have always been when they inspire me and the musicians. This mostly happens when you know exactly what you want, have notated it as clearly as possible, and can communicate this to us as succinctly and with as much information and honesty as possible. Do that, and you can’t go wrong!

  3. mbhaub

    I want to add: when a player tells you a particular passage is unplayable on his instrument, please listen and take the advice! I recently played a new work with a contrabassoon part that might have sounded good on the piano, but was so high and fast that it was virtually impossible. Even on bassoon it would have been extremely difficult. And then, the composer wanted to actually hear it being played against a brass section and percussion section playing full volume. Composers must learn the practical playing characteristics of every instrument, and even then must ask players if unsure.

  4. Pingback: Brian Current: How To Be While In Rehearsal | Choirpundit

  5. Kevin O.

    Remember one time in rehearsal of a new work, the tuba hit a wrong note. The composer sitting in the rafters, screamed–wrong note tuben! He wanted the tuba to be played fortissimo with the horns who already were playing some unplayable part by some eager beaver idealistic new composer who only plays the baton/piano. The 2nd horn let out a b flatch, and everyone laughed. Be light in rehearsing new works by kids–most know everything! Lol.


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