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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Great post by Kenneth Woods

Kenneth Woods is an orchestral conductor with an excellent blog. His most recent post deals with the issue of having to repeat instructions for your musicians. Good thoughts on rehearsal technique.

I'd recommend you read it (and add his blog to your reader).

My response in the comments section was as follows:


I’ve been lurking for awhile and really enjoy your site and posts. I live near Seattle (in Tacoma, actually), but conduct a professional chamber choir in Edmonton (and know John, who’s sung with us quite a bit). This is a terrific post.

This issue of having to repeat yourself is certainly an area of frustration. Like John, as a choral conductor who works fairly often with orchestra, my experience has usually been that orchestras are much quicker to remember a comment than amateur choirs, in particular. With my own groups (I’ve done amateur community choirs, a symphonic choir, 21 years of university teaching, and a couple professional-level groups, plus guest conducting with the Swedish Radio Choir, a top-level professional choir), I’ve always tried to get them to make changes asked for immediately and to make sure they don’t make that particular mistake again (or to continue to do the asked for articulation, phrasing, etc., without my having to ask for it again). This is a constant battle, not one that I’ve ever been able to solve for all time, but we’ve always made progress.

A related area is that of being able to generalize from one instruction to all similar places in the music–if I ask for a particular articulation and the same or similar music comes back later, the singers or players should automatically apply the same articulation.

I think instrumentalists are also taught better to read everything on the page (not just notes, but dynamics, articulations, etc.). The number of singers with this discipline are few and far between. Years ago when I was conducting the Seattle Symphony Chorale, I remember being astonished in an audition when one bass read everything on the page–something I hadn’t heard in about 100 other singers auditioning. Again, something we need to work on teaching our ensembles.

I think of all of these kinds of things as “disciplines,” those things we teach our ensembles to do as a matter of course. In the same way, I need to have my own disciplines of approach–something I have to work on, too! For example, I find if I’m pressured for time (I wrote about this recently in my own blog), I tend to rush: talk too fast, rush through instructions, pace a little too quickly. This accomplishes the opposite of what I want, since some members of the ensemble will miss or misunderstand instructions, miss where we’re starting, etc., resulting in wasted time and their frustration. Just another area for me to be aware of personally.

Another area of discipline for the conductor is telling people where to begin again after stopping. I actually tend to do better with orchestra, since there are fewer ways to give out the information: bar number, rehearsal letter, “after A, one, two, three, four bars,” or “at the key change.” I also know I have to give players time to put down their instrument, take the pencil, make markings, take up their instrument again, play. With choral scores (unless I’m doing a choral/orchestral work, where I always work from the full score and give instructions as above), one can do all of the above, plus “page/system/bar,” using text, etc. This is purely MY problem, of course–I simply need to be more consistent. I have a friend who, with choral scores, uses a system where the instruction, “page 4, second system, bar 3,” was abbreviated 4-2-3. He taught this to his choirs and it worked quite well for him. I haven’t been so disciplined in my approach!

On the other hand, with all the ensembles I’ve worked with for a period of time, we’ve improved in our basic disciplines over time. And as they get to know me and what I value and prioritize (in sound, phrasing, articulation, etc.), the faster we get where we’re going and the fewer times I have to ask again for one thing or another.

No matter what the level of your ensemble, it’s clear that the more we can teach our ensembles this kind of discipline and focus, the more we’ll be able to accomplish.

Wish I had the magic answer!



liz said...

Hi Richard,
John Bertalot makes the comment in his book 'How to be a successful choir director' that if you find yourself having to repeat instructions, it is because your choir has trained you to do so! He's pretty perceptive on those kind of co-dependent - and usually effectiveness-impeding - habits that conductors and their ensembles sometimes get caught up in.

Richard said...


This is a very good comment from John Bertalot. I think most of the things that don't work in rehearsal or are, as you say, "effectiveness-impeding," are things we create (or allow our choruses to create).

Thanks for the comment!