"You're a long ways from art at the start."
Week 2: Communicating with the Ensemble
There were three sections to week 2 of the CPD course Fundamentals of Rehearsing Music Ensembles: selecting repertoire; conducting starts and stops; managing rehearsals. My reflections on week 1 can be found here. The points that struck me this week are listed beneath each section below.
Dr. Feldman summarised 10 considerations in selecting repertoire for ensembles which were taken from Acton Ostling's 1978 PhD: An Evaluation of Compositions for Wind Band According to Specific Criteria of Specific Artistic Merit. Although I'm unable to find a copy of this thesis online, there there is an updated evaluation from 2011 which seems very useful. The majority of the 10 considerations were very straight-forward and obvious but the fourth is worth pointing out:
The composition is sufficiently unpredictable to preclude an immediate grasp of its musical meaning.
A piece that doesn't give away all its secrets at once is one that will not only keep the attention of the audience during the length of the piece but also the interest of the students as they rehearse it week after week.
In our choice of repertoire, it was noted that there are many 'constituencies' that we need to serve: the ensemble, the audience as ourselves as conductors. However, one of the interviewees, the orchestral conductor Tonu Kalam, made the point that the main constituent in an educational setup is obviously the ensemble. Focusing even more on the issue, Kalam mentioned that even within the ensemble there are a number of constituencies that we need to 'keep busy'. So, in my setting, there is a grade 7 trumpeter that I need to 'keep busy' whilst encouraging the rest of the ensemble in more foundational skills. Not only can this be achieved in selecting appropriate repertoire, but through composing/arranging for my ensemble.
A final, and interesting, point was made when we put repertoire together in a concert setting. It was suggested that descending key relationships or pieces all in one key should be avoided. We don't want to create aural fatigue throughout pieces in the same key and we should try and build up and brighten a program through ascending key relationships.
Conducting: starting & stopping
In our starting and stopping we want to strive for no vocal cues and as few preparatory beats as possible. In order to do this I should ensure that my active beat (used for getting the ensemble going) needs to be as secure as possible. Losing these preparatory beats is a better use of ensemble time.
After stopping the ensemble, the practical point was made that we shouldn't start talking and giving out instructions immediately. The ensemble simply won't hear or be ready to pay attention to what we're saying. I'm especially guilty of talking immediately in my eagerness to communicate with the ensemble!
Building on the point made above about communicating with ensemble, Dr. Feldman encouraged the use of Who; Where; What. So, for example: 'Trumpets; bar 4; more staccato'. As with many of the principles put forward in communicating with ensemble, efficiency was the reason behind this. It means that not everyone is looking at their part for something that isn't there and that doesn't concern them.
Developing this idea of efficient communication, it was suggested that we should be careful in communicating too much with words. Especially at the start of the learning process this could really hinder the progress of the piece and confidence of the learners. As it was put...
You're a long ways from art when you start. And the more instructions you give the more you sort of clutter the background information...
... so just get on with making music and communicate your ideas through secure conducting from the front.
Tonu Kalam makes the important comment that singing can cut many, many inefficient words:
I tend to sing, quite often in rehearsals to demonstrate, how a phrase should go. I think it's much easier to just sing a line, rather than say, well I want it to get louder here by the third note and then you come down to sort of a mezzo piano and then make this one shorter and, they've fallen asleep by then. You know, so you really need to just sing it. They'll imitate it... everybody knows conductors don't pretend to be singers. We all have terrible voices, and we sound horrible when we sing but, that's the way we get the best results. The best conductors are always modeling by singing for their ensembles what they want to hear,
An incredibly simple and yet often overlooked point was made about bar numbers - they're essential. And if the music you have doesn't contain them then set get the ensemble to add in all the bar numbers as homework before the next rehearsal. This is especially relevant to me as having purchased the absolutely fantastic Book for All Occasions by Matt Kingston as a survival tool for the various settings we play in, I discovered that a major downside is that there are no bar numbers in any of the pieces. I will absolutely get the players to write the bar numbers in once we start the new academic year.
Instead of repeating the same direction over and over again (e.g. 'more staccato, please') when the players just aren't getting it, we should 'creatively hide the repetition'. This seems like a great rehearsal tool which will save us from wearing the ensemble down. Here's a snippet of my notes as to the different options we have when hiding our repetition:
Finally, a very important thing to keep in mind is that:
... sometimes you've reached the peak of how well they [the ensemble] can play a certain passage that day. And you say, okay, I'm going to let it alone for now. We'll try it again at the next rehearsal or next week... because it's going to be a point of diminishing returns.