• Sheikh, Rattle & Roll

Fundamentals of Rehearsing Music Ensembles: week 1

I'm currently undertaking some self-study CPD called Fundamentals of Rehearsing Music Ensembles.

Here are some quick-fire questions before I reflect on week 1:

Who? The main lecturer of the course is Dr. Evan Feldman, a seasoned conductor based at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

What? The course is a 6 week self-study course focusing on various elements of rehearsing musical ensembles (conducting; how to run a rehearsal; philosophy of rehearsals; etc.). There are many videos in traditional lecture format but also of Dr. Feldman conducting different ensembles, modelling what he is teaching.

Where? The course is accessed through Coursera - a great resource for accessing courses from universities all over the world.

When? I can watch the videos and answer the assessments when is suitable for me, although the course length is 6 weeks so I need to keep up with the pace.

How? As a slight aside, I am enjoying the versatility of my Surface Pro for studying this course: I can copy the transcript of the course to OneNote, snap this window to the right hand side and then snap the video to the left hand side. I can then use the stylus to highlight and take notes. Very satisfying!

Why? My current role includes teaching brass and have taken the initiative to set up a brass band and a brass quintet. Although I have taken many rehearsals throughout my teaching career, starting an ensemble from scratch really allows me to set up the ethos. I'm wanting to do this in a very intentional way and so learn from others more experienced than me and put their advice into practice.

Week 1: An Introduction to Rehearsing

Having just completed week 1, here are my takeaway points that I want to impact my rehearsals. They're not earth-shattering, but just good practice which needs to be reinforced occasionally.

"You don't come to rehearsal to learn your part...

... you come to learn everyone else's part." The point was made that we need to give our players the big picture and so how they fit into it. More than this, we must take the opportunity to show them why we want them to play, for example, staccato. Providing this greater depth of meaning needs to be integrated 'within the bread and butter rehearsing that we're already doing'. This is what makes an ensemble an exciting moment, the interaction between the musical lines.

Cohesion is Key

In the above example, a staccato was asked from one section. A particular role of the conductor is to be quite precise in the type of staccato they want. For the specific reason of cohesion. This was highlighted in the final video of the week when I watched Dr. Feldman conducting - he really was specific in what he asked and if the performers didn't quite achieve what he was asking then he would get them to try again.

A Conductor Needs...

  1. Ear training to know what the music is meant to sound like

  2. Evaluating skills to constantly be comparing the music from our ensemble with what we know the music should sound like from our ear training

  3. Problem solving skills to help the ensemble improve to get to that 'ideal' performance

  4. Conducting skills

Whilst I feel I have a firm grasp of 1 - 3, I am aware that I need to further develop my conducting skills. I am glad that in each week there are videos to help develop good conducting skills. These will be revisited by me throughout the course.

Plan, plan, plan...

It really struck me that throughout the videos planning was inferred so many times. We need to plan for what we want to tackle each rehearsal and then 'calibrate' our ears to pick up on this during each run through. However, as with every plan we should be flexible as a different (and productive) direction may present itself midway through a rehearsal.

"Composer's Advocate"

This is a term which means that, as the conductor, we're "essentially the servant of the composer... we're there to advocate for his or her musical creation... we want to make sure that we're honouring their intentions." So we may advocate on their behalf by being flexible in our performance for either practical or expressive reasons:

  • A practical reason may be that one of our sections is pretty weak (maybe due to number of players or ability of players) and so the mp needs to be interpreted as a mf in order for the musical line to be heard in the way the composer intended.

  • An expressive reason may be to take the tempo slightly slower but 'we're still going to be incredibly vibrant with our articulation' to portray what the composer was intending at the faster tempo.

What is interesting for me is the understanding that composer's don't often want to 'micromanage' their music. Indeed they 'expect' a lot from the conductor and assume that the conductor cares about the composer's intentions. In this sense, the conductor sits in a very trusted position.

From the Choral Conductor...

When interviewed, a choral conductor mentioned how and where he likes to begin a rehearsal:

  • He likes to take it as close to tempo as possible so as to not have to learn everything twice (once at slow; second at tempo)

  • A compact starting place where all the performers share something similar so that everything he says applies to all performers

Another great thought from him, which can be applied outwith the choral world:

... my rule is try and involve as many people as much of the time as I possibly can... And then if I have to reduce, or it I have to cut down then I'm going to cut down for a minimal amount of time to the minimal level at which I can keep as many people going as possible.

This is a really important point that I want to keep in the forefront of my mind as I take rehearsals. It was interesting to see this principle in action in the final video of the course where Dr. Feldman was rehearsing a wind band. Despite the fact that he was focusing on the phrasing of one particular section, he brought the whole band back in with the statement: 'Let's all see if we can copy the phrasing we just worked on there'. So even when we are focusing on a small detail, we can make sure it's relevant to the rest of the band. In order for this to be most effective a culture of listening needs to be cultivated in all of the band members.


This is a foundation principle that is going to run through the entire course:

... starting with the macro, the big picture or overview, and then working into the micro, the details, working

on those details and then coming back out again to the macro, to the big picture.

This can be seen already in my (and many other people's) rehearsal techniques. For example, playing a passage and then stripping it into it's layers, and then putting it back together again. I'm looking forward to seeing how this principle is developed in different ways throughout the course.

#rehearsing #coursera #conducting #techniques #onlinelearning #MicrosoftSurface #EvanFeldman

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