As I was just saying

Many years ago, when I was beginning to get very serious about conducting, I used to take every possible opportunity to talk to other conductors about the intricacies of the craft.

One established maestro who was very generous with his time was Oakland East Bay Symphony conductor Michael Morgan, who I cornered at a festival where I wasn’t even studying or working. In addition to giving me a very helpful lesson on Rite of Spring (his top tip- look for lyricism and color in the piece- there’s a lot there and it is often under-conceptualized and under-rehearsed), we also talked a lot about general approaches to rehearsal technique.

Michael said (as I recall- with apologies if I mis-quote) that the most valuable thing he had learned from watching Solti rehearse for many years in Chicago was Solti’s absolute refusal to repeat himself in rehearsals- and it was the rapid loss of that part of the orchestra’s culture that he thought was the most serious set-back of the post-Solti years.

 Over the last fifteen years, I’ve often remembered those words as I’ve watched many a rehearsal with orchestras at all levels. Of course, there are still many elite orchestras that do maintain a very high level of in-rehearsal focus, but, on the whole, I see more and more that at all levels there is a more tolerance of situations in which basic information (in two/four, yes- we’re taking the repeat, on the string, etc) has to be repeated by either the conductor or principal. Yes, there are islands of excellence, but on the whole, I think rehearsals today, at all levels, are often less focused than 20 years ago.

In my own work, I HATE repeating myself in rehearsals- when I have to, I can practically see the arms of the clock speed up to a blur andwatch our precious time disapearing into the cosmic sewers of wasted opportunities. I may be a diplomatic guy, but you can bet that if I have to repeat things, I’m neither impressed nor happy with the situation.

I think there are a couple of things at work here- one is that in the larger culture of our time, you say often something only once when you specifically do not want the listener to absorb the information. Think of the disclaimers at the ends of drug advertisements- the ytell you three or four times that this little pill may improve your allergy symptoms, but only once that it might also stop your breathing and kill you. From childhood, we are trained that if something is worth saying, it is worth repeating, when the opposite is true- is something is worth saying, it is worth listening to the first tme.

I recently had a very valued and really reliable colleague completely miss the announcement that two movements of a piece were attacca, which was bad news, because she was one of two people on stage who play the first note of the latter movement. I started thinking of this post because I was so surprised that she, of all people, could have missed that particular boat.

The second probelm at work seems to be that the more collegial working environment one sees today (which is a good thing) doesn’t really have a user-friendly mechanism for dealing with people who don’t pay attention. The vast majority of players take their work seriously and want to get through rehearsals quickly and efficiently, but there are always space cadets. Perhaps back in the bad old day, a conductor could sack someone who never knew where the orchestra was starting from, or who always played in the same part of the bow no matter what they’ve been told. Certainly, old-school maestri were not shy about chewing out flaky characters in rehearsal.

No more- in fact, there is really no healthy way of dealing with those situations, and instead, the spacey-ness spreads like toxic mold though the band, leaving it to the conductor to throw the odd temper tantrum to get everyone concentrating again.

Over the years, at orchestras of, shall we say, variable standard, I’ve learned a corollary to the “don’t repeat yourself,” rule, which is- if you’re going to ask for something, you have to be prepared to keep asking until you get it. Then, once you’ve got it, never repeat yourself. Yes, I desperately wish I lived in the world where I could say “non-vibrato” or “no space at all between the notes” once and move on, but there is always (even in very great bands) that one guy who has to vibrate every note of every piece, or the player who never saw two notes they didn’t want to separate. Chances are, if you have to say it once it is either because they’ve learned it the other way with a previous conductor, which means you’re asking them to unlearn a practiced behaviour, or you’re asking for something that, while musically important, is perhaps a little technically inconvenient. Either way, there’s not much incentive for the vast majority of caring players to put the work in to get it right if you’re just going to let old Bob on the fourth desk carry on doing it the other way (usually louder than everyone else). This is about the trickiest aspect of rehearsal psychology- getting the straggler(s) on board with out singling them out or humiliating anyone. Sometimes I have had to resort to saying “remember, this passage is to be played non-vibrato. Some players are still vibrating. When we play it now, ask yourself- am I the one he’s talking about?”

In my experience, the most important resource for a conductor in trying to create a focused atmosphere is a good concertmaster. The concertmaster can be far more effective than the conductor in setting the tone in rehearsals- a good leader gets their fiddle down and in their lap within a millisecond of the conductor stopping and is constantly aware of who is playing on after the orchestra stops or talking immediately. A good leader knows how to make a wayward player feel their gaze and know they are being watched and silently judged. On the other hand, if you’ve got a leader who is part of the problem, get yourself another orchestra….. There’s no worse sign for a conductor than when you stop for the first time and the concermaster plows ahead for ten bars then turns around and starts fixing a bowing while you are talking to the first violins….

Of course, it would be lovely to work in a world where one never had to repeat a starting point or remind a section of something worked on the night before, but those worlds have to be built. When one does see those few bands that still manage to rehearse with a sort of elegant efficiency it is worth remembering- this is not a natural state, and it is certainly not symptomatic of our time. Someone has worked hard to create that atmosphere. How did they do it? When did the culture change? How do they maintain it?

Meanwhile, I’m going to work this weekend intent on not repeating myself. Did you hear that? I am not going to repeat myself in rehearsal this weekend…. This weekend, I’m not repeating- you’ll have to PAY ATTENTION, because I am only going to say things ONE TIME and not repeat them…..

I’m sorry, perhaps you didn’t hear me say that this weekeend……

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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11 comments on “As I was just saying”

  1. John

    Great post as usual. As you know by now after my previous comments on your blog, my profession is choral conducting – which means REPEATING oneself in rehearsal tends to be part of the business – no matter what the level of the choir. Last night, I was taking the podium for the Symphonic choir (120+ voices) and the number of times I had to repeat the page number or bar number was infuriating! Now, it’s not “my” choir, I’m just the associate, so there is no long term solution, unless I could take the podium ever week an enforce a better rehearsal focus from the group. In my experience, the only time a group of people remember something you say “only once”, it is usually something you don’t want them to remember (I’m watching Roger Clemens struggle through this problem right now).

    I have a question for you – I work with orchestra maybe about 2-3 times a year. I wish it was more – from what they tell me, they enjoy working for me, and likewise, I with them. I love the “professional” aspect of the orchestra rehearsal, even if for the first 5 minutes of the rehearsal I usually feel like a fish out of water, and a bit nervous. Anyhow, this weekend I am conducting a professional Baroque string orchestra with my chamber choir, Handel and Bach on the program. I get two rehearsals with the orchestra, first one with soloists, second with the choir, then a dress rehearsal and then the concert. Not a lot of time really, although not unusual. Likely we will only “rehearse” each movement once before the dress, as a 2..5 hour service with 70-80 minutes of music will fly by. Do you have a method for working out how much time to allocate for rehearsal? I was once told 2.5 minutes of rehearsal for every 1 minute of performance time. I’ve worked out the rehearsal schedule with this in mind, borrowing time from easy movements for more difficult movements. It seems like a ridiculous thing to do, but if I don’t, I will run out of time – and with the union clock ticking, there is no going overtime.

    Any other suggestions on how to make a short rehearsal process like this more effective?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi John-

    Great to hear from you, as always. I knew a quite established conductor who never recovered from asking the flutes if they were muted in a passage (hint to the non initiaitaed- flutes don’t use mutes, at least not in orchestra). Anyway, he only had to say that once for him to evermore be known as Captain Flute Mute.

    To answer your question- I’ve never had much success at trying to find a mathematical formula. With good players and singers, I can rehearse a very good Messiah on one 3 hour call, but that’s a very familiar piece. Your best assett is a good librarian- make sure all the bowings, cuts, repeats, ripieni markings, continue markings and so on are clearly and consistently marked in every part. It only takes one part with a wrong marking to waste 4 minutes of time, especially if they’ve got the wrong version of a movement circled or the like. Then, show everything and have fun. Conduct as if you had all the rehearsal time in the world- as expresively as you can. Don’t try to be extra clear to save time- it never works, because that kind of kappellmeisterish viertel-schlagging doesn’t transmit any information to the players.


  3. Richard Sparks


    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!


  4. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Richard

    Thanks for the fantastic comment. It’s good to hear from a new colleague.

    You’re absolutely that it is all about building a culture within your group and remembering not to undermine it- I appreciate your self awareness about not talking too fast when you’re feeling time pressures. I’m prone to the same thing, and, of course, if you don’t speak intelligably, you can’t expect everyone to pick things up the first time.

    Look forward to reading more of your blog. Please comment again!

    All best


  5. ComposerBastard

    Ladies and Gents:

    I think you might give it a consideration, that perhaps it’s not necessarily the musicians fault for this cultural calamity, and perhaps we just need to live with it. The complexity of coming from an overtly saturated world of media, sound bytes, cell phones, talking automobiles, and video into a rehearsal universe of pin point focused concentration is not an easy transition to make no matter how professional we might project ourselves to be. Lets also not forget all the personal stuff and global warming running through our heads. Yes 20 years ago that might have been easier. But, things are “different” these days. There’s a hell off a lot of noise that wasn’t in our lives back then…

    The psychological clinical words that describes this fanatical difference and situation is:

    Exponential Cognitive Dissonance

    Mathematically, you’re always going to get someone who spaces out in a large group. Thats the way probability works and how people are. You’re just lucky that you are there to hold things together and clarify and reinforce. Think what would happen if it was a charismatic community where there was no leader. Well, I wouldn’t mind because Mahler would never get played =)

  6. Sheridan Currie

    OHMYGOD!!!!! Did you play in my orchestra this week???? You could totally have written this about us, particularly this week.

    Hey, you’ve published tips here in some previous posts for soloists and composers… How about some for principals/concertmasters?

    I totally think we need a Masala reunion tour. 🙂


  7. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Sheridan! Great to hear from you. Eva was in for the last OES concert- a Masala tour is a grand idea. We just have to pull Kio back from Berlin….

    Principals and concertmasters- I’m not sure I’m that brave. They’re always on committees…. On the other hand, I bet I’d get less blow back than I did from those few composers who didn’t fancy that post.

    Say hi to the Dayton gang for me!


  8. Chris Rowbury

    Hi Ken

    First time poster here, though I do read your blog regularly. I lead a community choir here in the UK which specialises in world music unaccompanied harmony singing. To make the choir as accessible as possible we have an open access policy: no need to audition (my belief is that everyone can sing) and no need to read music (i.e. we don’t exclude people because of their previous experience or lack of training). The upshot is that I teach everything by ear, so we kind of live in a different world to you, although we do perform regularly to a high standard.

    Your post rang many bells with me!! A lot of the time we need to repeat ourselves simply because people aren’t paying attention. This may be regarding important logistical information (“rehearsal tomorrow starts at 7pm prompt”) or specifically about the piece of music being worked on (“I want this section to really slow down here”). But even if people are totally focused and paying attention to your every word, I wonder whether learning styles might come into this also.

    For example, you can say something in many different ways: “we’ll go very quiet from here, then gradually get louder until we reach a climax at the end” OR “I want pianissimo from bar 12, then a gradual crescendo from bar 18 until we reach mezzo forte at the last bar” OR “I want you to imagine that you’re singing this to a baby that you don’t want to wake, then you’ll gradually get louder until towards the very end when you’ll sound like you can break the windows!”. All may well pretty much mean the same thing, but only one of these may get through to a particular individual. I’m sure you know the situation. You’ve been saying the same thing again and again, then suddenly a light bulb goes off in the person’s head.

    Your post on repeating yourself has inspired my next blog entry to be about repetition. Thanks!

    From the front of the choir:

  9. patty

    Hmmm. Lots to think about with this one! I’ve often pondered what makes some conductors so great and others so … well … not so great. I realize I’m not in a top notch orchestra, but I do think I’ve seen some very fabulous conductors, and I know I’ve had to sit under some that were horrible.

    I’m not sure about the “don’t repeat” kind of thing. I have no problem with being reminded if we are being non-responsive. And sometimes we are. Disregarding what a conductor says must be infuriating. But having the conductor call us on it is fine by me. If it is being repeated because we aren’t listening … well … that’s our world, yes? The back of the orchestra so frequently yaks. The further away from the maestro, the noisier we are! (And yes, it’s frustrating!)

    So I dunno. You can repeat away for me. 🙂 Most of the time.

    From an instrumentalist’s POV (and only mine, mind you), some things I’ve thought about with conductors recently ….

    I think some conductors lose us very quickly by stating obvious things that we can do without, or by telling us something (like “don’t drag”) but causing us to do that very thing with the baton technique. (Of course many conductors who do that are unaware ….) Another thing that will lose us is too much chatter rather than, first, just showing us! I grow weary of conductors who give us a huge talk about what he or she will do rather than running a work and seeing what might be necessary to tell us. After running a work — or perhaps just a movement — then I don’t mind at all being told what I might have missed.

    Conductors who let us out early when we really need more rehearsal lose me completely. I know we look like we want to quit early, but I have much more respect for a conductor who is strong enough to deal with our behavior and make us work. (In my orchestra many conductors try so hard to be liked, since we are a “guest conductor only” orchestra for the time being, and they’d like to be asked back. So they try to win us over … at least that’s how it feels!)

    Feedback: I really need to know if a conductor is unhappy with what I’m doing. I also need to know if a conductor is happy with what I’m doing. No response at all drives me bonkers! (Many of us are so insecure that “no news is bad news.”)

    I wish more conductors would call us on intonation. I think out of all the conductors we’ve had in the past five years, maybe two or three have said a word about intonation.

    But I ramble. (Typical of me.) And please excuse my poor writing and what probably sounds quite arrogant. I think I’ll send this off without embarrassing myself be re-reading it. Probably a mistake … but there you go ….

    Do tell us how you did with your non-repeat pledge. 🙂

  10. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Patty!

    Lovely to hear from you,and I hope the other conductors read your comment as carefully as I did.

    Every teacher, mentor and boss I had in my early years warned against ever opening the intonation can of worms with a professional orchestra- let someone else deal with it seems to be the safe path for many. Maybe this is why I’m not conducting the LSO, but after 10 years of quartet playing, I can’t imagine not working on intonation, and do it all the time, and it’s only ever about once a year that someone seems put out by it….

    I did okay, but not perfectly- it’s always more important to do what the performance needs than to sacrifice things to achieve an ideal. The best way not to repeat oneself is to say little and show much…

    Thanks again


  11. liz garnett

    Hi Ken,

    John Bertalot makes the point in his book ‘How to be successful choir director’ that if you have to repeat yourself, it’s becuase your ensemble has trained you to do so. I like his approach because it puts the responsibility back on the conductor to fix the problem. Of course the ensemble is full of easily-distracted people with poor attention spans – that’s what happens if you work with human beings 🙂

    Richard Sparks talks in his comment about disciplines as being something that exist in the *relationship* between conductor and ensemble, and I think that’s a useful way to think about it. If people are in the habit of turning their brains off the minute they take the fiddle from beneath their chin, it’s going to take time to change, but the conductor needs the discipline to resist falling into behaviours that are co-dependent with these unhelpful habits. Rehearsal time spent waiting for full attention rather than speaking over partial attention is time well spent.

    Just stumbled across your blog from a link at Richard’s, by the way – am enjoying having a browse through your world view.


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