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……