Transcending the self

To my surprise and delight, my post on repetition in rehearsal has attracted a number of really interesting comments, including three fascinating ones from choral conductors. First was this one from regular Vftp commenter John on his outstanding blog, then this one from Seattle based Richard Sparks and most recently this one from Chris Rowbury, who, like John and Richard, has an excellent blog and is based in the UK.

Chris writes something very true and perceptive that also brought to mind a concept that has been nibbling at my sub-conscious for some time….

Here is a substantial quote from Chris’s post:

It occurred to me that it also may be an issue of learning styles. It is well-known that different people respond in different ways to being taught. Some need to be shown visually, some need to hear it said and others need to have some kind of tactile input. There is also an issue of finding the right words or way of expressing something that will click in properly with each individual’s internal concepts. For example, the following are different ways of saying roughly the same thing:

“we will go very quiet from here, then at the beginning of the last verse we will gradually get louder until we reach a maximum at the end”

“I want pianissimo from bar 12, then a gradual crescendo from bar 18 until we reach mezzo forte by the end of the piece”

“imagine that you are singing to a baby but don’t want to wake him. Then it’s as if the sun comes out from behind a cloud and the energy of the sound begins to increase from the word ‘moving’ and gets bigger and bigger until by the end we fill the whole house with sound”

Depending on each individual’s personality, experience, and even the kind of day that they’ve had, they may respond to each of the above in different ways. The first may well get through to the majority of the choir, the second to those few who are musically or mathematically inclined, and the last to those with more visual imaginations. In a way, we will have repeated ourselves, but it’s more like finding as many different ways of saying the same thing so that we can get through to everyone involved. We’ve all had the experience of repeating ourselves until we’re blue in the face, only for the person we’re talking to have a light bulb go off in their head when they suddenly get it. It’s just that we’ve eventually found the right way of saying it which has got through to them.”

Where I agree with Chris wholeheartedly is in the absolute need for any conductor to have an immense tool box and to be incredibly perceptive in figuring out what means of explanation or demonstration  will be most effective with a given group.

However, (although I realize this may sound as though I am out of touch with modern notions of learning styles), I don’t think that a rehearsal is the place to adapt to or accommodate the personal learning styles of individual musicians, and the extent to which we do this (and we all do in every group) is a reflection of how far we are from truly functioning as an ensemble as opposed to a group of individuals.

Ideally (and it is our job to strive towards the ideal),  each individual member of a group should make a commitment in their own preparation to come to rehearsal in sufficient command of their own music that their own learning styles, as well as their personal musical and technical strengths, weaknesses and tendencies are not a problem for the group.

In fact, there is nothing more inspiring or liberating for a musician than the feeling of being in a group where everyone is so personally committed and prepared that the psychologies of the individual members becomes irrelevant. When everyone is in command of their own parts, and arrives focused and fresh, a conductor can simply say “play at the frog” or “put the “T” on beat four” once and it is done.

To this end, the presence of strong and committed leaders within the ensemble is key. It is no longer considered good manners for a conductor to say something like “Thank you for a wonderful concert, however, the preparation for the first rehearsal was not adequate and you need to step it up for next time.” A principal, especially one who models the highest standards of preparation, can (and should) do that. I know one wonderful orchestra where one can look around at the string sections and see which ones practice and which one’s sight-read and it is entirely a reflection of the leadership of the various section leaders.

Let’s not be content to leave ourselves defined by our limitations, tendencies, habits or patterns. Music, in addition to sounding cool, is an endeavour that offers us the chance to transcend the limitations of our self image and to escape the prison of our own self-image. I’m not saying a conductor should ignore the needs of individual members- far from it, but the best gift a conductor can give a musician is the freedom to escape their personal junk and to become an integrated member of the group. A conductor should try to empower the musicians to excel in that journey.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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