The last rehearsal

“Ken, we’ve had a few personnel issues while you were away and were down several string players. We’ve filled most of the places, but there are two violinists who can only come Saturday to the dress rehearsal, but they are very good.”

“That’s fine”

”Also, I should point out the woman in the dark shirt in the 2nds”

“Yes” I recognized her. She’d played in other programs I’d done with this orchestra, but hadn’t been to rehearsals for this concert.

“She won’t be there on Saturday.”


“You see she’s dying of cancer.”

I’ve seen so much cancer in the last three years, I could quickly tell exactly where she was in the grim progression of the disease. She didn’t look sick, just a little tired and very sad. There’s that long phase when you know that the body is being slowly, relentlessly devoured and dismantled from within, where the only visual evidence is that look of fatigue and sadness. In some weeks, there would be a crisis of some kind as the body reached a breaking point- that could be the end or the beginning of the end.

“Well, she’d hoped to come for some rehearsals in September, just to play for fun, but it looks like she won’t make it till then, so I encouraged her to come tonight just to play a bit and see everyone, but I didn’t want you to be worried if she wasn’t there for the concert.”

“No that’s, fine. Of course”

“Then there is the……” My colleague continued updating me on the logistics and dramas surrounding the concert this week, but my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking about what to do in a rehearsal when you know it might be someone’s last. Suddenly, drilling this program to the highest possible level didn’t seem like such an important goal. What could I… what could we give her in this rehearsal- would she enjoy playing through big chunks of things, or exploring a few interesting corners in the music in a bit of detail? Could I help work the band up to a good tingly-sensation moment? Should we just keep everything low-key?

We got down to work, and I looked over at her during the first tutti passage. She seemed tentative, obviously sight reading, and a little frail.

And then the next thing I knew, it was the break. My rehearsal instinct is so strong, I think I’m no longer capable of keeping anything in my head during a rehearsal except the work at hand. Whatever issues I mean to keep track of during the session, I usually forget as soon as I start working. Sometimes I feel more like an animal in rehearsals, in the sense that everything I do is so driven by instinct, habit and training.

As I stepped away from my stand, I remembered her, and looked over. She was loosening her bow, but stayed seated as I left the room. I went outside, made some small talk with other players. My mind was still elsewhere. I wanted somehow for this rehearsal to give her a bit of comfort or pleasure. It’s funny, but once you leave school and start working with orchestras, you learn that death is a regular presence in orchestral life, as it is in all life. I’ve lost quite a few colleagues over the last 15 years. The long-term projection for everyone involved in an orchestra is a 100% mortality rate. However, knowing that this random week will likely be the last for someone is different- and I guess it hit me more because of the fact that I didn’t have any other connection to this player other than the orchestra. I’d never have noticed she was ill, and I’m sure she was previous times she played. She surely deserved a rehearsal with a conductor who knew her better, and here she was, stuck with this intense American she’s never really met.

I could hope that she’d enjoyed the first half, but I’d been too much in my rehearsal trance to observe her reactions. I was determined to watch more carefully and to try and make that last hour as fun and satisfying as possible. Fuck the concert.

But, as we started to tune, I could see she wasn’t returning to her seat. She looked very tired now. She found a chair behind the orchestra and sat and listened until the end of the rehearsal.

When we finished, she was talking to someone as I walked by. I tapped her gently, extra gently, on the shoulder. “Thank you so much for coming in tonight,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”

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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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2 comments on “The last rehearsal”

  1. Paul Carey

    Dear Kenneth,

    I love this blog, but I hope that you will join me in realizing the importance of knowing the musicians under your baton more thoroughly as human beings. There is a sadness implicit in your blog, and part of the sadness is that you weren’t connected to this woman. In fact, it even seems as if you still held her away from yourself even at that rehearsal. All these wonderful internal thoughts you expressed in the blog- why couldn’t you have said them to her out loud that night? I encourage you to reach out far more the next time this situation arises… what you will be doing spiritually will be wonderful and awe-inspiring. Peace and Luv, Paul Carey

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Paul

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    I should hope that the sadness expressed in this blog post is explicit, not implicit. What you say about the value of forging human connections with one’s colleagues is generally very good and wise advice. I’ve certainly benefited profoundly on countless levels from my friendships with musicians in all the different orchestras I’ve worked with.

    However, I think there is also something to be said for not merely turning an orchestra into a social institution. At the end of the day, we’re here to play music, and we trust music to be a more profound and personal form of communication than chit chat and small talk. An orchestra should be a place where all different kinds of people can find their space and their comfort zone to make music. Some will want a relationship with the conductor or with their colleagues, some won’t. Same for conductors- as long as one is fair and honest with people, it should be okay for a conductor to be shy. I don’t like too much socializing in rehearsals because my brain is really focused on the music and what needs to get done- but I love spending time with colleagues after rehearsals and concerts.

    What is important is to be sincere and true to yourself (be you player or conductor)- that you try to treat everyone with respect, but also that you respect their boundaries and they respect yours. If anyone in the band (including the conductor) needs a little bit of space to be the artist they want to be, that is fine, even good.

    Conducting orchestras most days feels like a sprint- you are always racing against the clock in every rehearsal and through ever concert sequence. Of course, on another level, it is a marathon- pacing yourself through many years of personal relationships, musical development and politics. Over the marathon of a few programs, I wish I’d known her better (if she was someone who wanted social contact in orchestra), but in the course of those individual sprints, the opportunity never came up. I’m afraid situations like this will always happen- where a shy or quiet person takes longer to get to know. Sometimes there is not enough time, or circumstances or human failings get in the way- in that sense, the sadness is, again, explicit.

    However, not all situations are best dealt with in the most direct way. It’s extremely important in professional situations to respect people’s privacy. Commenting directly on a tragic situation to someone who hasn’t authorized the dissemination of that information can create a more difficult situation. The player could get upset in a public situation, or find themselves the center of attention in a way they don’t want to be. They may well have not wanted me told at all. Of course, I wanted to reach out more, but I made a judgement that I shouldn’t in that situation- the sadness of that situation is, again, explicit.

    However, I take a certain amount of comfort in the fact that she was there for the music, and that it is always our job as musicians to make good music- to let music be the healing or comforting force it is or can be for all of us. I feel conflicted about the fact that I ended up in full-fledged rehearsal zone for the first half that night, rather than thinking of her tragic situation. On one hand, I had wanted to maintain a mindfulness about her situation and to make sure I was taking extra that the evening was fun for her. On the other hand, I have a certain faith that it was the music she was there for, not any gesture from me. In trying to make a more direct personal connection, I could have gotten in her space, I could have interfered with her connection to the music and what she wanted from the evening. Also, perhaps the actual music making was better for me getting on with my job, and perhaps that’s what she really wanted. It’s not for me to say.

    Thanks again for moving the conversation forward


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