The five steps to making every rehearsal count is designed to help create the mindset that each rehearsal is a special occasion, one that can be likened to a greatly anticipated dinner party. I don’t think this concept is a stretch at all when one considers that every rehearsal is a gathering at the feast table of musical genius. Worthwhile choral repertoire, such as the works of Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Vaughan Williams and other masters, is nothing less than a foretaste of Paradise.
Clean the House and Set the Table
If the President of the United States, or the CEO of your organization, were to come to dinner at your home, how would you dress? Would you consider what might be appropriate dinner conversation? Would you use paper plates and plastic flatware? Would the napkins be from the paper towel roll?
I believe you would consider every detail, large and small, to prepare for a memorable event.
Consider the guests that attend our rehearsals, including Bach, Tallis, Beethoven, Britten, and Palestrina. These guests are worthy of our most attendant preparation. The rehearsal room should be spotless. There should be a chair for each member perfectly placed, not one too few, not one too many. Handouts and materials should be printed and readily available. If recording equipment is needed, it should be set-up in advance and tested. The rehearsal space should be prepared and set like fine china and depending on your situation at least one hour before the first singer arrives.
Dress for the Occasion
The conductor should dress for the part. No sensible person would wear jeans with an T-shirt and sneakers when hosting a dinner party for an important business leader community or in the arts. Neither should the conductor, who is the host leading the rehearsal of a life-changing encounter with extraordinary greatness.
A choral rehearsal of immortal music is not a casual event. Rather, it is critical and urgent work that offers light and hope for all of mankind. I strongly recommend conductors wear dress slacks, dress shirt or blouse with a tie or vest and even a professional suit with a high shine on the shoes. Yes, there may be some puzzled expressions from chorus members at first, and perhaps some teasing comments, but you will communicate that you value the rehearsal proceedings enough that you are willing to dress properly for the special occasion. If you don’t believe it will make a difference, try it for a month.
Build Community to Enhance the Experience
The first objective in the work of transforming a number of musicians into an ensemble is the process of creating community. Whether the project involves a handful of rehearsals and a performance, or whether it involves weekly rehearsals and periodic concerts, it is important for the human connection to be nurtured with intention.
Where possible, it is ideal for singers, arriving early for rehearsal, to have a gathering place where they may interact with one another. Having coffee and tea readily available, yes -even for evening rehearsals-, and, perhaps, some carefully chosen snack items, helps encourage arriving singers to interact in ways that inspire an emotional and spiritual investment in friendship with each other and, by extension, to the ensemble as a whole.
Manage the Energy Flow of the Rehearsal
Many conductors invest rehearsal preparation time in the anticipation of musical or vocal challenges, but they neglect to consider the impact of the energy flow in the rehearsal as an experience. All of us have been taught to begin and end rehearsals with confidence-building repertoire and activities, and to save the gravest challenges for the early-middle period of the session. Managing the flow of human energy requires a deeper consideration of the give and take of the rehearsal process. For example, conventional wisdom dictates that the most challenging aspects of a musical episode be rehearsed first and longest. In contrast I suggest that everything that is already confident be reaffirmed, and only then should the challenging episode be addressed. The most difficult passages are, thus, addressed from a position of greater confidence, making them easier to master, and increasing the likelihood that the instruction will hold from one rehearsal to the next. Rehearsals should always end with expressions of inspiration, appreciation and wonder. Though it can seem frantic and overwhelming at times, the opportunity to interact with worthy music is a great blessing that should be approached with nothing less than an overwhelming spirit of humility and thanksgiving.
Evaluate Each Rehearsal Using Recordings
A great cook and a caring host always dedicates time after a dinner party to considering what went well and what could be improved upon the next time. Choral conductors are very good at measuring and evaluating the progress of their singers during rehearsal, but we are less inclined to evaluate ourselves.
With free decent-quality recording apps available for smart-phones and tablets, there is no reason not to record every minute of every rehearsal. It is very instructive to evaluate the sound of the ensemble and to identify issues that need to be addressed in subsequent rehearsals. It is even more beneficial for the conductor to address his or her own performance. This evaluation can and should include clarity of instruction, wise and efficient use of time, tone of voice -helpful and encouraging, or mocking and edgy-, flow of energy, and effectiveness of rehearsal methods. It might be a good exercise occasionally to measure how much time the chorus spends singing as opposed to how much time the conductor spends talking.
Though every conductor will adapt these suggestions to his or her own situation, the point of this discussion is to encourage the conductor to consider each and every rehearsal a special event in its own right, not just as a way-station on the journey to performance. Creative conductors will explore ways to enrich the enjoyment of the rehearsal experience while increasing productivity for chorus members. As the conductor adopts this mindset, each chorus member will follow suit, thus creating a more effective and enjoyable rehearsal experience that will lead to more inspired and memorable concert performances.
William O. Baker, DMA, Founder & Music Director
William Baker Choral Foundation, Roeland Park, Kansas