Daniel Yiau is a Masters graduate in wind and brass band conducting from the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. In this article, he speaks to The Band Post about the importance of rehearsal planning, and what do students and conductors have to prepare prior to the rehearsals.
How do you plan your rehearsals?
With the exception of the first rehearsal, I do not plan my rehearsals in whole in advance. Rehearsal planning for the rest of the rehearsals comes only after adapting and working on whatever is needed for me or the ensemble, which can only be determined through the first rehearsal together.
Generally, there is only so much you can prepare prior to rehearsals, expecting certain problematic spots or issues in the music, especially with ensembles that you have never worked with… but ensembles often surprise you!
Being organic and flexible is ideal, rather than being too structured right from the very beginning, to get things done more efficiently. I know of colleagues who methodically plan a whole week or even a month of how rehearsals should be ran specifically up to the very minute with their ensembles. Perhaps it may work for them, but definitely not for me.
When working with younger institutional ensembles, there should be some structure such as warming up, technical studies, sectionals, ensemble playing methods, tuning, etc, but when dealing with amateur or professional ensembles, there is often a limited time available. Hence, there should be no need to be extremely methodical with the rehearsals where musicians are capable of sorting out fundamental issues and resolve any arising problems.
A lot of my work is done only when we have real people in real life. I have seen on so many occasions that young conductors ’rehearse’ themselves, practising specific cues and gestures they would use for the various points in the music, sometimes to the point of being ‘over rehearsed’ and looking unnatural, which becomes too predictable and almost artificial to the musicians which takes away the joy of making live music together.
It is completely different conducting a recording compared to a real ensemble where many things are unpredictable. My explanation to non-musicians of what a conductor’s job is similar to that of a traffic police officer. When the traffic is smooth sailing, there’s not much needed to be done; we can help to make things better of course, but never to hinder. When you see a small incident happening, we need to be there to rectify the issue.
Sometimes, we as conductors like to take too much control over the musicians, imposing every single idea and thought, and giving no freedom to the musicians. It is tough to let go of the control, but it is often when you ‘let go of the leash’, it is when the magic happens.
What should students prepare prior to rehearsals?
For student wind band players
Learn: Before the first rehearsal, given that you already have the music prior, go through and learn the notes by playing it over, identify key signatures and/or accidentals (usually very often overlooked), key changes, variations in dynamics and differences in articulation.
It is most ideal if you can play through on your instrument. Alternatively, if you do not own your own instrument or it is inaccessible to you, play an air-instrument of yours, running through the right fingerings and coordinating articulations and breath as though you would with your instrument.
Most of the time, if you are unable to do this (eg. fast tonguing passages) without your instrument, it is likely that you will not be able to play it on your instrument. So there are no excuses not to practice without your instrument!
Look: After learning the piece(s), look for problematic spots, whether it is a high note that needs more tending to, or a passage of running notes that needs more practice; and clearly mark them down on the scores.
Always ask for help from your seniors, tutors or conductors, and do not waste energy trying to remember everything.
Avoid the tendency to highlight and mark every single bar, note and dynamic; I have seen way too many markings and highlights on the scores of students to the extent of not even knowing what the actual notes are. This is on the other hand completely counterproductive, but makes a good piece of art!
Listen: It is of utmost importance to know how your part fits in the whole picture within the ensemble.
Listen to a recording once with the scores, so that you know how the music flows. Mark down important moments where you might necessarily need to play more or less, or to adjust your intonation, or just to blend with your neighbours. That being said, never follow exactly how a recording plays as your conductor definitely has different ideas from the recordings.
From then on, always look at your conductor and react accordingly, listening to his/her ideas of the music and marking it down on your sheet music.
It is also important for young wind players to warm up with scales, long tones, tonguing and agility exercises at home during your spare time and not just practising the pieces you have been given.
Most music written for winds are based heavily on scales and harmonic patterns, and if you have learned these scales and patterns, it becomes a matter of how well you play them rather than having to learn the scale and try to make musical sense out of it in the piece(s).
For young conducting students
We must always know the music before the first rehearsal. Regardless of the musician’s understanding of the music, we have to be able to guide and lead whenever necessary, which is our primary task. This cannot be achieved if we do not know the music well.
Understand the Music: Always mark down musical phrasing and direction, and know the important passages of the music where it may be a climatic point or a point of resolution.
Mark down entry cues for solos or sections of importance, and take note of harmonic progressions structurally as it might be unnecessary to analyse every beat of the music.
Depending on the complexity, there is often a bigger picture of the harmonic structure to the music, hence do not make “over-analyzing” or “micro-managing” become an issue.
On the other hand, being too generic in dealing with the various aspects (eg. melodic vs harmonic structure, or vertical vs linear alignment) without proper guidance and training can also be regarded as a problem.
Be Flexible: When things do not go well or become better than expected, relax and allow certain things in the music to take shape organically so as to achieve a good performance.
Giving time for the students to develop will yield better results in the long run, rather than a steep learning curve and not knowing how to apply concepts towards other pieces.
Practice, Practice, Practice: Rehearse in front of a mirror, or video yourself during rehearsals and review them.
Sometimes, we might feel that the ensemble is not giving what we want as conductors, but often, it is because we do not show clearly by our gestures to demand sufficiently of the ensemble. Only through the combination of ‘give and take’ efforts from both conductor and ensemble, can the performed music be good.
Always Make Music: Wind band concerts can often sound boring and monotonous if the conductor does absolutely nothing to inspire music-making, especially for educational groups.
It is essential that when we conduct such groups, we should stress the importance of music making, to cultivate and nurture the next generation(s) to love and appreciate making music together as a band. Playing in a band during their school years will always be the best times of their lives, as students would be spending a lot of time making music together through all the ‘blood, sweat and tears’.
As much as we would like to achieve technical excellence or perfection, we should never sacrifice the enjoyment of music-making.
Remember to always make Music, Music, Music!