Monday, 11 June 2012

Playing a concert on one rehearsal

Last month, I was asked to play a concert with the North Downs Sinfonia. They don't happen to have any regular horns at the moment, and so they had to bring in extras from outside. I was asked to play 1st horn for the concert. The programme was very nice: Weber's Overture Euryanthe, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Beethoven's 2nd Symphony.

But I and the other horns couldn't get to any of the rehearsals before the day of the concert, so we had just the one rehearsal on the day the concert itself. Amongst freelance pros and also among the better amateurs who deputise in each others' orchestras, this is a fairly common occurrence. The only unusual aspect of this concert is that it isn't all that common for a deputy to be called in to play 1st.

If you are going to do a concert on such little rehearsal, then you owe it to the rest of the orchestra to be as well prepared as possible. Ideally, you should already know the pieces and so not need much rehearsal anyway. In this case, this was true for me for two out of the three pieces, I've played both the Beethoven and the Grieg before.

But whether or not you've played the pieces before, you still need to prepare. If at all possible, get hold of the parts ahead of time. You can get the orchestra to post them to you, or if the pieces are out of copyright, you can go to the IMSLP website and download the part if it is available. You then have a listen to a recording of the piece while looking at your part, so you can identify any tricky &/or exposed bits. Mark these as you listen. They are then your priorities for practice prior to the concert.

Just as important, listening through the piece while looking at your part will get you used to hearing it and knowing where you come in. For instance, if you have a long rest during which 2 or 3 rehearsal letters go past, you should see if you can note a change in orchestration. Maybe the flutes have a solo entry at letter "B", the trombones at letter "C". Note that down in the part, it means that you will be able to reset your counting in case you have miscounted during a long rest. This is always possible with a piece you're less familiar with.But more generally, if you know how the music sounds you can be much more confident of your entries.

The third vitally important point is that pieces have "corners", places where there is a pause, a break, or a change of tempo. Many such corners have been established by tradition and aren't written into parts, and so you need to be able to anticipate what the conductor will do. You can't guarantee that the conductor will follow tradition in exactly the same way as happens in the recording, but at least you will be able to work out a number of places where you need to watch carefully to see what the conductor is doing, and so avoid wasting rehearsal time by being the one person who carries on when the rest of the orchestra has stopped!

If you're playing 1st, or if you're playing another part with any exposed solos, you need not only to ensure that you have the relevant notes well-practiced, but you also have to form a view ahead of time on what expression you're going to put in: what articulation, dynamics and rubato. This may of course need to be adapted on the day, depending for instance on whether the conductor is going at the speed you expected. But if you do something that is fairly appropriate and convincing on the first run through, the conductor is likely to be so grateful that he will leave it as it is rather than attempt to get you to change it, and will instead go on to rehearse something else that needs more work.

If the parts aren't all that difficult then preparing by listening to recordings is generally more useful than preparing by practicing. If basically you know how to play the notes then the most important issue is making sure you know when your entries are. That's done by listening.

These days, with electronic copies of much of the orchestral repertoire so easily available, there is usually no excuse for turning up and sightreading your way through the one rehearsal before a concert. You're greatly appreciated if you come prepared.

This kind of concert is great experience if you're a student aspiring to be a pro. You should take every possible chance of getting standard repertoire under your belt. But remember, if you're hoping to become a pro, then coming prepared isn't merely appreciated, it's an absolute necessity. Even with the most obscure amateur performance, you never know who may be in the audience or in the orchestra. For instance, it's not uncommon for the admin staff of the professional orchestras to be amateur players. You absolutely don't want to mess up a concert where one of the violins happens to be in charge of the extras list for a professional orchestra! Treat every concert as if it is an audition for a bigger gig.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Beecham on rehearsing

I've just come across this quote from Sir Thomas Beecham on rehearsing. If only more conductors could rehearse his way!

There's only one way to rehearse an orchestral piece, which is what I do. I take either a Mozart symphony or a Strauss tone poem. I play the whole thing through beginning to end without a stop. The whole blessed thing. The orchestra makes a few mistakes, naturally. I play through a second time. The orchestra makes no mistakes. I then just take a few little difficult parts. I pinpoint them, I emphasize them, I repeat those three or four times - I'm ready for performance.

What does the young conductor do, who will never profit by anybody else's experience, thanks to his unconquerable egotism and innate stupidity? He will take a first class orchestra, and after playing twenty bars he will stop, and he begins educating them - fancy educating a body of people like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra! They already know the damn piece ten times better than he does. He gives us one more twenty bars, stops, starts educating, teaching them. That's why he wants six rehearsals, and that's why I can do with two!

The point of course is that we mainly get better in rehearsals by playing the piece, not by listening while we are told how we should have played the piece. It works at the amateur level as well, though there may be more in the way of errors that need to be cleaned up after the play-through. But even at an amateur level, people learn faster through actually being able to play the piece!