REACHING 20,000 MUSIC EDUCATORS EACH MONTH IN PRINT/DIGITAL. SUBSCRIBE NOW FOR FREE! CLICK HERE!

Rehearsing Music: Procedures, Verbal Cues, and Pictorial Imagery

Mike Lawson • Archives • January 19, 2009

The procedures and verbal communication skills used by band and orchestra directors to rehearse music must be appropriate for the musical and technical proficiency levels of the groups they are conducting. The following time-tested methods should prove useful in rehearsing music with ensembles at all proficiency levels.

Procedures
Establish a rehearsal protocol that works for you and your ensemble and follow it. However, don’t let any part of the protocol become routine. Maintain a creative musical spark in everything you do, including warm-ups, if used. Formulate specific objectives for each rehearsal. Having a clear idea of what is to be accomplished keeps the rehearsal focused. Set realistic goals and don’t attempt to accomplish more than can be done well in the amount of time available. The rehearsal plan should have a good balance between tension and relaxation by using music of contrasting styles: lyrical vs. dramatic, quiet vs. resounding, dawdling vs. brisk, and so on. After every rehearsal, take time to evaluate what transpired and plan ahead for the next time the ensemble will meet.

Be yourself and develop a personal rehearsal style. Create a friendly, comfortable environment in which players feel encouraged to participate and express themselves as individuals. Strive to be a positive, sensitive, and committed teacher and director. Display joy when exciting things happen in rehearsal and congratulate players when they do something well, either individually or collectively. Acknowledge good playing and encourage players to support each other. Periodically, inject humor into rehearsals to relieve tension, reduce stress, and stimulate joyful music making. Musicians play better when the intensity and monotony of concentrated, focused rehearsing is broken with good-natured humor (not ridicule).

Use a Gestalt approach when introducing a new piece of music. In other words, present the work in its entirety before beginning to work on individual passages or details. Also, remember that with new music you may need to explain at the outset how you will conduct such things as asymmetrical meters, repeated strains, fermatas, and preparatory beats when there is an anacrusis. It is best to pace rehearsals of a piece of music over a period of time. Sometimes difficulties are solved when players are given time to practice and master their parts outside of rehearsals. In other words, solve technical and musical problems over several rehearsals. Work on the most difficult passages first and do this early in rehearsals when the players are fresh and concentration is best. Finally, when multiple performance errors needing attention are encountered when rehearsing music, address each one separately, not collectively, with appropriate gestures and comments.

In rehearsals keep talking to a minimum. Show what you want through conducting gestures, facial expressions, and body language, not words. When you have to stop to make a comment, give clear, positive instructions to the player(s). For example: “Oboe and violins please listen to each other in that passage at letter G, especially the C#s in measure 25, and adjust to improve the intonation; you are playing the same line.” Here is an example of a poor verbal cue for the same problem: “The intonation at measure 25 is awful! Can’t you hear and play in tune? Let’s do it again.”

When rehearsing music, don’t use personal pronouns such as “I” or “me,” which are teacher/director centered. Avoid making statements such as: “I want a stronger forte in measure 22” or “play measure seven for me.” Instead, use plural pronouns such as “we” and “us,” which emphasize the importance of togetherness in achieving desired musical results.

When preparing difficult music: 1) rehearse fast passages slowly at first, then gradually increase the tempo until the music can be performed faster than indicated and players can perform the music with ease; 2) rehearse component parts separately, then rehearse them together; 3) don’t conduct when a group is having ensemble (rhythmic) problems (this technique quickly and effectively improves ensemble listening which must be a primary goal of every rehearsal); and 4) omit ornaments and embellishments if they are hindering the performance of the music (once the music is played well, add these stylistic elements).

Additional effective rehearsal procedures are: Give an aural example of the music by singing the passage the way you want it performed, then ask the ensemble to sing the passage back to you. Teach the form and structure of the composition, then rehearse the music by referring to its component parts; for example: “let’s begin at the coda”; “back to the recapitulation, please”; and “let’s hear the countermelody to the second theme.” This technique creates a whole new level of listening, awareness, and musical understanding. Finally, play through the entire program in sequence in the performance hall at least once or twice before the concert to facilitate the successful performance of a projected concert.

School band and orchestra directors should emphasize the expressive qualities of music when rehearsing, making players aware that striving for technical perfection provides the best means for conveying the expressive message of a piece.

Verbal Cues
Band and orchestra directors need to develop and expand their vocabulary so that the best words are used to describe what is desired from players. One of the best ways to do this is to read poetry and great literature, which should help to provide a powerful vocabulary of descriptive words, word associations (such as analogies, similes, and metaphors), adjectives, and words of subtle distinction.

John Ciardi, in his book How Does a Poem Mean?, points out that words have four basic qualities: a feeling, a picture, a history, and muscle. Keep those ideas in mind as you read the poem excerpt below which vividly illustrates the power of words to convey what the poet wants us to see and feel.

YES IT HURTS

by Karin Boye

Yes it hurts when buds burst.
Why otherwise would spring hesitate?
Why otherwise was all warmth and longing
locked under pale and bitter ice?
The blind bud covered and numb all winter,
what fever for the new compels it to burst?
Yes it hurts when buds burst,
there is pain when something grows
and when something must close.
Yes it hurts when the ice drop melts.
Shivering, anxious, swollen it hangs,
gripping the twig but beginning to slip-
its weight tugs it downward, though it resists.

When you speak from the podium, pay attention not only to your vocabulary, but also to how you say the words. Why? Because words, while important, are only part of the message. Research suggests that approximately 38 percent of a listener’s impression is based on how you sound:

  1. Tone of your voice
  2. Pitch
  3. Volume
  4. Speed
  5. Emphasis placed on words

There is a surprising correlation between language characteristics of how you sound to the properties of musical sound. Compare the five elements above with the following sound properties:

  1. Timbre/Tone Color
  2. Pitch/Frequency
  3. Amplitude/Dynamics
  4. Tempo
  5. Articulations/Phrasing

This close correlation between speech and musical communication confirms the following suggestion by conductor H. Robert Reynolds, which captures players’ attention.

“I believe the conductor should talk, generally, in a style that matches the piece [he/she is rehearsing]. If it’s a fast piece, talk fast. If it has a lot of staccato, talk that way; but if it’s mellow, you should imitate that feeling. What you are trying to do is to set up an atmosphere that is right for a particular composition. Of course, you also have to avoid monotony; so if a work is almost entirely loud and fast, you’ll probably want to occasionally talk in a different style.”

Pictorial Imagery
There are two types of oral/aural cues that a conductor can give in rehearsal: verbal cues (words) and musical cues (sounds). The latter, for example, would include the singing of an instrument line the way one would want it played or the reciting of a complex rhythm with a counting method or neutral syllable.

There are basically two types of verbal cues: directions and comments (plain language) and pictorial imagery (also known as word pictures). Pictorial imagery is relatively easy to use when one is conducting music with an extra musical meaning or inspiration, such as a painting, poem, story, or play. All one has to do is relate the extra musical idea to the music at hand. For example: Scenes from the Louvre for band by Norman Dello Joio or A Night on Bald Mountain for orchestra by Modest Mussorgsky. There are many examples in all mediums. This is one good reason why the director must research the context of the music he or she is conducting.

ANATOMY OF A VERBAL CUE

U.S. Air Force Band conductor Colonel Dennis Layendecker observed and reported on Frederick Fennell rehearsing his new edition of Percy Grainger’s “Lincolnshire Posy” with the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C. (Spring, 1987) as follows:

“One of the most outstanding parts of Fennell’s rehearsal was his extraordinary ability to give verbal cues. There is a passage in the ‘Rufford Park Poachers,’ (specifically the 2nd trumpet at square 40) in which he described the sound of a ‘high performance race car’ going by

He [Fennell] set up not only a ‘sound’ image but a visual one as well. Everyone immediately adjusted and you could hear the difference without question really great!”

Rehearsal Vocabulary
The following representative list of highly descriptive words may be used in rehearsals to inspire, motivate, stimulate, and provoke players to perform music with expression, spirit, style, feeling, emotion, and character. Powerfully descriptive words can and should be combined to form effective rehearsal comments and/or directions, such as: “energize the sound,” “stretch the tempo,” and “sensitive release.” Directors are encouraged to look at their performance scores and select descriptive words (such as those given in the chart below) that appropriately characterize the sound of the music. Write the words in the score as a reminder of the musical expression that they convey/evoke.

Rehearsal Vocabulary Chart

agitated
anguish
animated
anxious
architecture
atmospheric
aggressive
beautiful
bright
buoyant
buzz
calm
climax
dark
delicate
dramatic
dreamily
ecstasy, ecstatic
elegance, elegant
emote
energize
esprit
effervescent
expressive
exuberant
fantasia, fantasy
floating
flourish
flowing
glorious
glowing
graceful
grand, grandiose
harmonious
heroic
imagine, imagination
impassioned
impression, impressive
inflection
intense, intensity
joyful
lovely
lush
lyrical
magical
magnificent
majestic, majesty
meditative
mysterious
noble
opaque
passion, passionate
playful
pleasing
powerful
prayerful
precise
pulsating
quiet
regal

resonant, resonance
romantic
sensitive
sentimental
serene
shape
shimmering
silence
sing, singing
sonorous
sparkle
spiritual
spontaneous
stately
stretch
strong
sturdy
subtle
tender
tension
throbbing
transparent
tranquil
veiled
vibrant, vibrate
vigorous
vitality
vivid
whisper
sizzle

Stylistic Articulations:
legato
staccato
marcato
tenuto
portamento
polyarticulations

Tempo/Style Terms:
allargando
animato
agitato
cantabile
dolce
espressivo
giocoso
grandioso
grazioso
leggiero
maestoso
marziale
morendo
pesante
rubato
scherzando
secco
smorzando
sostenuto
sotto voce

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!