On Rehearsal Time

I’ve always admired how some composers can command rehearsals. I don’t mean in a kind of dominant or commandeering way, but rather like the way a conductor can micro-manage every nuance, balance, rhythm, and sound. It’s remarkable, and for whatever reason I don’t seem to have the ability to multi-task in this way. I’m not sure if it’s a defect in my faculties, my attention span, my perception, of nervousness, or whether it’s simply a result of my somewhat withdrawn personality; for whatever reason it’s just really difficult for me to impose (for lack of a better word) my will on a group of people who’s so graciously agreed to play my music.

I’ve slowly come to realize over the last couple of years how I actually operate in rehearsals. It’s not that I don’t care about how I want the piece to sound; I care very, very much about how my work is performed. The thing is, everything I have to say about how my piece should be performed is already on the page.

I tend to not spare any details, and I certainly try to make my intentions as clear as possible. There’s usually lots of dynamics, hair-pins, slurs, special performance instructions and descriptions; i.e. plenty of signs, signals, and instruction intended to try and communicate shape, texture, and form. Things that sometimes gets dissected in rehearsals. Sometimes I succeed with my instructions, sometimes I don’t. You live and you learn, and try to grow with each experience (ideally). And the presence of all this detail tends to make it very difficult for me to want to give any further instruction; it feels somewhat redundant. Because of this, rehearsals tend to go very quickly, and afterward I almost always feel guilty about whether I’ve utilized the time enough. I really worry that not having much to say about the performances – assuming they’re reading all my instructions and are otherwise on top of the notes (which is the case 99% of the time, in my experience) – make me come off as uncaring, detached, un-opinionated, or otherwise uninterested in how the performers are actually doing. Nothing could be further from the truth!

It’s most likely a failure of communication on my part, but I usually view rehearsal time with ensembles as collaborative time, rather than instructional. I want to hear what the performers have to say about the piece, and more importantly, I want to know how they hear it themselves. I know how want to hear it, but to me, that doesn’t mean that’s The Way To Hear It. Whether a gesture actually makes sense in a given context, or whether the balance of the sound or texture is as successful (or not) as I thought; I can’t know whether it’s working or not if I’m relying solely on myself. If something’s not working, I really want to know.

I don’t want to keep making the same mistakes over and over, or worse, ingrain bad composition or orchestration habits. How am I supposed to grow as a composer if I never learn from my mistakes, or worse, are never even conscious of them?

So, as a note to my future self via this post, I’m hoping to make an effort in future rehearsals to try and make it feel as collaborative as possible. In a way, I want the ensemble to co-compose the piece with me. I want to know how you hear it, what it makes you feel, what you like about it, what you don’t like about it, and how we can make the project as successful as possible. The composer-performer relationship, to me, should be as much of a team effort as possible. I’m not a priest handing down scripture, I’m one human working with other humans to try and communicate deeply human experiences.

Let’s dialogue. I don’t like talking to myself.


By Jay

Composer, guitarist, husband, father, pun enthusiast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s