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Developing Musicianship Skills in Ensemble Rehearsals

by Patrick Gazzard, teacher, conductor and award-winning author of "How to Create a Successful Music Ensemble".

"The aim is to create a team of thinking players, potential captains. Awareness is enhanced when players think about the whole game, not only their own direct role." 
(Mike Brearley, psychologist and former England cricket captain, 'The Times', June 2013)

As ensemble directors, both instrumental and choral, we should see our role as twofold: yes, we have performances to prepare, both public and informal, but we should also be looking to develop the musicians - young and old - in our care. This can occur in a number of ways: increasing stylistic knowledge; developing different performances for various contexts; encouraging people to 'use their ears not ours'; pushing the stronger ones to be braver and show leadership, whilst simultaneously nurturing those who are not ready for that step yet but will be in the future. When working with sixth formers we should also be trying to ensure that they are well prepared for the musical activities they will encounter in in higher education: indeed, some may even go on to form and direct their own groups. And all this whilst making sure that the choir/ band has three pieces ready for public performance just a a few weeks away! 

As a starting point, we should always aim to talk through what we are doing and thinking in front of the group, explaining why we are taking this approach. This may be musical:

"you need to play quieter now because the cellos have the theme and they won't be heard. Yes, I know it says 'f' on your part, but the original composer is assuming eight desks of cellos - we have one and a half!"

Or, just as importantly, it can be practical:

" we are only allowed a ten minute slot in the concert on Saturday, so we will need to cut from Letter D to Letter H. Letter H is in a different key, so we'll need to produce a II - V - I Perfect cadence in the new key so the ear will accept the change and nobody will be any the wiser.."

I recently had the pleasure of rehearsing and directing the first movement of the Schumann Piano Concerto with a 'scratch' student orchestra and soloist. In contrast to one or two run throughs I had the luxury of time, so we all learned the piece together. The woodwind principals became aware of their key roles, discovering when they were being accompanied by the piano soloist and, in some cases, even introducing new material before the piano imitated them. Similarly the student pianist learned that he was not in fact the 'featured artist' all the time and was frequently accompanying the wind soloists: very different from practising at home. All of the young players were encouraged to use their ears, picking up the fact that they were sometimes completing a melody which had already been started elsewhere in the orchestra. 

Structure was also on the agenda, notably with another piece in the concert, Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides' Overture: there is no clearer way of demonstrating or explaining sonata form than rehearsing the Exposition, then 'jumping' to the Recapitulation to discover what is the same and what is different: who has the theme now? Is it exactly the same as before, or decorated? When does the second subject return? Why is it not in the same key as earlier on?

Throughout the rehearsal process there was a great deal of emphasis on the importance of collective responsibility, as well as the key role of the leader: It was made very clear to them that the conductor cannot do everything and is effectively powerless if the entries don't occur (we've all been there, and it's not nice!). Yes, they would be cued , but certainly not spoon-fed.

For those of you thinking how fortunate I am to have such conducting opportunities, I should probably add that most of my time is spent writing and rehearsing Big Band jazz and Music Theatre for the County Music Hub: very different - or is it? Just as with the Schumann and Mendelssohn, developing stylistic knowledge and awareness is equally crucial, but here the Romantic orchestral style is replaced by the tight sound of the Count Basie band, or brash New York accents. All members of any choral group I have ever worked with have quickly learned that we must never sound like one choir but several different ones, depending on what we are singing and what the song is about. There is no connection between an Irish folk song and a chorus from 'Little Shop of Horrors', so why should they sound as if they are being sung by the same group? Voice ranges are also key in music theatre - melody lines are often quite low, so the altos need to be aware of their role in helping out the sopranos, especially in unison singing. The altos may also need to double young, inexperienced tenors on occasions: once again, collective responsibility is the key.

Ensemble rehearsals of any description offer ample opportunities to explore compositional aspects such as texture and timbre. These are always popular topics with GCSE and A level examiners, and much more relevant in practice than in theory. Melody plus accompaniment, chorale voicing, contrapuntal lines (surprisingly common in Big Band jazz), polarisation - they are all there. Antiphonal writing is just as prevalent in the music of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller as it is in Tchaikovsky, the ongoing dialogue between the saxophone section and the brass being characteristic of the swing style. And Gabrieli's 'cori spezzati' techniques are a music theatre staple - consider production numbers such as the 'Tonight Quintet' or 'One Day More'. The sophistication of timbre can only truly be learned in an ensemble context anyway: no book or midi sound can replicate the effect of a french horn/ cello combination, or the impact of muted trumpets doubled by xylophone. And we must never forget the percussion section and its importance to the sound of the group as a whole: ask the drummer to switch from sticks to brushes just to see what effect it has, and get your whole group to listen to the difference in the feel of the music as a whole. If we don't do this, how will non-percussionists ever learn why it matters?

So why does all of this matter? There are two reasons. As ensemble directors we are teachers and always will be. Throughout my nineteen years as a secondary music teacher it never concerned me whether I was in the classroom, rehearsal studio or theatre: the same things mattered wherever I was, and I always saw myself as a teacher regardless of what part of my job I was doing. And as a freelancer that drive is still there: I am still in the business of education. Even with an adult 'Come and Sing' choir I cannot resist discussing compositional techniques: what the composer/ arranger is doing in that bar, and to what purpose. That is always my mantra: 'not what, but why.'

The second reason is more about the future of the young people. The gifted ones, regardless of whether they go on to study music or follow it as a career, may end up forming and leading their own groups. These could range from rock bands and saxophone quartets right through to university choral societies and beyond. Some may also MD university and school shows, or community pantomimes, and a few may even write their own. Unless they are very fortunate it is unlikely that they will receive any formal training in this - I didn't - so they will have to learn on the job. It is part of our role to launch them on this path, showing them what matters and why, getting them to challenge what they see and hear in front of them (including our own rehearsals), decide whether it is working or not, and what they would do differently.

Does all this advice and guidance actually help the young people in the long run, or does it just wash over them? Who knows, but at least it gives those who do go on to further musical adventures a much better chance than if we 'just' teach them three pieces for the concert. All interested musicians of whatever age will always want to develop their musicianship skills and an ensemble is a great place to start, but it is up to us, the people at the front, to make sure that the experience is a positive one and that everyone learns something and continues to learn something whenever they are with us.