Perfect rehearsal

Last week I watched several rehearsals for concerts performed by two different groups who had concerts this weekend. One was a college orchestra that had been building up to this performance since the beginning of the semester; the other a professional orchestra putting together a fairly substantial programme on a very limited rehearsal schedule. Catching both of them at this final stage of the rehearsal process got me thinking about the similarities and differences in a conductor’s job in each setting, and more generally about how to arrive at a decision about the most effective use of rehearsal time. With both the college students and professionals there were things that could have be rehearsed if there was more time. But this made me wonder, does the possibility ever exist of having too much rehearsal time?

It’s hard not to be reminded of that quotation by Leonard Bernstein that the conditions for success are “a plan and not quite enough time.” I think it's rare for a conductor not to be able to reach the final rehearsal without a vision of how they would have used a little more rehearsal time. Nevertheless, more often than not that desire gives way to varying degrees of relief or satisfaction when things come together in the performance in that uncanny way that often happens. I think there’s something to be said for the concentration of performance effecting a sudden leap forward, often regardless of how much rehearsal time has been had. Nevertheless, there are situations when it’s possible for an abundance of time to be a problem. I had a teacher who would often wryly comment to the orchestra that, when a passage clearly needed more work, they were not in danger of “peaking too soon.” There is definitely a sense of upward trajectory through the rehearsal process and if that trajectory is not managed the result is a performance that seems disinterested or just a little bit too safe. However, taking the decision to cancel scheduled rehearsal time is just as difficult given the complex responses and repercussions possible from both performers and administrators.

I often think that rehearsals, most especially those close to an upcoming concert, can feel like triage. They require the conductor to show skill in critically assessing the areas of greatest need and addressing them in priority order. However, whereas it’s very clear that a head wound needs more attention than a grazed knee, I’m not so certain that such objective measures exist for conductors. There’s a fairly substantial degree of subjectivity in what issues a conductor’s ears are even drawn too, added to which the location of these problems might also affect their importance. For example, if one had to choose between questionable intonation in the middle of a central movement of a symphony or bad ensemble a few bars out from the end of the finale the latter would probably win out on a somewhat coldly calculated assessment that the audience will remember the ending rather better. Tangentially, though, I wonder if these priorities might be different if clapping after the individual movements of a piece was more common?

The triage method of rehearsal certainly makes sense of how to address the potentially limitless amount of work to be done in the limited time available in which to do it. However it does effectively mean the goal is always the “best” possible performance for that concert. Watching the college orchestra rehearse I found it easy to rationalize the idea that the concert might not always be the priority. The orchestra at a college exists to teach its players the skills necessary to combine their technical proficiency on an instrument with the ability to play that instrument in an ensemble. A concert is not necessarily the only way to measure achievement of this goal, and thus it could take secondary importance in a way that would not happen with a professional orchestra, where the group exists primarily to perform for their audience. However, no orchestra wants to stagnate, and growth and improvement needs to be sown into the rehearsal process for successive concerts over successive seasons. Which perhaps brings us round to the question of whether you can have too much rehearsal. I think that aside from the practicalities of having to define the amount of rehearsal time available, there is also something valuable in the way a limit defines the limitless potential for work that could be done on any piece with any orchestra. Were rehearsal not a Sisyphean task, I wonder if we would have any impetus to keep performing and exploring works that have been performed so much, or to strive to make our orchestras ever better ensembles.