Tag: rehearsal technique

Adventures in Orchestra, Part 1: Locking Down the End Game

Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony performing in Benaroya Hall. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Lois Photography.

For the past many months I have been avoiding writing much about my recent project with the Seattle Symphony; in part because I was trying to, you know, get the music done, and also because I suspect that constant chatter about one’s own projects would not be the most interesting use of this space. However, I have been keeping notes about what I learned during the process—about every aspect of it, from start to finish—and there are so many things that could be helpful to others that I wanted to begin putting them out there for other composers who are or will be working with an orchestra for the first time.

This is a general list of things that came about after having finished the music, during the making of parts, and the final week of production and rehearsal:

1. Make a special “parts score” from which instrumental parts are made.
I feel a bit silly mentioning this since it seems so obvious after the fact, but I composed more than one large-scale work before realizing that this makes life SO much easier when it comes to generating parts. Basically, you make a copy of your full score, and then tweak the details (like measure number frequency/style, adding cues for each instrument, etc.) so each part can be efficiently extracted without requiring tons of additional editing.

2. The orchestra music librarian is your new best friend.
Whether you are creating your own score and parts, or even if you have a copyist, trust no one more than that orchestra’s music librarian. They know exactly how your score and parts need to be formatted, and there are details that may vary from orchestra to orchestra that s/he can tell you about. For instance, there are ways one could display measure numbers on parts that would be fine for one orchestra, but not so much for another. Make contact with the librarian early in the process, find out if there are specific requirements that you need to be aware of, and—this is really important—send a sample part before you get rolling on the full set. That way if something in the layout/presentation needs tweaking, you can easily incorporate that into all the parts as you go.

3. Hire a proofreader.
Whether or not you use a copyist or do everything on your own, I highly recommend using a good proofreader. I know that by the time I have finished a score and parts, I have absolutely, completely, without a doubt lost all powers of discrimination regarding the score, and I have to have another set of eyes on everything. Had I not used a proofreader (thanks, Gilbert!!), I could have been in big trouble during rehearsals. This will set your mind at ease, and prevent the rehearsals being stalled to answer silly questions about accidentals or other musical instructions.

4. Understand the rehearsal process, and be ready to make quick decisions.
As I mentioned in another post, orchestra rehearsal time is extremely limited. For this project, my piece received two 30-minute rehearsals, which is actually quite luxurious for a professional orchestra. However, putting together any composition that involves upwards of 80 people in that time span is no easy task. The best analogy I can think of to describe the feeling of hearing a new work come to life within this context is that of (I can only imagine) a father-to-be experiencing the birth of a child; excited, frightened, and helpless. It is both magical and terrifying. Find out how your conductor prefers to run rehearsals (I simply asked a friend who plays in the orchestra) and be prepared. The conductor might invite you to the podium to speak to the orchestra, or s/he might prefer that you address her or him directly, or maybe you just meet for a few minutes one-on-one after the fact. Respect their methods; at that point, the conductor knows your score better than you do, and wants to make it work just as much as you do.

During the first rehearsal of my piece, conductor Ludovic Morlot flew through the score, and I sat in the hall following along, dog-earing pages of my score and circling anything that I thought needed a fix. As this was happening, I was taking mental notes about what items would receive priority, because I knew that I would have about 60 seconds to tell the orchestra things I wanted to change. As a colleague advised beforehand, “Write down eight or ten things, and pick the most important two or three.” As it turned out, I didn’t interact with the orchestra until the second rehearsal, but in the meantime I sent my notes to Morlot, and by the second go-round the primary adjustments had been made, and I was able to focus on other things from the list.

5. Have your “elevator speech” ready to go.
Chances are that before, during, or after the concert happens, you will be asked for an interview, to do a pre- or post-concert question and answer session, or to meet orchestra board members or donors. Be prepared to talk about your new composition, and about your music in general, in a clear, concise, articulate manner. Don’t try to “wing it”—practice! Have talking points in mind, clip the use of “um” and “like”… in other words, make sure your words sound as good as your music.

I hope that others will share their experiences and advice in the comments section! Stay tuned for more adventures in the coming weeks…

Five Rehearsal Secrets of the Spektral Quartet

Spektral's debut concert poster

Spektral’s debut concert poster

I still remember when I saw Spektral Quartet’s poster for their first concert. It was around the practice rooms at DePaul, where I was getting my master’s degree. When I saw the poster–four mysteriously empty chairs bathed in yellow light–and realized who the quartet’s members were, I had a feeling I was looking at something serious. I was right.

I’ve been watching them closely ever since. Their career has grown by leaps and bounds, from getting their graphic design noticed by Alex Ross to landing a residency at the University of Chicago. But that’s just the view from the outside. What’s been happening behind the scenes?

Spektral Quartet (l to r): Austin Wulliman, Aurelien Fort Pederzoli, Russell Rolen, and Doyle Armbrust

Spektral Quartet (l to r): Austin Wulliman, Aurelien Fort Pederzoli, Russell Rolen, and Doyle Armbrust
Photo by Daniel Kullman, Bitter Jester Creative

As a chamber musician, I always wish I had access to the processes of other ensembles. Every group of people has a different approach to the musical, personal, and organizational challenges of running an ensemble. How does the Spektral Quartet do what they do–namely, learn enormous piles of music and give consistently excellent performances, all while apparently retaining their sanity and continuing to actually like each other?

I decided that I needed to know. It was time for me to go into the lion’s den. So I emailed the lions and got permission to visit. But when I arrived, I suddenly felt nervous and lingered in the bushes outside Russell’s apartment. Should I even be here?

Outside Spektral's Studio

I may or may not have snapped this photo while awaiting an appropriate pause in the rehearsal to buzz in. Photo by Ellen McSweeney

That’s the thing: rehearsal process is kind of personal. Sitting in on another ensemble’s rehearsal is fascinating, but also makes me feel squirmy. My inner monologue during this rehearsal would impress no one:

Should I laugh at the rehearsal jokes? I’m just supposed to be a fly on the wall! Don’t make eye contact. Wait, is it really obvious on my face which version of measure 75 I prefer? That’s so cute how they rehearse in their bare feet, I do that too sometimes!  Man, they must get tired rehearsing at this pace. Ooh, so Russ has a cat?

I visited the Spektrals because I was looking for some insights into effective rehearsal. After observing their work on Mark Anthony Turnage’s Slide Stride, which they performed earlier this month at PianoFest, I have some ideas about what makes their rehearsal process work.

1. The way they criticize each other is really funny.

a. “Can this part be more chill, tempo-wise?” Austin asked of Doyle.
“Yes. I will have just finished having an aneurism the bar before,” Doyle said evenly.

b. During a frenetic passage, Austin caught Aurelien improvising a series of up bows. “That was the most amazing bowing I’ve ever seen,” Austin declared.

“I got lost,” Aurelien replied weakly.

c. Austin and Doyle worked to tune a long, gnarly passage of sixteenth notes. “It’s the
A-flat that’s really out,” Russell said.

They played it again. My ear caught a few more pitch disagreements.

“Well, the A-flat is better,” Russ deadpanned.
“Die in a fire!” Austin cried.

d. During Austin and Doyle’s nastiest passagework, the second violin is given a rather sexy cabaret-style solo. As his colleagues toiled in unison, Aurelien punched the melody out with a burnished sound, lots of panache, and not a care in the world.

“I hate you so much,” Austin said afterwards.

So you can see why I spent a good portion of the rehearsal trying not to laugh. Mathias Tacke, longtime second violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, once told me what he thinks the secret of long-term quartet success is: “If you can still laugh together, you’re okay.” And if you’re going to get relentlessly criticized by your colleagues, you might as well laugh while it’s happening.

Spektral at the Empty Bottle

Photo by Lori Fahrenholz, Fahrenholz Photography

2. They’ve developed a shorthand that lets them rehearse quickly and efficiently.

When deciding how to proceed with a difficult section, it’s almost as if they’re selecting from options on a menu–a menu that, obviously, has been developed over years of intensive work together. “How about mezzo piano and slow?” Everyone nods and the work begins. Done.

When talking about balance, there’s a default option. “Can we make sure it’s most, middle, less?” Doyle asked, pointing around the quartet to demonstrate the desire for more cello and less violin. Done.

When tuning, there’s a clear sense that they’re been through certain issues before and are simply revisiting them. “That’s just higher than we like putting that C,” Austin told Russell as they tuned a scale. As in any good marriage, no one is necessarily wrong, but there’s an understanding of each individual’s flaws and tendencies.

3. They often criticize themselves first.

As the group began to rehearse an important crescendo, Russell waved his hand and stopped the music. “I started too loud.”

Aurelien frequently checked in with his colleagues, asking: “Was I rushing? Was that on time?” Whatever their answer, he accepted it readily and without defensiveness.

I was impressed with the way the way they communicated accountability, and respect for each other, by constantly “checking themselves” before criticizing each other.

4. They balance between short-term problem-solving and long-term musical development.

For every group in a long term musical relationship, there are multiple senses of time. There’s right now (How quickly can we solve this problem? Also, I’m hungry), there’s lately (Billy’s been busy lately, so he’s a bit less prepared. Is it me or is she playing that slower today?), and there’s long term (How is our group sound evolving? What are the ongoing issues we need to address?).

For the Spektrals, I thought this was most clearly evident when they decided to stop working on something. After drilling a rhythm for ten minutes, Austin might say, “We’ll keep working on it.” There was a collective understanding that through time, individual practice, and continued work, the passage would get better–and that everything didn’t have to be fixed immediately.

Spektral Quartet

Photo by Omar Robles, Paume Studio

5. The truth is, there are no rehearsal secrets–they just work really hard.

“You guys rehearse at an intense pace,” I said during a break.

“Yeah,” Austin agreed. “By the time we’re done, pretty much all we can say is ‘sandwich’.”

And that’s the truth I walked away with as I left the lions in their den, taking a brief break before they hunkered down with James Dillon’s the soadie waste. There’s only one way to achieve the ease, efficiency, and enjoyment that the Spektral Quartet has developed: by working extremely hard, together, day after day, year after year. It’s a truth I know in my own work, and it’ll be my pleasure to watch the Spektrals continue to share the benefits of that work with us in Chicago.