If you missed the first entry in this series (Concerto Preparation), you can find it HERE. This post is the second of three that discuss the process of preparation, rehearsal, and performance for a concerto. The next post (Concerto Performance) will be out in a few days, so check back on cleachmusic.com, Facebook, or Instagram to read the final installment.
Now that you've fully prepared the concerto by learning the notes, fine-tuning transitions, making intentional tempo/phrasing decisions, and communicating with the conductor, it is time to start the rehearsal process. Generally speaking, you’ll only get a very limited number of rehearsals (as little as 2, as many as 5) when performing a concerto with an ensemble. Think about it—typically, concertos are on the first half of a program, and come before the large masterwork on the second half. The ensemble’s responsibility is usually to detail the crap out of the symphony, make a great impression with an overture, and let the concerto come last in terms of priority (since the pressure is mostly on the soloist). I’m not saying this is the case everywhere, and I’m not even saying that this is always the case, but it’s definitely not uncommon for things to go this way.
So what is your responsibility in all of this, knowing that you have an exceptionally limited amount of time, and knowing that many people in the ensemble might not care about the piece?
Play your butt off
Don’t be needy
Make it fun for the ensemble (make them care)
Be prepared (see previous post)
The wonderful part about this list of bullet points? Every single thing is 100% controllable, so there are absolutely ZERO excuses.
Let’s talk about each of these quickly, before talking about alignment, mental management, awareness, and adversity within the rehearsal process itself.
This one is easy, and should already be a staple in your overall attitude. Speak politely, be respectful, engage others in meaningful ways, dress well, be prepared, be punctual…you know, all of that “DUH” stuff.
Play Your Butt Off
There’s a reason that you’re the one playing the concerto. That also means that you have to demonstrate, at all times, that you deserve it. Your playing is under a microscope, and whether you like it or not, everybody in the ensemble is judging you. This pressure is not to be taken lightly, and there really isn’t a way to prepare yourself for it.
Simply put: you wanted it, you worked for it, and you earned it—now prove yourself, and have fun.
Don’t Be Needy
I just cannot emphasize this enough. We need a highlighter for this one. Or fireworks.
OK, to the point. I hate “don’t do/be ____” statements, but seriously, don’t be high maintenance. Nobody, and I mean nobody in the ensemble wants to watch you reaffirm the fact that you’re the “star of the show” by nitpicking, making ridiculous requests, being dramatic, or stepping on the conductor’s toes. It’s unspoken, but everybody knows that the focus is on you for the piece, so you should do everything to make it about the ensemble and not yourself. The details should have been worked out in your meeting with the conductor, and if things aren't going quite the way you want, find a tactful way to address it. You can then talk to the conductor after the rehearsal and correct the issue(s) in the next rehearsal. Also, just be humbled by the fact that you’re literally hitting pieces of wood, metal, and plastic, and somebody gave you a chance to do this on stage with their ensemble. They could’ve chosen any other instrument, and they chose percussion. That’s huge.
Make it Fun for the Ensemble
Piggybacking off of that last point, not only should you avoid being high maintenance, you should also find ways to make it fun for the ensemble. Remember, they are likely not the most enthused about the piece, so you want to connect to them in an extra-musical way. Perhaps this means that if something goes laughably wrong, you actually laugh, crack a small (respectful, tasteful) joke, and enjoy the moment. Getting sour in that situation would be a quick way to lose the group’s respect, so vibe with them and let the rehearsal ebb and flow.
On the other side, if something sounds exceptionally great, finish the chunk and compliment the specific section or ensemble as a whole. They’ll quickly learn that not only do you appreciate them, but that you’re actually listening to the music that they’re making with you and not taking it for granted.
Read the previous post on PREPARATION.
One quick thing before addressing mental management, awareness, and adversity within the rehearsal itself.
Something that many people don’t consider/appreciate is how unbelievably difficult it is to align a percussion concerto (or any concerto, really) from front to back. The relationship between soloist, conductor, and ensemble is tedious. The entire ordeal is a fluctuating game of responsibilities. Who will follow? Who will lead? It can almost turn into a game of cat and mouse, so communication, forethought, and tactful honesty are essential.
I’ll just go ahead and say it. There will be no concerto performance that feels 100% aligned. You’ll have to lead, listen, and adjust. As percussionists, this can be frustrating and demoralizing, because our instruments have an immediate response. This creates a binary result: you're either right or wrong. In time or out of time. The grey area is very small—thick string textures and soupy roll passages might afford you some leeway, but that’s about it.
So what do we do?
Plan ahead as much as possible. I would go into your meeting with the conductor having a clear idea of when you will lead, when you will listen back to the ensemble, and when you will follow the conductor. The conductor will have their own idea of this, and there will naturally be some compromise for both parties. If a particular moment has an essential listening point that the conductor disagrees with, do your best to respectfully make your case. If it still doesn’t work, *default to them* on the issue and see what happens in rehearsal. Don’t burn the bridge before you see if it’s possible. More often than not, it will crash and burn in the rehearsal, and the conductor will change their mind.
Once you’ve sorted this out, go back to the practice room and work on practicing these mental responsibility shifts. Also, if you’ll be looking at the conductor for certain sections or cues, practice physically moving your head in the direction of the conductor while playing.
And if this needs restated more simply: you will NOT always lead!
Mental Management, Awareness, and Adversity
There are so many things to be thinking about in the rehearsal, so I tend to call the mental processes involved “management.” In my mind, the first responsibility of rehearsing is to ensure everything is working and sounding presentable, not necessarily to enjoy it (yet). If you’re unaccustomed to the feeling of performing in front of an ensemble, you should take the first few reps to acclimate yourself to the sensation. You want to understand this feeling as soon as possible, so that you can move away from the honeymoon phase and into a state of awareness. I almost liken this to a conductor’s first time on the podium, which usually involves their ears completely shutting off (the one thing they need!) and their focus shifting entirely to their pattern and the “wow” factor of being there. Experience the coolness, accept and (try to quickly) understand it, and then move on. There’s work to be done!
With this idea of mental management in mind, let’s talk awareness. Your primary responsibility is to perform your part correctly and execute all of the leading/listening responsibilities that you’ve discussed with the conductor. Performing your part shouldn’t take any more effort than you’re used to (yes, I’m sweeping potential nervousness under the rug). The listening/leading stuff could throw you a bit, but if you’ve adequately prepared and understand who you’re listening for, this adaptation will happen fairly quickly.
**In addition to knowing who to listen for from your preparation phase, you should also check out where each section is seated in the rehearsal, so you understand the ensemble’s aural geography, too.**
So what’s left?
Making adjustments and dealing with adversity. Perhaps your marimba lick with the flutes has unison pitches and accents, and they are consistently ahead. Maybe the distance from the percussion section is causing an ensemble tear, since everything will speak late. And maybe, worst of all, the conductor isn’t catching these things because of everything that they are mentally managing, too.
What do you do?
Choose your battles wisely. It might not be in your best interest to cut the rep and correct the flutes on their time. But perhaps, since you are a percussionist and distance/timing issues are commonplace, you have the credibility to mention something to the conductor after the rehearsal chunk is finished that you’d like them to play a bit more on top of the beat. Or, in both of these cases, you can make the conscious choice to adjust to these small tendencies as you play, especially if they are persisting. Now, this could set a dangerous precedent of always listening back to the ensemble and adjusting, so make sure the choice you’re making is reasonable and important enough to warrant your own change.
As the rehearsals go on and you get closer to the performance, you have to be the judge of whether or not “issue X” or “issue Y” is going to get better. Having the awareness of issues within each rehearsal, the trajectory of improvement from rehearsal to rehearsal, and both the conductor’s and ensemble’s receptivity to correcting problems is a journey that changes for every situation. So, like I said, the sooner you can stop worrying about your own personal part, the honeymoon feeling of being in front of an ensemble, etc., the sooner you can heighten your awareness, judge these situations, and take appropriate action to ensure a successful performance.
Most of all, find some time to have fun. The first few couple of times I performed in front of an ensemble, I was so worried about musical/alignment issues that I had zero fun. Now that the feeling is a bit more familiar to me, I’m able to enjoy the process while still being critical and mentally managerial.
If you want to see this put into practice, CLICK HERE for a recorded live stream of one of my recent Higdon Concerto rehearsals with the Eastman Wind Ensemble.
That’s all I’ve got on this! Check back for the third installment of the On Stage: Concerto series, PERFORMANCE — all about the gig itself.
Thanks for reading, and shoot me an email or message if you have questions/comments/thoughts!