Today is the penultimate day of rehearsals for my current group of musicians at Interlochen. Our concert is tomorrow and we are ready to give a great performance.
Yesterday, in rehearsal, I wanted to give the students something very concrete that they could take home to their school orchestras and individual work as orchestral musicians. In response to some of our conversations this week, I decided to give them 5 concrete recommendations of habits that top level musicians should develop. Make no mistake about it, these habits will not make one a great musician. But, they are part of the expectations of any good musician and strong leader in all musical contexts. Thus, it is better to develop them early and have them in your lexicon as you continue to develop as a musician. I often encourage my own children "move with purpose" These are my orchestral "move with purpose" encouragements. So, without further ado, here are the 5 vital habits of a successful orchestral musician that I offered to my students yesterday.
1. Always have a pencil at rehearsal. Now, I know that every orchestra director in the world requires their musicians to have a pencil. But, the number of students that I see scrambling during rehearsal to find a writing utensil is unbelievable to me. I told my students yesterday that not only should there be one pencil on every stand, but, there should be one pencil for every person in the room. Every player should have their instrument, music, and a pencil as they go into any practice or rehearsal setting. Passing one pencil between two stands is simply unacceptable. It wastes time and is distracting to the entire ensemble.
I find that writing in music is one of the most important skills that I have developed over the years, both as a violinist and as a conductor. I try in all my rehearsals to tell the students what a musician would write in any given circumstance. And I encourage students to always be thinking about what they might write in a part without my prompting. So, it is vital that each student get in the habit of picking up a pencil every time they pick up their instrument.
2. Arrive at every rehearsal a minimum of 10 minutes early. It is vital that young musicians get in the habit of arriving at rehearsals with plenty of time to settle into the rehearsal space before the downbeat of rehearsal. This allows for time to communicate with stand partners, effectively tune their instrument, warm up a little bit, and simply to mentally settle into the task that is at hand. So frequently, I see musicians running into rehearsal at the last minute and never fully settling into the mental space of the rehearsal. This is certainly not an efficient way to maximize the time that they are spending in rehearsal. And, at the very least, and early arrival shows great respect for colleagues and leaders in the rehearsal setting. I know that I notice it as a conductor and really appreciate and respect those who arrive early.
3. Look at the conductor when you don't really have to. I tell musicians all the time that there are numerous opportunities for making visual contact with a conductor in the context of a piece of music. Of course, one must make visual contact with the conductor during important changes in a piece of music. These include tempo changes, style changes, and important articulations. However, I think it is also important that young musicians understand that it is important to make visual contact with a conductor during the more static passages as well. I encourage students to be cognizant of opportunities such as whole notes, repeated notes, and rests. These are times when an ensemble musician can let the conductor know that they are fully engaged in and on the same page as the other musicians in the room. This visual affirmation also gives the conductor full confidence to maintain the highest expectations of musicianship and expression for the ensemble. Thus, developing the habit of visual contact during static passages, while sometimes overlooked, is of the utmost importance.
4. Actually listen to the tuning note. So frequently, when I arrive in a new orchestral setting, a tuning note is sounded and musicians begin loudly tuning their own instrument without fully listening to the pitch of the tuning note. Years ago, I became aware of some research that indicates that there is a significantly higher rate of memorizing a pitch with a minimum of 5 seconds of listening time. I always encourage my young musicians to listen to a tuning note for 5 seconds before beginning their own tuning process. Additionally, it is so vital that the tuning be done at a piano (quiet) volume level. The vast majority of young students that I encounter tune significantly too loudly. It distorts the pitch of the strings and does not lead to an exceptional sounding ensemble.
5. Prepare your own part outside of rehearsal. I recently saw a post on Facebook that simply said "rehearsal is not for learning your own part, it's for learning everyone else's part." This really resonated with me. It is vital that musicians get in the habit of practicing their ensemble music in the practice room and understanding that rehearsal is for just that: rehearsing. The art of rehearsal and the art of practice are definitely mutually exclusive. All too often, students play in ensembles where the expectation is that they do both simultaneously. This is inefficient at least and rude at best. Nothing drives me more crazy than hearing a student workout a passage while I am in the middle of rehearsal. That is work for another time. Much of this, again, goes to the concept of respect for peers and for leadership. If a young musician really respects those around him for her, he will take the time necessary outside of rehearsal to prepare the passages for performance. I never expect things to be perfect from the beginning. But, I do expect that there is an understanding of the difference between the two activities. Practice involves slow thoughtful repetition. Rehearsal involves broader concepts and developing an understanding of all of the pieces of the puzzle. It is a much more "macro" activity. I simply think it's important that students grow to understand the distinction between practice and rehearsal.
These are my thoughts for today. I hope that you have found them to be interesting and applicable. If you feel that your students might benefit from these from this list, please feel free to share it. I know that I will keep working to develop these habits in my students. I hope that you will as well.
Best wishes for rehearsal rooms full of students with exceptional habits of orchestral musicians!