Thursday, July 6, 2017


Last week in rehearsal we began talking about the concept of finding the essence of difficult passages in the repertoire. This is a rehearsal technique that I have been developing over the past several years and wanted to introduce to this fine ensemble. This technique is by no means uniquely mine. But, I believe I have created some wrinkles in the technique that allow for greater learning by each member of the ensemble, regardless of their technical proficiency.   (If you heard the Mendelssohn Sinfonia last night, you heard this without knowing it.)

In virtually every ensemble there is some range of technical ability exhibited by the members of the group. There will almost always be some who grasp the most difficult technical passages quickly and others who take longer to learn the passages or, perhaps even find those passages to be above their technical capabilities. This is the case this week and virtually every summer here in the Intermediate Concert Orchestra. Again, I would stress that this is the case in most youth and community orchestras.

So, as music directors, we have one of two choices. We can either program all music in which everyone in the ensemble can play every technical passage. Or, we can give the musicians tools for seeing the deeper meaning in passages and finding ways to adapt technically so that they are enhancing the orchestral performance, not detracting from it. In several of the conducting situations in which I find myself, the latter is the better choice. (Let me stress to young teachers that sometimes the former is the better choice. It depends on your particular situation and requires great thought in reference to the goals of the ensemble and the type of musician that you are reaching.)

My friend, conductor Scott Speck, put it this way: think of a meter in front of the orchestra. For every right note you play the meter goes to the right. That is good! For every wrong note you play, the meter goes to the left.  That is bad. If you don't play anything the meter stays straight up and down. No harm done. The goal for each musician is to make the meter go to the right constantly. That said, by not playing a wrong note, the meter is not impacted. I am trying to get young musicians to make that meter go to the right. If they play in correct rhythms or incorrect pitches, that meter goes in the wrong direction. It is hard to convince young musicians that they are helping The Ensemble by leaving stuff out. So, in response to this I created this rehearsal technique. If done correctly, the musicians that ought the for playing the essence not only serve a benign role of not hurting the ensemble. They also help the ensemble by stabilizing rhythmic and pitch information for the other players.

I called my technique finding the ESSENCE of a passage.  It works like this:

Many times in the repertoire there will be very fast passages of 16th notes, difficult fingerings or shifts or, perhaps, very high notes that are technically challenging. I can always tell from the podium when there are students who are struggling to keep up with the ensemble.  It is at this point that I invite the ensemble to step back, listen to the passage, think about the passage, and ascertain the essence of the passage. Sometimes when we are simply seeing a difficult fast passage or technical requirements that are above our level, it's easy to get lost in the forest and missed the trees. Many times in a sixteenth note passage the essence is the first note of the 16th . Or, perhaps if the passage is very high and require shifting on the part of the string player, simply taking note of the name of the note can be an enlightening activity. I always say that correct pitches are way more important than high notes. A pitch that is difficult to find up high on the fingerboard is better off being played an octave lower in a position that is accessible to a less-experienced string player.

In addition to finding these essence passages when left hand is in focus, I will also look for rhythmic essence at times. If an ensemble is struggling with a rhythmic passage, I try to look for the fundamental rhythms and break the difficulties down into manageable pieces. Sometimes this means adding sixteenth notes to a tricky eighth note passage that may be rushing or slowing down. Sometimes it means just finding the accented notes in a fast passage. Other times, it means clarifying who is providing the rhythmic information in the passage.  Really, it is the same process: find the technically difficult passage and break it down into manageable parts that still fit into the greater work.  After a while, musicians get quite good at doing this!

Please bear in mind that these are my values as a conductor and ensemble leader.  My thinking might be different if I was working as a private instructor on solo repertoire.  As a conductor, my ultimate goal is an accurate and moving performance.

Once I have established exactly what the essence of a passage includes, we go to work on using it meaningfully.

  • We play the essence passage by itself. 
  • We add the rest of the ensemble playing the actual part while the section in question is playing the essence. 
  • Sometimes I will have the outside player play the written part and the inside player do the essence. 
  • I will then reverse that. 
  • Sometimes I will have the front three stands play the written part and the rest of the section play the essence. 
I typically give musicians the choice as to what they will play in a concert. In other words, a student might play The essence in rehearsal for several weeks while they are perfecting the difficult passage. I always make it clear that I would prefer essence in performance over a sloppy technically difficult passage. Essence always makes the ensemble stronger. Wrong notes make the ensemble weaker.  And, I always remind students that no one in the audience will have any idea that they are playing something other than what is written in the part.  At the core is the notion that each players' responsibility is to make the ensemble better!  Sometimes that means playing the essence.

So, this is a brief description of my thoughts on finding Essence in Ensemble repertoire. Sometimes it is absolutely imperative that this be defined and that students know that they can use it as a purposeful tool as part of the rehearsal process and perhaps even part of the performance . I welcome your comments and thoughts on the subject.

Until next time.



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