Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian plays bass in an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Question time

Every once in a while I get a question from a reader. Clive sent me the following, which I thought worthy of a post.

During the rehearsals I have watched, the orchestra plays through the work, apparently mostly to the conductors satisfaction. The conductor stops a occasionally, explains some points to the players, who seem to get it and make notes on their music, and then they move on.

I have been wondering how the orchestra gets to this point of near perfection (at least from the point of view of the conductor). Is the open rehearsal that we see the end result of several earlier rehearsals? Does each section rehearse separately with the section leader?

If there is a good book that describes the rehearsal process I would love a recommendation.

As far as I can recall, open rehearsals are always the final rehearsals before a concert. In a typical week, we have three or four rehearsals, so the perfection of which you speak (in so far as it is not illusory) comes as the result of what has gone on over the previous few days. Usually the first rehearsal is on Tuesday morning. On Wednesday, we might have two rehearsals, and then on Thursday have the final rehearsal in the morning, followed by the first performance that evening. Sections do not rehearse separately in any official capacity. Some of the wind sections might stay after and run through a few passages. In the string sections, the very idea might lead to some sort of violent mutiny.

As rehearsals go, the first one might reveal more about the orchestra than the last, but for a number of good reasons, I don't see those being opened to the public any time soon. There's a saying that goes something like, “If you don't mind people hearing you practice, you're probably not practicing the right things,” which is sort of self explanatory in this context. Another one goes something like, “A rehearsal's a rehearsal and a concert's a concert,” a bit of profound wisdom dressed up as tautology. Which is to say that as musicians, all we have of value, if anything at all, is our performance. We are happy to offer that to those who support the orchestra, but I think it is pretty important to maintain a sharp line between the two. Besides, a few conductors tend to grandstand in front of an audience and not get anything useful at all done in an open rehearsal. Certainly, getting out early becomes more problematic as well.

There does seem to be a fair amount of curiosity about how an orchestra goes about its business behind the scenes. I don't think a film could ever be made of the subject. Filming is horribly intrusive, as we see from the growing number of camera-people invading our stage these days, with their chattering headsets, squeaky wheels, and noisy gear. Filming an orchestra at work might be like stamping in a puddle and calling the water muddy. I don't know if a good book has be written about it - I leave that open to reader suggestions. Maybe someone in an orchestra should keep a journal, or perhaps write a blog about it.

One of our more beloved conductors made a funny comment a while back. We had just read through something long, loud, and complicated, but something we knew quite well. Placing his baton on the stand, he looked at his watch, probably realizing we had several more hours of rehearsal scheduled for the piece. “Now what am I supposed to say about that?” he muttered. I suppose you could read that several ways, but I think he was giving us a compliment.

The layperson might be surprised how well the first 'read-though' often goes. One way to visualize the orchestra's preparation for a performance might be to imagine the quality of the playing as plotted on a graph, beginning with the first rehearsal and running though all of the performances. A lot of times the plot might resemble something like the letter 'U', with the first read-through in the upper left corner, representing some arbitrary value. Once conductorial meddling commences, the value drops, sometimes precipitously, before eventually heading upward again. A truly great conductor might achieve results that when plotted resemble something more like the letter 'J,' with the performances rising to a level higher than the orchestra's innate ability. Of course, the opposite is also true – the reverse 'J', where the performances never quite add up to what was possible the moment that particular conductor mounted the podium.

In all seriousness, the better maestros tend to let the orchestra play, maybe a whole movement, or the whole piece, in rehearsal before making corrections, suggestions, or whatever. The orchestra tends to appreciate the conductor who can show with his hands rather than having to stop and tell us what he wants. A lot of problems can be solved by the players themselves if the conductor gives them the chance.

To pile on another analogy, you might think of the orchestra as a horse, and the familiar piece of music the well-worn path to the stable. The able maestro lets the animal begin to go its own way awhile before subtly exerting his influence. The reckless one might immediately spur and whip the beast into the nearest thicket. Of course, the worst sort, even before mounting his steed, arrives with a laundry list of instructions. “When you begin, I would like you to move your front right leg forward six inches, while simultaneously moving the left rear leg forward eleven and three to the side, all the while holding your ears firmly upright. And why do you swish your tail so? By the way, I notice you are brown in color. My other horse is gray, which I certainly prefer. Can you do something about that? OK, giddy-up!”