Has your band or chamber music group ever picked up some new music, excited for a fresh challenge, just to give up after a couple rehearsals, grumbling that the music is just too hard? It’s not that you’re lazy—you’re trying to work things out—but you just don’t seem to be able to make any progress. Chords sound out of tune, things start to fall apart after only a few measures, and everyone’s frustrated because it seems impossible to find the cause of the problems.
But the truth is, it’s not impossible (And the music’s not too hard, either!). You just need to get past old rehearsal habits that might be standing in your way and learn some tricks to revamp your approach. At your next rehearsal, be prepared to tackle tough music, plus, take songs or pieces you already know to a whole new level.
Problem #1: You use rehearsal time as practice time.
Unless your group has purposely decided to sight read through something, the music should not be new to you when you get to rehearsal. Prepare as well as you can individually before coming together as a group.
Seek out a recording of the music and follow along with your own part to get an idea of how your own notes and rhythms should sound. Then, follow along with a full score that shows each person’s part. This will give you a better understanding of how your lines fit in with the rest of the ensemble.
Write in cues that will help you when you get to rehearsal. For example, if you find in the score that you have an entrance with the bass guitarist, mark it down in your own part. That way, if you don’t hit that entrance together during rehearsal, you’ll know immediately that something is off.
Most importantly, do plenty of careful practice on your own. If you can play your own part confidently before coming together as a group, rehearsal time can be used to put everything together, rather than to figure out things like transpositions or fingerings.
Problem #2: You treat rehearsals like performances.
If your end goal is to perform the music you’re working on, keeping the performance in the back of your mind can be a great way to stay motivated. But at the same time, if your main rehearsal technique is to run through the music as if you’re already on stage, you’re probably doing more harm than good.
Instead of playing through problems just to be able to say that you made it to the end of the song, stop as soon as things start to fall apart. Then go back just a few measures and see if you can play that small section successfully. If so, keep working backwards, a few measures at a time, until you’ve covered the entire trouble spot.
Slowing down the tempo will also help you to recognize problems—is your drummer coming in on the wrong beat? Is your cellist playing too sharp and throwing off the intonation? Try to listen not only to yourself, but to everyone else as well.
Rearranging the setup of your ensemble is a great way to get a different perspective on how things sound. For example, if you play in a band, you don’t necessarily have to face forward during rehearsals the way you would during a concert. Take a cue from string quartets and try arranging yourself in a circle. Or, if you play in a chamber music group, have a couple members swap places—you’ll be surprised at how many new things you’ll start to hear.
Rehearsals are a place to experiment, so test out many different ways of interpreting the music. Let your sfortsandos shake the walls; make your pianos barely audible; try improvising a wild guitar solo. You’ll only learn the limits by pushing them. Remember, you can always tone things back later.
Problem #3: Your rehearsals consist of all playing, all the time.
Sometimes, the best rehearsal techniques are the ones that don’t require picking up your instrument. (Ever heard the saying, “If you can say it, you can play it?” It works!)
Although it might feel a little silly at first, try having everyone sing their parts or count their rhythms out loud together. Taking the technical challenge of playing an instrument out of the equation makes it easier to concentrate on listening to how the different musical lines fit. To get even more out of the exercise, sing or speak the parts with the correct articulation, dynamics, and phrasing.
When you’ve mastered this approach, slowly start to add instruments back in. You can learn a lot from listening to pairs or smaller groups of players. For example, if the bass and drums are having rhythmic problems, have just the two of them play together. The rest of the band can help out by clapping to keep the beat and by providing feedback.
Once everyone has picked their instruments back up, try one more trick to ensure that you continue to stay together: every time you come to a downbeat—the first beat of each measure—have everyone call out “one.” If someone gets off the beat, stop immediately and figure out what the mistake was. This technique takes some practice and coordination, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a great way to learn where the rhythmic issues are.
Problem #4: You’re not rehearsing as a team.
Remember, when it comes to group music making, the ability to blend together is just as important, and maybe even more important, than individual playing ability. If no attention is paid to the balance between different instruments, the music becomes a jumble of sound and it’s more difficult to catch mistakes.
The best way to achieve a good blend and balance is to always know who has the melody, or the most interesting line, and to make sure that you can hear it at all times. For example, if your line consists of repetitive whole notes while the viola has melodic eighth notes, the viola’s line is clearly more important; allow it to shine through by backing off your own dynamic a bit.
In addition, the person with the melody should take on a leadership role in terms of cueing and phrasing. Whenever it’s your turn to lead, be sure to communicate clearly with the rest of the group, both verbally and non-verbally. Initiate discussion about details such as tempo, articulation, and interpretation. While playing, communicate those ideas through body language. Some head nodding and eye contact can be surprisingly effective in getting everyone to tune in to the sound of the group as a whole.
Finally, don’t forget to exchange friendly words of encouragement and above all, have fun during rehearsals. A group that enjoys working together will ultimately play better together!