I have been very lucky recently to watch an experienced colleague take a string orchestra rehearsal on a weekly basis. She gets very high standards out of the students and obtains this in a patient, reflective manner, yet with scope for innovation. What marks her out from most other people I have watched take rehearsals, is that she does not have her head in the score and is not actually that interested in conducting. What she is after is the right sound, the right balance and giving ample time for perfecting short passages of music.
Firstly, she knows exactly what each part is playing. Many orchestral scores for school-age students are too complex and too dense. When you arrange music you really only need three or four lines of music; the melody, the bass and the harmony. The harmony is either one or two lines. Because she knows exactly what everyone is playing, she is very good at communicating, not just the notes but the manner in which they are to be played. She is not a native English speaker but is actually one of the best at communicating how music should be played. There is the attention to detail – if bows are not moving in the same direction she will model exactly how they should be moving. She will rehearse a section of music extensively with particular attention to articulation and tempo. She will then go back a section and rehearse from a little further back. In this way she builds the piece and gives people a “running jump” at the part where the focus has been directed at.
Many people with an acute attention to detail are obsessed with the musical score and can rigidly only play what is written, but my colleague is actually very good at giving space for innovation. She will rehearse one section and ask the cello player to play it two different ways before deciding what she wants. She has experimented with electric instruments and drums and is unafraid to try and play something familiar a little differently. This unpredictability keeps things fresh; we may be rehearsing only a small amount of pieces but no rehearsal is the same and there is always a focus and a clear objective.
And finally there is the limitless expectation of crazy high standards. Sometime teachers are afraid of high standards, thinking it is oppressive and too pushy. But most people want to be part of something good. Very few people are happy playing in something they know is a bit rubbish – we all want to feel we are part of something successful. The students know this and success breeds success. Being part of the string orchestra is an honor – and to stay in it means dedication, hard work and practice, practice, practice. She will not hesitate to chuck you out if she thinks you are not putting the work in and the students are very aware of this. So why do they want to put in the work, time and effort?
Because when you hear what they can play, you understand why it is worth every second spent in rehearsal. The results are simply stunning.