Effective rehearsal, excellent performance

The one time I was proud of my playing as a member of the guitar orchestra and the combined sound we produced was also the one instance that I had forgotten to bring equipment to video or audio record ourselves. The three pieces we played in the concert of 27th April 2018 were much easier than the repertoire of the two previous concerts. I felt in control. I felt like a contributing member of the ensemble. We started and ended at the same time, no extra noises. My only regret was that I did not record it, and we won’t be giving this concert again.

From the reaction of the audience (loud and instant applause after each piece and the prolonged applause at the end; individual compliments after the concert), I gather we didn’t do badly at all. What makes an excellent performance? The first clue, we had an effective rehearsal only four nights earlier.

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Guitar rehearsal in public library

Yesterday, the Boston Guitar Orchestra held its first open rehearsal at the Somerville Public Library. I dare take credit for suggesting it to Robert, the conductor and artistic director. Rehearsing in a public space will draw attention to who we are. This idea was born years ago when I proposed to situate new digital pianos from my innovation grant in the library and other places outside the classroom. Visibility raises awareness.

So what was it like to rehearse in the open?

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Hearing piano practice

Hearing piano being practiced upon is a welcoming sound when one is a stranger in a big city.

In the distance, I can hear someone practising piano. Last night, until about 9:30 PM, it was harmonic minor scales. Maybe it’s a music school. How can someone practice at all hours in a day?

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Maui College Chorus: Earth Songs

Maui College Choir prepares for spring concerts entitled Earth Songs.

First I met the conductor, Celia Canty. Then I saw the college choir perform. Next I wrote reviews.

Now I accompany the singers, arrange for them to perform, and blog about their upcoming performances.

Maui College Chorus, April 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty
Maui College Chorus, April 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty

I asked Celia about her choice of songs for the Spring 2012 concert. “They all have to do with the earth,” she replied in a recent interview. “The songs are from all over the world, and the choir sings them in original language. But ‘earth’ also has another meaning, too — as in planting trees, jasmine flower, etc.”

In the beginning, the choir was a collection of  individuals with separate voices and universes. After weeks of rehearsing, they blend into one single sound. It requires hearing oneself and hearing others. Celia Canty, who has perfect pitch, can hear if someone sings out of tune. She says it’s both a blessing and a curse to have this ability to hear absolute pitch, as it’s sometimes called.

When we arranged to have the college cable TV crew film the singers, it was intended as a concert performance with no audience. I would have preferred a video of a rehearsal, for that’s far more interesting than a concert. At a rehearsal, one gets to learn. One gets to see how the raw material becomes refined into something beautiful. See the video below of a rehearsal of the popular Chinese folk song — Jasmine Flower, which Puccini used in the opera Turandot and which I once arranged for harp (PDF) because I loved it so much and wanted to play it.

Watch short video clip: Celia Canty rehearses Maui College Chorus on harp

Maui College Chorus, Spring 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty
Maui College Chorus, Spring 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty

Performances (all free):

  • 13 April 2012 @2:45 pm Preview for Academic Senate Meeting, UHMC
  • 19 April 2012 @3:45 pm Roselani Place, Kahului
  • 27 April 2012 @7 pm Iao Congregational Church, Wailuku
  • 3 May 2012 @4 pm Kalama Heights, Kihei
Maui College Chorus Concert Program, Spring 2012
Maui College Chorus Concert Program, Spring 2012

Rehearsals and work-in-progress as previews (trailers)

Rehearsals and behind-the-scenes work in progress lead viewers to anticipate and expect the real thing.

Watching a rehearsal of a choir or the behind-the-scenes of a film production makes me want to go see the real thing (when it’s ready). Like watching a chef prepare a meal, I start to get hungry.

Not the concert itself, Utrecht Conservatory June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer
Not the concert itself, Utrecht Conservatory June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer

Twitter led me to watch the work-in-progress of The Hobbit which will come out next here. The youtube video is not short by any means, but you grow to love the people working on the set and film.

On Facebook, I played a video of the rehearsal of the 88-member student choir of the New England Conservatory. So much goes on in a rehearsal that is not obvious. For the bystander like myself, I see beauty that is being created. I am reminded of my days as a conservatory student, singing in two choirs per year to improve my solfege. For others, it’s the awe of the director — how he manages to get the choir to produce an impressive sound.

The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam offers free lunch concerts each Wednesday. I remember queuing 45 minutes before one such event, shoulder to shoulder in the reception area, standing like sardines in anticipation of a 45 minute concert. When the doors finally opened about 10 minutes before the concert, we rushed in and exclaimed a unison “wow!”  It was the stendhalismo effect of arriving at a historically important place, feeling the special feng shui and grandiose atmosphere, and all of that we normally don’t get to experience in daily life. Once we sat down, I realized that it was just a rehearsal. Not even a dress rehearsal. But it was the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. They were rehearsing a Brahms violin concerto. All musicians were informally dressed, despite being on stage and in front of a full-house of eager listeners. We fell silent when the conductor raised his stick. I closed my eyes. This could easily be the concert itself. The conductor brought the violinist into his solo. After leading the orchestra to join him in a mesmerizing passage, he stopped at a beautiful chord. I opened my eyes to another unison sigh from the audience — an “Ah!”

The free lunch rehearsal concert ended 15 minutes earlier than I had expected. Yet we all felt satisfied — as though we’ve had our lunch.

That was a live trailer of the concert that evening.

All in all, I’d say that rehearsals, work in progress, behind the scenes and pre-production all lead us to anticipate. When we anticipate, we expect. It makes us look forward to the real thing.

Check list for concert bookings

Check lists are useful. Here is the beginning of a check list for booking concerts.

Here’s a check list to remind ourselves of questions to ask when booking concerts in the Netherlands or anywhere else in the world. This list will be re-organised, re-prioritised, with time. There’s also lead time – i.e. when to ask or get the information beforehand.

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Dealing with the unexpected

How can we as musicians and concert producers deal with the unexpected? Weather plays a major role in the business of music that we’re in. Because my lessons and rehearsals got canceled, I valued and spent more time on the rehearsals that didn’t get canceled.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo photo credit: Serge van Empelen

My writing teacher advised a fellow classmate to include conflict, surprise, and humour in his travel writings. It occurred to me that such elements are also present when we give concerts. We have to travel to get there. When it doesn’t go as smoothly as we expect, there’s conflict. Often we encounter surprises.

In fact, musicians are always dealing with the unexpected.

First of all, we never get to perform under ideal conditions. We might rehearse under ideal conditions but these are never those of the live performance. Even if we get to the venue early and rehearse, we never get the real conditions with the audience present.

Secondly, there is that uncertainty of demand. In cultural economics, it’s called the “nobody knows” principle. No matter how well we predict, we’re never sure how many listeners will actually turn up. Demand is uncertain. Unless we get sold-out pre-paid concerts, we may get less than a full-house or standing room only.

Thirdly, anything that requires and involves traveling from A to B is subject to the unexpected.

How can we as musicians and concert producers deal with the unexpected?

Take real life, for example. Last Thursday 17th December, I woke up to a white Christmas that arrived a week early. That it would snow and continue to snow for several days was unexpected for this time of the year. Public transportation got suspended. Lessons and rehearsals got canceled.

Weather plays a major role in the business of music that we’re in.

Because of this snowy weather that befell the Netherlands, several musicians couldn’t get to their gigs on time or at all. The hosts at the Rood Noot (pronounced with long o) waived the entry tickets for the few brave guests that showed up. On the other side of Utrecht, a sold-out house concert (by reservation but not prepayment) took place in spite of empty seats. Elsewhere concerts got canceled or rescheduled.

If weather plays such an important role, we should check the forecasts and plan accordingly. We should be able to adjust to the weather, as fickle as it may be. Delay the start of the performance. Change the programme. Reduce or waive the entrance fees. Have a contingency plan.

The loss of something increases the relative value of something else.

Because my lessons and rehearsals got canceled, I valued and spent more time on the rehearsals that didn’t get canceled. Today I explored new repertoire with a cellist from 4 to 10 pm, with a 2 hour break for dinner. Under normal circumstances, it would have seemed too indulgent. If not for the cellist’s long bus and train journey back to the Hague, I would have happily continued until midnight.

Musicians, if you are reading this, how do you deal with the unexpected? Any interesting stories you’d like to share?
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