In response to one of the posts in this series, Dwight Thomas – an absolutely fantastic and gifted musician – brought up a great question. Let’s say you are following the “say one thing and fix it” rule. How do you balance that with larger goals and the flow of the rehearsal? As Dwight rightly says,
“there’s always something that needs fixing (pitch, rhythm, bad vowel formation, sloppy technique, etc. I think it’s hard finding the balance sometimes between not letting things accumulate into becoming bad habits, and not grinding the rehearsal into the pavement and squelching any sense of accomplishment or having any gestalt view.”
Dwight very astutely points out a problem for all conductors. Everyone has to come up with their own solution to this problem. It’s not an easy solution, and it’s something that even mature conductors need to constantly balance. When it comes to young conductors, I see one primary problem manifesting itself that leads to an intensification of the problem.
It is very important to pick repertoire that is appropriate for the ensemble. Young conductors tend to pick repertoire that they like instead of repertoire that is appropriate for the ensemble. If the music is too hard for the ensemble to learn within the constraints of the giftedness of the performers and the time allotted for rehearsal, compromises have to be made.
I don’t have all the answers for this problem, but I can tell you my solution. I try to have any ensemble I’m conducting work on at least three pieces that fall into a spectrum of “below their level”, “at their level”, and “above their level”. I use the piece that’s easy for them to work on sound – by which I mean, I work on things that will make the overall sound of the group more beautiful. I use the piece that’s at their level to practice emotional mapping of music and expressive singing. I use the piece that is a challenge to develop musicianship and technique. These, of course, aren’t hard and fast categories, and their is plenty of overlap. As a general structure, it allows me to plan a rehearsal that strikes a balance between various goals.
It’s certainly not a perfect system, and I often misjudge a groups ability, but as a guiding principal, I find it has served me very well for devloping an ensemble.