Speechless Rehearsal: Achieve More by Saying Less

Speechless Rehearsal: Achieve More by Saying Less

Some years ago I lost my voice a week before a major concert with my college orchestra. Seeing as the orchestra was at the point of fine tuning things like balance and phrasing, I went ahead with the rehearsal after having made a couple of signs I could hold up to indicate things like “Let’s do that again,” etc.

The rehearsal was one of the most productive I had with the orchestra! I then remembered a saying of my former conducting teacher: “Musicians can fix most of the problems themselves if we just give them the space to do so.”

I’ve also heard it said that the biggest mistake we as teachers make is that we don’t give the students any reason to look up at the conductor. For expediency’s sake, teachers too often talk their ensembles through everything: we count off before starting, we tell them to get louder when there’s a crescendo, we over-rehearse the ritardando at the end of the piece (always doing it about the same). The result is that students in the ensemble have no reason to look at what we are doing on the podium.

Turning the Tables

If students have no reason to look at the conductor, and we spend our time “instructing” the group about technical issues or problems of the ensemble, the students come to rely on the teacher to “fix” everything. What then would happen if we turned the tables on the students and gave the ensemble the responsibility for fixing problems?

Would the ensemble listen to each other more? Would each musician take more ownership and responsibility for playing at their best? After all, when the time comes for the performance these are the very traits we expect of each of the musicians in the ensemble, but it is one thing we don’t regularly practice in the typical “teacher-centered” rehearsal.

Somewhere I read that conductors really only need eight words to rehearse (and they are pairs of opposites). I lovingly refer to them as the 8 Magic Words:

  • Higher / Lower (pitch)
  • Faster / Slower (tempo)
  • Louder / Softer (dynamic)
  • Longer / Shorter (articulation)

With these eight variables in mind, I set about developing a set of hand signals that would indicate these rehearsal principles to an ensemble.

More Hand Signals

Quickly it became apparent that in addition to hand signals to address the 8 Magic Words, I needed a few additional instructions, including:

  • Where one is starting (i.e. a rehearsal marking or letter)
  • When a section is rushing or dragging
  • When a section is early or late (assuming they haven’t figured this out for themselves)
  • Where on the bow one is to play a passage
  • Creating a lighter or heavier sound

For each of these cues I created a hand signal that was used consistently and regularly.

I also identified the two most important signals:

  • Fix it
  • Play together

These two simple instructions became the most important elements in creating a student-centered rehearsal environment. With these, the ensemble is encouraged to figure out for themselves what was not going right. Sometimes the problem was that one section or another was not listening enough and perhaps rushing through an entrance, other times they realized that there was an intonation issue that they hadn’t been paying enough attention to.

The important takeaway for me as an educator was that it was more effective to give the responsibility of finding, analyzing and correcting the “problem” to the musicians rather than jumping in and telling them to do X, Y, or Z.

Awkward at First

It feels strange to rehearse without language, not saying anything except the occasional “Start 15 measures before rehearsal mark C” (that is a little awkward to signal with just a simple gesture). Once the ensemble has gotten used to the concept, however,  the process becomes extremely efficient.

With repetition, the ensemble became quite adept at interpreting each facial expression, each gesture, each look. Additionally, they even began to give signals to each other, helping each other to solve problems of intonation or articulation. Section leaders became true “leaders” and have taken a greater sense of responsibility for ensuring that their section plays together etc.

Speechless Rehearsal Tips

Since I presented a talk about the concept of speechless rehearsal at the recent Texas Music Educators Association annual conference, I have had a number of follow-up conversations with others who have experimented with this idea since then. Should you wish to apply this to your rehearsals, here are a few tips I would share:

  • At first, use a gesture and a single word to create the association in the players’ minds of word and gesture.
  • Introduce gestures slowly so that no one is confused and everyone fully understands what you are trying to communicate.
  • Always use the same gesture for a specific instruction (using one of the 8 Magic Words). Don’t confuse the ensemble with a different gesture for something that is similar to one of the 8 Magic Words.
  • Stop immediately you notice a problem – this has the effect of ensuring that the ensemble is paying close attention to you at all times, but also makes the identification of the problem easier because it is fresh in their minds at that moment.
  • If a problem is with a specific section, only rehearse that group of musicians. This fixes the problem quicker, and draws attention so that the entire ensemble becomes intimately familiar with what that section is dealing with. Knowing each others’ parts helps the entire ensemble listen more attentively.
  • Vary your tempo frequently when going over a passage. The ensemble quickly learns to pay very close attention to the style and articulation of your preparatory beat.
  • Conduct well – don’t be a human metronome. If we want to shape a phrase or indicate a type of articulation, we must be able to show that in our conducting. If we don’t show in our conducting how we expect the music to sound, we can’t expect young musicians – who may not have any experience with the piece or composer – to automatically know how to create that sound.
  • It should go without saying that the importance of knowing the score intimately is an absolute requirement for any conductor. Preparation of the score guides our conducting, guides our ears to ensure we hear everything correctly and can immediately identify faults of pitch, tempo, dynamic, or articulation.

What was instructive to me in this process was that much of the time musicians can indeed fix problems of ensemble etc. themselves, and only need guidance from the podium when they themselves have not figured out what the problem seems to be. This process of not “telling” the ensemble what they should or shouldn’t do turns a rehearsal from a “Teacher-Centered” experience to a “Student-Centered” one.

Conductor and cellist Brendan Townsend was appointed music director of the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra in September 2003. He is also director of music programs at Texas A&M International University. In June 2007 Townsend and the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra were awarded the ASCAP Award for Innovative Programming by the League of American Orchestras and their commitment to the performance of modern music. Following his professional symphonic debut in 1994 with the Amsterdam Promenade Orchestra, he conducted over 25 orchestral, operatic, and choral ensembles in Europe. After moving to the U.S., he's held music directorships with the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio and the Bryan Symphony in Cookeville, TN.

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