It is common knowledge (I hope) that the bulk of the musician’s work happens away from the stage. Musically speaking you have your individual practice time, and then there’s rehearsals. Musicians’ approach to rehearsals is as varied as music itself, and on this occasion, I’d like to lift the curtains and give you some examples of what goes on before you see all those elegant/cool/funky/brooding/etc. individuals playing together on stage.
The classical orchestra
Scheduled rehearsal time: 10:00 – 13:00, 20 to 30-minute break in between.
Musicians arrive 9:45 the latest.
At 5’ to 10:00, the orchestra tunes. Concertmaster stands up. Oboe tunes to a little electronic device, gives A to the wind section. Wind section makes a whole lot of noise. Some horns will take advantage of the situation and quickly play some notes from Ride of the Valkyries. Some silence. Oboe gives A to the string section. Violins tune, violas tune, by the time cellos begin to tune, the winds assume it’s time to make some noise again, violins take advantage of the situation and play the most difficult piece they know. Conductor takes his place on the podium and begins rehearsal. Some violins in the back stands will roll their eyes at the bowings decided upon by the first chair. The lower brass will be busy keeping track of a sporting event or sharing funny, obscene videos while they wait for their part at the end of the piece. The conductor will take his/her frustration out on the woodwinds and work on intonation – the flute will blame the problem on the clarinet, the clarinet on the oboe, the oboe will say it’s in tune according to his/her tuning device and blame it on the bassoon, the bassoon will blame it on the timbre of his/her instrument. The percussion section remains oblivious to it all. At some point a musician, usually the concertmaster, will stand up and remind the conductor it’s break time. The same will happen at the end, when as soon as the clock strikes 13:00, most musicians will have left the rehearsal room. The orchestra will talk about how lacking this conductor is in comparison to the previous one, and the conductor will feel this orchestra is amateurish compared to the one he conducted prior to this engagement. Work will continue in a similar fashion for a week or 2 and end in a successful concert, but no one in the orchestra will actually care too much.
The jazz band
Scheduled rehearsal time: 18:00 – 22:00
The punctual musicians will arrive 18:00 or 5’ past, but anything within the first 30 minutes is considered “on time”.
Musicians arrive, put their cases on a chair, and chit chat. Some will drink coffee, some will have a cigarette. Eventually someone suggests “how about we play something”. Everyone unpacks. They begin rehearsing the first tune at around 18:45. After the first tune is done, which will have invariably sounded “great”, they’ll take the first break. Another coffee. Someone suggests “we plough through” the next 3 tunes after the break to use the time wisely. Everyone agrees. Mid-rehearsal the guitarist’s pickup might run out of battery and need replacing. Band leader decides to try out “these new charts” (that’s jazz speak for “scores”). Most of the band starts deciphering the combination of letters and numbers on the paper in front of them by “quietly” trying it out on their instruments simultaneously, but not together. The drummer isn’t fazed, and just asks what the groove should be like. Another break. 21:30: The bass player says he must leave a little early today, because he has a gig and can only play 10 more minutes. They’ll go over the “tricky tune” from last time before X has to leave. They agree that everyone take a look at the tunes they couldn’t play today, and then go over them during the sound check before the gig. Gig is day after tomorrow. There are some bitchin’ solos. They congratulate each other on a great show and have a few drinks.
The theatre production with live music
Scheduled rehearsal time: 10:30 – 17:30 (or open end, everyone’s favourite)
Musicians arrive more or less on the dot. Everyone else is already there and working. The musical director looks slightly confused.
Musical director (from now on MD) will tell musicians where their spot on the stage is. Musicians take their places and wait for further instruction. Stage director will ask the assistant why the musicians are sitting there. Musicians will be asked to stand up and wait while the new seating arrangement is sorted. Meanwhile the actors are rehearsing a scene. Director tells assistant to tell MD they’ll go over the next 2 scenes, and then they’ll need the music. MD tells musicians to stay close, they’ll be playing in about 10 minutes. 11:30: musicians take their new spot on the stage and they all begin rehearsing the scene with music. Director yells cut, the musicians’ seating isn’t working, can we please go back to the original plan. Musicians are re-located to original set up. From the top. Scene begins again. Director says something to the MD. The music is too long, can the musicians please just loop the first 2 bars of their scores for 30 seconds, thank you. 12:25: musicians can take a 20-minute break while actors go through some bits. 13:15: musicians back on. Begin to play next piece. Light technician has to come and make some adjustments. In the meantime, would it be possible to do the one where the main character sings. Actor comes and begins to sing his part. Stops. Says he rehearsed it in a different key with his accompanist and it needs to be slower. MD tells musicians to transpose a third up as well as they can and follow the actor’s lead. The actor tells the musicians it’s not working, he will follow them. 14:05: Cut. We need to move on to the next scene. Musicians should take a break. MD is sweating profusely, reading the screenplay and making notes on his score. Musicians have coffee and cigarettes and look at their watches. Actors sit in a semicircle on stage and listen to director’s notes. 16:45: MD’s hair is sticking up, has a vague look in his eyes. Tells musicians thank you for your time, you’re done for today. Work continues in similar fashion for anything between 1 week to a month. On the final dress rehearsal day, everyone kind of knows what’s going to happen. Music score has been shortened to 25% of its original length. After the premiere everyone congratulates each other, musical director gets heavily drunk.
The string quartet
Scheduled rehearsal time: 5 days a week 10:00 - 14:00
Musicians arrive 9:45ish.
They exchange pleasantries and have a warm beverage or a glass of water. They will tune with the precision of a Swiss clockmaker. Work on any given beautiful composition begins. The attention to detail is impressive: words and phrases such as agogic, dynamic, and Pythagorean tuning will be used, and everyone will understand what’s meant by them. Officially they’re all equals, but deep down they all know the first violin is the leader and in a power struggle with the cellist. Not everyone will agree on how loud a forte is and how soft a piano should be. The violist will invariably accept whatever the others say. They’ll take a break after they’ve worked on the first two movements, and share the latest gossip of the classical world. The second violinist will tell the rest about his/her upcoming vacation plans. Rehearsal resumes with the same level of focus. Work will continue in similar fashion for many years. Eventually the cellist might have an affair with the second violinist’s wife. They will ignore the elephant in the room, and fight it out in musical terms and complicated travel arrangements.
The amateur rock/pop band
Scheduled rehearsal time: Fridays
Drummer already lives there. Guitarist arrives and sets up his/her pedalboard consisting of every possible effect ever invented by mankind. Singer and bass player tell some jokes. They do a quick sound check, where everyone keeps turning up the volume of their own amp, until it’s loud enough for an entire football stadium and not just the 15m2 basement they’re actually rehearsing in. Everyone feels very cool. They start playing their newest song. Guitarist suggests using more delay on the bridge, and demonstrates. It sounds very cool. Someone opens a beer. They play the whole song a couple of times. Everyone has new ideas on how to improve the tune. Most, if not all will be tried out, until it’s a completely different song. 2 hours in, the bass player will absentmindedly start playing a riff over two chords. Guitarist joins in, drummer joins in, singer does his/her version of free styling. Everyone is stoked, we have a new song man! They open some more beers and talk about their business plan. They will meet again next Friday, and no one will actually remember how the song went. Work continues in similar fashion for 2 years or until one of them gets bored. Everyone still feels really cool.
The mariachi band
Scheduled rehearsal time: none
The mariachi band doesn’t rehearse. They drink until 4:00, and then get hired by someone, usually a man, drunker than themselves, to go play for someone, usually a woman, who’s already quite angry at the person bringing the mariachi. The mariachi band soldiers on.