Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Beecham on rehearsing

I've just come across this quote from Sir Thomas Beecham on rehearsing. If only more conductors could rehearse his way!

There's only one way to rehearse an orchestral piece, which is what I do. I take either a Mozart symphony or a Strauss tone poem. I play the whole thing through beginning to end without a stop. The whole blessed thing. The orchestra makes a few mistakes, naturally. I play through a second time. The orchestra makes no mistakes. I then just take a few little difficult parts. I pinpoint them, I emphasize them, I repeat those three or four times - I'm ready for performance.

What does the young conductor do, who will never profit by anybody else's experience, thanks to his unconquerable egotism and innate stupidity? He will take a first class orchestra, and after playing twenty bars he will stop, and he begins educating them - fancy educating a body of people like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra! They already know the damn piece ten times better than he does. He gives us one more twenty bars, stops, starts educating, teaching them. That's why he wants six rehearsals, and that's why I can do with two!

The point of course is that we mainly get better in rehearsals by playing the piece, not by listening while we are told how we should have played the piece. It works at the amateur level as well, though there may be more in the way of errors that need to be cleaned up after the play-through. But even at an amateur level, people learn faster through actually being able to play the piece!


  1. Great post. Brought me to realize the (slight) difference between practice (on one's own preparing either technique or a particular piece) and rehearsal (working with a group to get a particular piece ready for performance). Looked up rehearsal and it comes from the old French word for "harrow", which on a crop field you come along with a few times to smooth the soil after plowing and planting.

    Speaking as an amateur - the thing about starting and stopping is that I rarely really understand how a piece is meant to sound as a whole until we're nearly at performance. It's also the case that for me, to play a piece well on the horn I have to halfway memorize it - and it's very hard to pick up the memory thread in the middle of a section, particularly band music with its incessant (and to me, often mindless) transitions and modulations.

    I'd also assumed that high level players such as yourself had no problem with the start and stop procedure, so was heartened to hear otherwise.

    One way to put what Sir Thomas is talking about is what a French professor of mine used to call le donneƩ - the given. It means dowry, but also the tradition as it was received by a poet and what he did with it for the next generation- nobody can start out absolute fresh, which is something younger folks working in traditions don't fully realize sometimes. This quote makes clear Sir Thomas understood he was more a steward than a god.

  2. I realised the worth of actually playing in rehearsals and the uselessness of a lot of conductor talk even in my youth, and nearly got thrown out of a youth orchestra as a result when I tried to raise this issue with the conductor.

    Beecham is of course talking about a professional orchestra, one which was at the time among the very finest in the world, for instance with Dennis Brain as its first horn. They were players who would have played much of the repertoire before, so they knew how the notes are supposed to go. They know where the corners were and knew how to look up at the conductor to see how he was going to take them. In other words they were consummate craftsmen.

    At a lower level, there will be more need for stopping and starting because there are more points at which amateur players make mistakes and get lost. Also, amateur players play less, and so there will be more occasions when they haven't played a particular piece before. So Beecham's "few little difficult parts" will inevitably be a bit more numerous.

    But it seems to me that even allowing for these differences, there is an important principle here. The conductor won't know which bits the orchestra finds difficult unless and until the piece has been played through! So stopping after 20 bars or so on a first runthrough is almost always a bad idea.

  3. You've used that expression "the corners" of a piece of music several times and it always catches me off guard as I've never heard anyone else use it (maybe it's a Brit thing?). On the one hand it wonderfully expresses how playing a piece of music can feel to the player - turning a corner and coming out at a different speed or in a different key - but on the other hand, I never experience music that way when listening, but rather curves and swerves and morphing and all kinds of non-rectilinear sensations as the music moves forever forward. I also can't help wondering if talking about the corners of music was a time your dad used the term "slopendicular" ;-)

  4. I don't think it is one of my Dad's special phrases, it has been a part of my musical vocabulary for as long as I can remember.

    I think you're quite right in recognising that the perceptions of the player and and the listener are different. A corner is something to be negotiated by the players, so they end up all pointing in the new direction together. It has to be anticipated, extra concentration is required so everyone stays together.

    But for the listener, who doesn't understand the coordination involved in achieving the musical effect and doesn't need to understand the effort in order to enjoy the effect, who isn't anticipating the change, it comes as a delightful surprise, something which refocuses the listener's concentration on the music wondering what is going to happen next.

    It can happen that when I hear a new piece of music and there's a particular audacious change of speed or mood, it can cause me actually to laugh out loud. Probably the most recent example of this was the Gulda Cello Concerto I played in Edinburgh last summer.