To start, I should say “rehearsals.” This will be more like putting together Penderecki than Purcell.I am assuming that the group will spend sufficient time rehearsing the music for the program. Again, a reminder: the music is the core of your program – the single most important element. (It may help to consider that you are most likely to be responsible for initiating your audience’s taste in music! I encourage you to set a high standard for them and for you!) Perhaps someone in your group has experience with the theatrical rehearsal process. If not, here are some guidelines for the next phase of your work.
- Everyone should have a copy of the script and all music and, need I say, a pencil!
- Plan on at least three sessions. Each session should be about three hours.
- The goal of the first session is to bring the script out into the open; that is, to speak it out loud and integrate the music with the text. If there are still unassigned segments or uncertain repertoire selections, this is the time to settle everything. By the end of this first rehearsal, all edits, changes, and ambiguities should be settled and clear. Everyone should make notes and compare notes at the end of the session.
- The second session is to establish the “staging” or the movement patterns for the program. I will address the details of this later. But, unless you are used to alternating between moving and sitting and talking and playing, this is the toughest rehearsal.
- The third session is a dress rehearsal and should run as if you were performing it for an audience in every way. Details are below, but it is often best to plan for two runs within the time. The first run would be only the dialogue and staging, starting each piece and then cutting to the last few bars. The second run would be with all the music selections played completely.
- As the three sessions progress, you will be making decisions on how to set up – where music stands and other props will be placed. Be prepared to make a diagram of these details as they are decided. This diagram will be as important as the sheet music.
- The atmosphere at these sessions is important.This is new and perhaps challenging territory for some. If you play in a chamber ensemble, you know that the first encounter with a new piece of material can be either an exciting exploration or a disastrous journey. The former is obviously better. Snacks help!
- The rehearsal space will become more important as things progress. By your second session you should be in a space that is large enough for you to set up as you would ideally for performance, and can imagine an audience in front of you.
Formatting the Script and Music This seems deceptively simple. A copy machine, scissors, a glue stick, and tape should be available at each session. Each member of the group should be responsible for organizing and formatting this material. Your ultimate goal is to make the transitions in and out of music as smooth and unflustered as possible.
- Memorizing the script is always best. But some will need their words to be printed in full form and large type; others will want an outline on 3 x 5 cards. Note: As you rehearse and perform, it is likely that the script will become more familiar and printed material can be set aside. However, it is always best to begin within people’s comfort zone.
- To accomplish a flow of words and music, you may need to copy, cut, and paste music so that transitions are simple. Fumbling around and flipping back and forth with sheets of music or script can be very disruptive to a program. Each person should create a version of the program that allows for flow. Think also about where this information will be placed – in a book? Clipped to a music stand? You may need to experiment to find the right solution.
- By the end of the first rehearsal, everyone should know how to format their script and music for the next rehearsal. Everyone should come to the second rehearsal with this work accomplished, and ready for revisions. The same holds for the following rehearsals. By the final dress, everything must be in order.
Note: In the theater, there is a hard and fast rule: no new items can be added into or after the final dress – not even a hat or a fan or a lace trim! The reason is simple. Unless you are very skilled at integrating foreign objects into established patterns, these additions become distractions and can diminish the level of the entire performance. Last minute inspirations can be added after the first performance!
Staging and Rehearsing I have listed the major elements of each rehearsal. Of course, they may not occur in the order I have presented them. Most important, everyone must take notes and, at the end, concur on decisions and changes made. Save time for this part of the process at your rehearsals.
Note: At a musical rehearsal previous to this, time your musical selections. As you go through this rehearsal, have someone time the dialogue segments. It will give you a point of reference, and let you know if you need cuts or additions.
- Start by playing some music together – it gets the rehearsal going on familiar ground.
- Then play the beginning and end of the first piece you have selected for your program. Immediately following this, from wherever you are sitting, the first person should read the first piece of dialogue.
- Proceed through the program, playing the beginnings and ends of each piece, and having each person read the sections of the script. Make changes as you proceed. They are always necessary.
- You may need to think creatively about how to rehearse an audience participation segment or the Q & A session (see below), but all of the text should be spoken.
- As you proceed, discuss HOW and WHERE things should take place. (“I think I should stand while I do this.” “I am going to need someone to help me hold this up.”) Again, think about smooth transitions from section to section.
- This process may take most of the rehearsal time. Be certain to leave time at the end for comparing notes. Any homework to be assigned (music changes, graphics, props, etc.) should be clarified.
- Everyone must understand that at the next rehearsal, you will be blocking the show, or moving around. Your scripts must be in a format that will allow for this.
Note: It is helpful if everyone agrees to go over the script out-loud by themselves before the next rehearsal.
Some observations from my years of work on these programs:
- Most instrumentalists, unless they have acting experience, do not understand the necessity for rehearsing the text on their own, and speaking it out-loud. It is critical that everyone begin to think about projecting their voices. (You can help each other by making comments at rehearsals.) But speaking out-loud will help the memorization process as well. Most musicians remember better what they hear than what they simply read.
- Stuff (mutes, reed cups, mouthpieces, resin, etc.) often becomes an issue in rehearsal. Because these things take time and energy to remember to bring to rehearsal, there is a tendency to imagine them in the process. Don’t! You will forget that having the real thing takes time or assistance, or a place on the stage where you can reach it. All this must be planned out.
- As I have mentioned, the most difficult moments in a program are the transitions from playing music to speaking and back again to playing. These tasks require two different kinds of concentration, and juggling them back and forth takes some time to get used to. Remember back to the first time you encountered a piece with quickly shifting meters. It takes practice to successfully accomplish both kinds of shifts.
- Memorize one piece. This piece can be anywhere in the program. It will serve to break the barrier made by music stands and tight ensemble formations. It may even be possible for you to stand or face the audience directly as you play. You will be pleasantly surprised at the audience response!
The objective of this rehearsal is to solidify the movement of people – the blocking for the program. Keep in mind that young audiences are particularly visually oriented, and their visual “taste” is far more sophisticated than their aural! Here are some general guidelines:
- Set up the rehearsal space as if you were going to perform. Everything should be in the place that you THINK you want it. That includes all props and musical paraphernalia. Again, you should make a diagram of the placement of things, and make notes if changes are made in rehearsal.
- Make certain everyone has their formatted script and is ready to take notes about movement. You may invent your own system of notating blocking but the standard is: SR = Stage Right – to the right of the performer when facing the audience
SL = Stage Left – to the left of the performer when facing the audience
DS = Down Stage – toward the audience
US = Up Stage – away from the audience
X= Cross or moving across the stageEX: Take flute X SL then DS. Play section 1.
- Stop frequently to give time for people to make notes.
- As you plan the movement, imagine that you have a spotlight or close-up camera. Whenever focus is not on the group, someone or something must be the focus. Generally speaking, people in motion or who are DS of the group are in the spot light.
Warning: If you do not plan a constant visual focus, and you do not rehearse it, you run the risk of losing the audience; and it is very hard to get them back. (If the group needs help with this, bring a soft rubber ball to a rehearsal, and literally toss the ball from the one who has the focus to the next one who does. Someone should always have the ball, except when the group is playing music. It’s a good way to tell when you have “dropped the ball!”
- Along the same lines, as often as possible when speaking, get up from your chair and speak from the DS area. Too much movement can be distracting, but my experience with instrumentalists is that they prefer the relative safety of the chair and the music stand!
The process here is similar to the first rehearsal. Don’t play the entire piece, but start and end each one for continuity of movement. Again, the most difficult moment is often the one directly following the musical piece. While the audience is applauding, the next speaker should take focus. At this rehearsal, decide how you want to introduce yourselves. First name only, both names, instrument, name of the ensemble – it should be consistent. For example,
“Good morning, my name is Helen, and I play the viola in the Troy City Symphony…”
“Good afternoon, my name is John Pratt and I am the first trumpet in the Blastmore Brass Ensemble.”
Also decide when and how you want to acknowledge applause. My preference is for the group to take a bow at the end of the program, or after a particularly engaging piece. It is usually excessive to bow after each number. Before leaving this rehearsal, check the approximate timing of your spoken sections and add it to the musical timings. Talk over cuts or additions. Everyone should be clear on blocking notes and the stage set up, and any responsibilities for the dress rehearsal.
The Dress Rehearsal
This rehearsal should run like a performance. If possible, get a test audience – preferably children of the age to which your program is targeted. Some things to guide this last rehearsal:
- Dress as if this were the performance. You will be surprised at the difference your performance shoes will make. This is the rehearsal to decide that the dress with the flouncy sleeves looks great, but gets in the way. (See notes on dress below.)
- Set up everything beforehand as if it were the performance space, including room for your test audience, if possible.
- Try to go through the program without stopping. Make note of your mistakes (there will be several), but keep as much continuity as possible. You will need to develop a new kind of performance concentration that will take several performances. Start now.
- Remember to assign someone the task of timing this program. If you are daring, you may wish to have someone make a videotape for review after this rehearsal.
- Do the question and answer segment as you would in performance. (See notes on this below.)
- Save time at the end of this rehearsal for trouble shooting, also discussed below.
Before leaving this rehearsal, all problems should be addressed. If taped, watch the video and discuss it. Let your audience give you feedback, particularly about being heard, or understood, and the ideas that stuck with them from the program.
These articles are too brief for a clear discussion of specifics about acting and speaking to groups. If the personality of the group allows, talk to each other about these issues. Encourage each other.
Setting Up the Performance Space
Every venue will be different. Your goal should be to create as much clear visual focus and the best acoustic environment that you can in each circumstance. Some of this might be handled in the initial contact with the program sponsor; some will have to be done at the moment. Depending on the size of your group and your target audience, you should consider the following:
- What is the space (classroom, stage, cafeteria)?
- What is in the space, and what can be cleared?
- How will the audience be seated?
- Is there any way to focus the light in the space?
- Will you need sound amplification and is any available?
- Will there be bells for class changes or other interruptions?
- Is there any place to put coats, cases, etc.?
It is important that you attempt to make your performance space as clear as possible. I have seen programs where a half-opened bass case in the background became the unintentional focus of the program. The children were fascinated by it, and at the Q & A session asked that it be opened. After you are set up, it is helpful to step back from the space and view it from the audience’s perspective, and then clean up any distractions. This is a highly-neglected element at instrumental programs.
It is my strong recommendation that you present the person assigned to introduce you with a 3 x 5 card containing an EXACT script that you would like read, and request that there be no additions. Good programs have gotten off to very rocky starts with introductions like, “Now children I want you to know that the school board and the parents committee have gone to great lengths and expense to bring you this very special program (turning to the group to ask) Who are you? Oh yeah, the Willowood Wind group, and so I want you to sit up, be quiet, and enjoy this!” A better intro would have only enough information to get things started, and set the tone for the program. For example: “Students, this morning we have as our guests, the Underdog Trio from our very own Mattville Symphony. They have some exciting music to play for you, so give them your full attention, and join me in welcoming them.” (The applause takes you directly into your first musical number.)
This is more difficult to discuss than you might imagine. I suggest you look over the ideas below, and discuss them thoroughly and come up with a balance that suits everyone in the group. Whatever you select to wear, be consistent. Think of it as a kind of a costume for these programs.
- Select a look that visually unifies the group and distinguishes the group from the surrounding dress.
- Select a look with which everyone in the group is comfortable. The appropriate range is wide – from formal to very colorful.
- If it is appropriate, consider colorful touches, even if it is a hanky in a pocket or around the neck. In situations where there is no focused lighting, the color will get attention.
- Make sure that your choice is functional for standing, sitting, and moving throughout the program.
- You might be able to tie the theme of your program into the dress.
- Agree that you will all wear or bring your selected clothes to a rehearsal before the final dress to compare and make any changes.
- Remember that, unlike most orchestral settings, you are being closely observed as well as being heard.
The Question & Answer Session
Again, the procedure here may seem obvious. Discuss the following with all members:
- It is best to designate a “question leader” who will select the questions from the audience and pass them to a specific member of the group. This leader should be certain to select questions from various places in the audience and from a diverse population (age, gender, race, etc.). The leader should also divide the answering up among members of the group, making sure that the person answering is comfortable with the question.
- There is no such thing as a bad or poor question. All questions should be honored in some way. This may be the most important thing in the world to a young student, and your acknowledgement of that can make an enormous difference in his/her impression of you and your music.
- Before answering, repeat the question that has been asked so that everyone can hear. Students are not likely to have loud voices.
- In larger groups it may be efficient to assign one or two members of the group to go out into the audience and field questions to the stage. In this way the softer-voiced student can be heard by the repetition of the question. This also can be accomplished with the help of willing teachers in the audience.
- Discuss in advance the answers you would like to give to tough questions. You can say, “That is not something I like to discuss when I am performing.” But do not discount or ignore or make a joke of the question. Some examples:
“Are you married?” “Yes, and my family likes my playing, but hates my practicing at home.”
“How much do you get paid?” “Playing is the way I make a living, just like your parents do. I usually get paid enough to help support my family.”
“How old are you?” (if you do not wish to reveal this): “I have been playing the horn since I was 10 years old, and that is a long time ago” or “I have been playing in the orchestra for 15 years now.”
“I have a big stuffed bunny at home named Wendy” (or any other non-question usually related to something other than the program): “I am glad to hear that! Does anyone else have a question about our music?”
- 6. It is a good idea to have someone watch the time during this section. Questions can go on forever and have a tendency to diminish in quality. It is always best to leave them wanting more answers “until the next time.”
If the opposite occurs – no questions – it can be helpful to begin by the question leader asking another member of the group a basic question like, “How did you get started playing the bass?” Then after the answer, readdress the audience. One or two intra-group questions often will jump-start the audience.
Troubleshooting Most groups seem to dislike this process, but it is important and should be observed. The group should agree that directly after every performance, you will all spend 5 – 10 minutes discussing that performance. It can be done while you are packing up but it must be done. Some questions to consider:
- How was the music playing – how can we improve – do we need to rehearse anything?
- Do we need to make cuts in the music/dialogue – where?
- How did the audience seem to respond to each element?
- Should we shift our set up or blocking?
- Is there something we should ask of our next host that could help?
- Did anyone really screw up and how can we help to not repeat it?
Some Final Notes
All along, I have been assuming that someone other than a member is booking the group in schools and other venues. If this is not the case, consult someone who has done this kind of work before. Promoting, contacting, and contracting your group is important to its success, and great care and clarity must be taken. Often, a school or a small arts organization is more concerned with the numbers in the audience than the quality or impact of the program. Stick to your guns and your goals. Details are critical. While booking for my own touring opera group in the 70s, I learned the hard way that I could not assume there would be a piano for our use, or that the piano would be tuned, or that there would not be people washing pots and pans in the kitchen while we attempted to perform in the cafeteria! When making arrangements, be very specific about your needs. I have observed that the first three or four minutes of a program are the most critical. Your audience is likely to be full of trained television viewers. If the first three minutes are not engaging, the virtual remote will switch to another channel, and as the TV surveys will tell you, it is hellish to get them back! As you become comfortable with your program, you might consider some of the following ideas that can keep your program engaging for both you and your audience:
- As you enter a school or community center, take note of activities that are going on in any and all areas (posters, art work on the walls, bulletin boards, etc.) and think about how you might integrate that information into the dialogue in your program. For example, “I see you will be having a school dance this weekend. How many of you are planning to attend? I know the music you will be dancing to is very new, but believe it or not, the music we are going to play next was dance music in Mozart’s day!” or “As we were coming in, I saw the tracings you made of each other on the wall. It reminded me of how important the body is to playing the cello. You might notice when I sit playing that I am moving back and forth as I bow. My body is part of the music making. If I were stiff, the music would sound very different…” Making these kinds of connections can greatly enhance the impact of your program.
As you become comfortable with the musical selections in your program, consider alternative pieces that might serve the same purpose in your program. Of course, make time to rehearse them! As you become familiar with audiences, you may decide you can adapt your program for younger or older audiences. This might be more difficult than you expect. The simpler part is cutting, editing, adding, or replacing musical numbers. The greater challenge is to adapt your dialogue to suit a tone that will be accepted by a younger or older audience. Again, I suggest an age-appropriate test audience. Television pilots use the same technique to understand and reach their audiences. And though we have an unusual product (by current mass entertainment standards) to present, it is still our goal to reach our audience!
And finally, remember that the quality of your music making is the most important element in your program. Enjoy yourselves!
If you would like to contact Gary Race, the author of this three-part series, for consultations and program development, you may contact him through polyphonic.org.