What will it sound like? Top tips for returning to in person rehearsals

Going back to in person rehearsals? Congratulations! Here's what to expect when you drop the stick on that first rehearsal, and how to make it sound better

If you're going back to in-person rehearsals after the "joy" of online rehearsals you might be feeling a whole range of things. Excited. Anxious. Nervous. Concerned. Exhausted just at the thought of it.

I have felt all those things (and more) in the six times we've gone back to in person ensembles since our first lockdown in March 2020. (Yep, we've had a LOT of lockdowns and a LOT of online ensemble!).

In this series of four posts I'm going to unpack the musical, psychological, personal and planning consequences of going back to in person and what you can do to manage them.

Today we're diving into the musical...

The question on everybody's lips (especially the musicians) is: What will it sound like? Here's what I found.

Loud.

Having lived in a world of headphones and isolation you and your musicians may be shocked and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sound in the room. If you had any kind of hearing loss or tinnitus before online learning it may have died down. Now it may return.

  • Be wary of musicians with special needs or trauma history who may be overly sensitive to loud noises - they may need extra time to adjust.
  • Take care of your own hearing and be alert to feelings of aural fatigue like headaches, pain or ringing.
  • Reduce the playing time or volume to allow time for everyone's physiology to adjust.

Out of time.

The first thing I noticed back was the ensemble had great difficulty playing in time and holding a steady pulse. Drop the instruments and get them attuned to listening and moving together. Simple exercises that don't use instruments will help quickly reset internal pulse and listening. Keep it easy and stay away from notation at first. They won't be able to connect to each other (or you) if their heads are in their sheet music.

Exercises I used to great effect were:

  • Counting aloud while following the conductor in 'neutral' beat patterns before adding tempo, dynamic or articulation changes
  • Body percussion grooves (that may or may not relate to the music)
  • Verbalising simple rhythms using plain words (a-pple a-pple plum plum) before moving to a counting system (1+2+3 4 ).

Do these before adding the complication of operating instruments (or singing pitch). Once more stable, do them on a single pitch before adding more complexity like scales.

Out of tune.

For many musicians it will be a long time since they had to match pitch with another living being! This will take time to redevelop, even if your group had killer intonation before the pandemic.

  • Sing, sing, sing! Singing is the fastest way to get more pitch consensus across your group.
  • If they're shy, try humming first.
  • Keep switching between singing/humming and playing and asking them to match their playing to the singing/humming.
  • Doing simple tuning exercises in pairs or small groups where one is the reference and others have to match pitch and eliminate the beats is also very helpful.

Uncharacteristic tone.

Some of my musicians' tone actually improved dramatically during online learning, because (maybe for the first time) they could really hear themselves when playing alone all the time. There was nowhere to hide. Those who didn't practice as much had lost a lot of their sound quality.

  • For winds/voices: Invest time doing breathing exercises each rehearsal (this will also help calm their/your nervous system/s)
  • For strings: Invest time doing bowing exercises each rehearsal. You can tie the bow to the breath to get the same calming benefits as your wind/brass/voice colleagues.
  • Reestablish posture. Who knows how they were sitting during online learning (you don't wanna)! Keep reinforcing it like a broken record.
  • Long tones! Get the students to really listen to and feel the vibrations of their own sound.
  • Challenge them to make the sound as resonant as possible
  • Don't be afraid to drill down and isolate individual sections and tweak to get a characteristic tone
  • Spotlight musicians who have a great tone and get others to replicate
  • Ask who they listened to on their instrument (eg. Alison Balsom on trumpet). "Trumpets, can you give us your best Alison Balsom sound?"

Out of Balance.

Coming back to ensemble my musicians had super low awareness of what was going on around them. It was head down, play like you're in a car race and just get to the finish line. There was no sense of musical layering, hierarchy or a melody to be found anywhere!

  • Do warmup exercises to balance the tone of the group, starting at the bottom and adding sections one by one (on a single note or scale)
  • Isolate each section and get them to add in one by one to balance and blend with each other (on a single note or scale)
  • Ask musicians to 'play in a trio' with the musicians on either side of them and blend their sound into their colleagues' sound
  • Before playing a new piece ask students "What looks like melody in your part?" "What looks like support?" Get them to mark them with M & S or another system/symbol.
  • While playing, constantly ask them what their role is and who we need to hear more/less of. (Telling them will not fix the balance problems!)

Finally...

Enjoy going back to rehearsals - it is such a privilege to make music with others!

Read the other articles in the series of Tips for Returning to In-Person Rehearsals

How will I go? Top tips for returning to in person rehearsals

Going back to in person rehearsals? Congratulations! Excited? Scared? Me too! Here's how to manage yourself and mentally prepare for going back, without burning out

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How can I plan for success? Top tips for returning to in person rehearsals

Going back to in person rehearsals? Congratulations! Here's how to plan for success, manage challenges and be realistic in your expectations.

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What will rehearsals be like? Top tips for returning to in person rehearsals

Going back to in person rehearsals? Congratulations! Here's what to expect from your musicians and how you can help them get back in the groove.

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