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.

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 psychological and behavioural...

When I went back into in person rehearsals, this is what I experienced:

Hungry for Connection

We've all been stuck in our rooms in front of a screen. It's no substitute for real humans, and you're going to enjoy seeing real smiling faces and shining eyes. So will your ensemble.

They and you might also feel like a magnet - simultaneously attracted and repelled at the thought of connecting with others. That's normal.

  • Allow for and build in time for talking, humanity and connection
  • Get to know your ensemble members as people, and let them know you
  • Plan activities to help them connect with each other
  • Allow time for them to connect with themselves and have their own independent thoughts and ideas
  • Model and explicitly teach good listening skills (concentrating on and reflecting back what others have said, not interrupting)
  • Model and explicitly teach how to give meaningful feedback that is non-shaming, and respectful
  • Model and explicitly teach giving feedback focussed on the behaviour/action, not the person
  • Give consequences for inappropriate behaviour whilst maintaining your values (Eg. you don't want to correct shaming behaviour by shaming the perpetrator!)

Anxiety & Excitement

The musicians will be excited to get back together, but likely also highly anxious about the experience.

Many may be worried about how they will personally sound and what others will think of them (multiply this by infinity if you're working with teenagers, or competitive college students). They fear being judged negatively by their peers and you.

Self-criticism and judgement also seem to be at an all time high (no doubt boosted by all the extra time spent on social media by many).

There may be significant stress around the ability to perform in front of others, whether within the ensemble or for an audience.  

What can we do to help?

  • Be a human. Acknowledge it's a weird time and share how you personally are feeling, especially if you are also feeling anxious/uncertain/nervous
  • Ask them how they are feeling and make space for their answers. Don't shame, belittle or try to 'fix' anyone's answers or emotional state. "Thank you for sharing with us/each other" is a good response.
  • Limit putting individuals on the spot in front of others (eg. avoid asking questions of individuals, or asking them play/sing alone).
  • Instead, ask everyone the question and tell them to turn to the person next to them to discuss the answer.
  • For playing/singing, get a section to sing/play together rather than just individuals if possible.
  • Praise effort and process, not results/outcomes. This will encourage those who are being internally self-critical to keep participating.

Low stamina & concentration

The musicians will have low mental and physical stamina (and so will you, more on that in the next post). It's likely they got into habit of multitasking during online learning. They were playing a game, watching TikTok, scrolling Instagram, making/eating lunch and chatting to their friends ALL while also in class!

Their ability to concentrate on one thing will likely be greatly diminished, and take a while to recover. It will take time to regain their past norms, so go with the flow. Trying to force more work/results when people are flagging will only make them cranky!

  • Plan breaks in your rehearsals - more than you would have in the past
  • Get off the podium between pieces and allow students to talk and mentally reset. Have a clear signal for when you're restarting.
  • Connect students to each other with get-to-know you activities and non-musical games (eg. find someone who likes the same movie/game/music/sport as you; find someone born in the same month as you)
  • Break up playing with non-playing activities like sizzling, singing, questions & games
  • Break up mental concentration with stretches, movement, dancing (Just Dance is a winner!), and brain breaks.
  • Have a number of activities in your back pocket ready to go at any time.
  • Do playing/singing activities that re-habit timed musical concentration (eg. playing a scale with 3 counts of sound and 3 counts of silence for each pitch, or switching between counting in their head and counting aloud together as a group*)

*See Ed Lisk's The Creative Director: Beginner and Intermediate Levels and The Creative Director: Alternative Rehearsal Techniques for more detail on these activities.

Ensemble Etiquette? What's that?

Many musicians may have forgotten how to 'be' in an ensemble. How to sit and listen attentively to what's happening. How to not talk or interrupt. How to control themselves and not fiddle incessantly with their instruments or make extraneous noises. How to stop playing as soon as you stop conducting (this was BIG for my MS students).

You will likely have to re-establish (and keep affirming) your ensemble norms and behaviours.

  • Articulate expectations clearly at the beginning and why they're important (eg. if you play on after the conductor stops we lose time we could be improving/playing)
  • Consistently return to these if they're not being met (and WHY they're important)
  • Accept it won't be perfect on day one and will take a while to reestablish
  • Understand that they will be desperate to talk to each other. Build talking/discussion into how you rehearse so they get to connect with each other without being disruptive.
  • Praise positive behaviour and choices

If you've got beginners who have NEVER been in ensemble in person before (but have had a year online), set up all the norms as if they had never been in ensemble before. Eg. How to walk in to the room, set up instruments, follow the conductor, when/not to talk etc. They might not be beginners on their instrument, but they are beginners to ensemble!

Poor Information Retention

I've found that learning (and re-learning) has required a LOT more reinforcement than in the past. I think this has got to do with the multi-tasking mentioned earlier, compounded with poor mental health, anxiety and relearning old routines or learning new ones. It is A LOT of information for brains (of any age) to take in.

  • Be patient and persistent
  • Build in extra repetitions and reinforcement, especially of new material
  • Add fun modes of formative assessment like quizzes
  • Constantly revise and prompt metacognition, asking questions like "What did we just do? Why? What did you learn? What do you need to remember next time?"
  • Get them to write as much as possible on their music. Be explicit: "Pick up your pencil...at bar 55, write who has the melody".
  • Go beyond words to solidify memory. Eg. making a map of the characters of the music using emojis, drawing or words. Eg. "Majestic - Flowing River - Car Chase - Triumph". Have them act/dance the music to a recording to get it in their ears and body.
  • Practice 'shadow playing'/miming with and without instruments and visualisation to help establish muscle memory


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

The Problem with Talent (And What to Do About It)

Why do I shudder when people use the word ‘talented’ to describe me? Why would I ask journalists and marketers to remove it from articles about me? Though it might seem like praise, the word ‘talent’ actually holds us and our people back.

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4 Ways for Teaching Rhythm (including 3 you've probably neglected!)

How can we get our ensemble members to better connect rhythm with a consistent beat or subdivision AND to become aware of when they're out of sync?

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Planning Effective Rehearsals

An edited extract from my new book Planning Effective Rehearsals: Tools to Boost Learning & Engagement

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