Below, I’ve compiled a few thoughts on running successful rehearsals as a conductor. Generally, there is a focus on maintaining ideal conductor/instrumentalist relations, rather than on any specific technique.
I’m a young conductor, and so I offer these with the understanding that I have volumes to experience and learn. My hope is that – if nothing else – conductors my age and younger might be able to draw on these notions I’ve adopted at my relatively early developmental stage.
1. Start rehearsing at the beginning of a piece. In conducting pedagogy, there is often an emphasis on planning out rehearsals precisely. One common result of this is that conductors will begin rehearsing more involved works somewhere in the middle of the piece, where the most difficult music is. Some professional conductors do this as well. I believe that one should begin rehearsing a piece from bar 1, with very few exceptions. Starting at the most difficult section of a piece says to the ensemble “this music will be hard for you, and I know we need to spend a lot of time on it, even before I hear you try to play it”. However true this may be, it sets a bad tone, and is disorienting for the ensemble. In the end, you will have to spend more time on the difficult music regardless of when in the rehearsal cycle you reach it. Starting at the beginning is the safest and most intuitive option.
2. Don’t run through long portions of music unnecessarily. Unless a piece is relatively simple, or there is very little rehearsal time, I start rehearsing a piece in detail immediately at the first rehearsal without doing a preliminary run-through. I believe that the fundamental building block of good rehearsing is detail work, and so I address specific details of a piece almost exclusively, while interspersing global comments only occasionally. A run-though with global comments at the end should not happen early in the rehearsal cycle, because it it does not insist on meticulous music-making. I feel that when a conductor starts with a run-though, he then has to fight against it for the rest of the cycle, trying to get the musicians to play their best. Rehearsing in a detailed,appropriately insistent manner from the beginning guarantees an understanding of high expectations.
3. Don’t begin every critical comment with a compliment. This will dilute the potency of your critical comment and your future compliments. Offer a compliment when something genuinely exceeded your expectations, and make the rest of your comments pithily, without a generically positive opening. Pairing criticism with praise is one of the worst cliches of leadership, and it will not garner respect.
4. Explain your reasoning for musical decisions infrequently. If you do, it will likely denote weakness and uncertainty. Just impart directives, and let the score become illuminated naturally, through prudent rehearsal.
5. All young conductors get destroyed by professional musicians at some point. I’ve heard enough famous and successful conductors talk about their experiences with this that I am convinced that no conductor gets through his/her formative years without being eaten alive a few times by seasoned musicians. For me, these experiences were grueling, but were also indispensable; they forced me to grow a thick skin. Conducting can be difficult and nerve-wracking, and someone who is just learning to do it does not deserve to get their feelings hurt by the ensemble, even if they’re not doing their best work. Like Casals said, we’re human before we’re musicians. If someone has said something hurtful toward you in rehearsal, it’s their fault. I would recommend receiving potentially hurtful comments without retort, because it will suggest that you are above meaningless personal conflict. If there is a consistent problem with a particular player, I think it’s appropriate to say something to him/her at break or after rehearsal, away from the ensemble.
That being said, accept the fact that within most snarky comments are kernels of truth.
6. Don’t try to please the players. If there is a request from a player that you don’t want to do, politely say no, but without explanation. Likewise, if there is a request that seems appropriate or good, agree to it, again without explanation. Explanations open the door for argument and suggest that you are concerned with what the player think of your decision. I believe that the ensemble will ultimately respect a terse approach most.
Also, false camaraderie is loathsome. Acting with professionalism and kindness is requisite, but forcing friendship beyond that will foster contempt.
7. Apologize for mistakes. Everyone deplores a conductor who tries to cover for his/her technical mistakes, usually by stopping immediately following the error and pretending that they had something imperative to say right at that moment. It’s horribly transparent, and moreover, dishonest. If I make a mistake, I apologize at the next opportunity, simply and clearly (not under my breath, so only the first row can hear), and then forget about it and get back to work.
The idea that the conductor has to be held to to a perfect standard of execution strikes me as old-fashioned and silly. I don’t like making mistakes, but I try to keep in mind that rehearsal is about a group of people working together to realize a work of art, it’s not a sport where I score more points for making less mistakes.
8. Don’t try to act like a conductor. Out of all of these points, this one is perhaps the most overarching, and it’s been very important to me. I believe that relating to the ensemble becomes much easier and intuitive once you recognize that no one expects you to act like anything except yourself in rehearsal. There is no archetype of a conductor to live up to, and nobody wants to see you act like something that you clearly aren’t outside of rehearsal.