15. On the Purpose of the Rehearsal

In the academic year 1963–1964, I conducted my very first concert before the public. During the rehearsals for this concert, I followed the only model I had observed as a student, the goal of a perfect reproduction of the score achieved by the most continuous stop and go, fix this, fix that, in a fast pace. I did not give the impression of being angry all the time, as did most professional conductors following the model of Toscanini, but I certainly was in earnest.

During one rehearsal one of my colleagues at the University of Montana, Dr. Lloyd Oakland, a widely known music educator with an extensive background in university conducting, came to observe my work. When the rehearsal was over, we visited briefly. He stood there, this calm and kindly man, holding his pipe in his hand, smiled and said something like, “My, you are certainly working hard!” I responded, “Yes sir, a rehearsal is the place to work, in order that later you can enjoy listening to the concert!” With eyes twinkling he said, “Well, when I was a conductor, I also enjoyed the rehearsal, because it is still music-making!” Not said, but obvious: students come to the rehearsal in the first place because they love to play music.

This comment changed my career as a conductor and in the next rehearsal I was a completely different kind of conductor. First, the concept of using an hour of rehearsal for the purpose of making music brings into sharp focus just how valuable that hour is. Second, it puts the focus on the very purpose of a conductor, to bring to the rehearsal all the things which are not on paper. What is not notated on paper is what the great composer, Monteverdi, when conducting a rehearsal, told a singer, is “the soul’s feeling.” If we know the score from this perspective and can shape our conducting style to emphasize this, we can surely greatly speed up the finishing of the details of the music.

What is on the score page is only the grammar of music and by focusing on the grammar I believe we waste time. To speak of just two fundamentals of notation, for instance time (ensemble togetherness) and intonation, some conductors are in such a hurry to fix things that they do not allow the time for the students to fix these things by themselves. In other words, the key to these elements of performance is in listening to the music, not in listening to the conductor’s verbal criticism. And, the key to listening is the overtone series, which we refer to as the pyramid principle. Tuning, for example, is very difficult when we ask a student to match an identical pitch. This is true even for professional musicians, as Solti found when he first arrived at Chicago and discovered that the principal oboe and principal flute, who sat next to each other, had, over dispute of pitch, not spoken to each other in six years! But all students learn easily to hear and compare their pitch against the chord beneath them. This is very old information. Benedetto Marcello (b. 1686) wrote, “the double-basses must be used for tuning.” [“Il treato alla mode”]

Instead, very often I have seen conductors who thus spend most of the rehearsal time in this sequence: play, stop and talk, play, stop and talk, etc. This results in two very important problems. First, the musical experience is broken up, not to mention the “soul’s feeling,” which prevents the players’ ability to understand how the details of the music fits into the musical line and thus allowing them to fix these details on their own. Second, a basic reality of our bicameral brain renders a tremendous obstacle to this type of oral instruction. When the conductor stops the music to make some comment the players’ minds are until that second entirely in the right hemisphere, where there is no language. It takes a second or so for the player’s mind to adjust and change its focus to the left hemisphere where the language is, and where the player can listen and understand the verbal comment of the conductor. The problem lies in the fact that the conductor’s concern is usually mentioned at or near the beginning of his sentence (especially if he is angry!) and this beginning of the sentence is precisely what is lost to the student as his brain is readjusting to the other hemisphere. The result is that the players will miss some of whatever the conductor is saying and this explains why so often this whole sequence has to be repeated. The conductor thinks, “why are you not listening to what I said?” And so he does it all over again – and if communication fails again, now you know why!

The most useless waste of rehearsal time is in the conductor trying to get the players to respond to the ictus of his beat. But the problem is an ear problem, not an eye problem and the solution must be found in listening and not in watching. Leaving aside the fact that all players can count to four and are very capable of hearing if they are matching the ensemble or not, if given the chance, the usual result is that in America, as well as in other countries, we continue to turn out generation after generation of time-beaters.

I cannot imagine that their teachers do not understand the negative psychology of this style of conducting. This never ending vertical arm motion, not to mention the physical impression it gives, forms a mental block against any kind of melodic feeling. I have no explanation, but the beat goes on. On many occasions I have seen high school band directors conducting drills consisting of banging the baton on the music stand while the students try to coordinate their attacks precisely with the impact of his baton. In Texas I have seen an enterprising high school band director hook up a road construction blinking yellow light on a tall stand connected to a metronome so that a blinding flash occurs on the beat while the band is playing! Next perhaps will be to reproduce those huge clubs one sees in Europe fixed on the walls of palace rooms used for dance rehearsal. The Dance master would bring this great club crashing to the floor on each beat to achieve precision in the feet of the young ladies dancing. Poor Lully, the great composer of the era of Louis XIV, one day missed and hit his toe and died from the ensuing infection. We don’t smash toes, but we surely kill the spirit of our young musicians with our relentless pounding of the beats.

Instead of approaching the rehearsal with the determination to “fix things,” it is better to have the mental attitude of “finishing” the important details. Here real music education can occur: teaching that in the music of the Classical Period why p and pp can mean slow and very slow and not just soft and very soft, and why the dot over a single note means a small accent and not staccato, for example. And after the explanation the conductor must remember to return to a musical style of conducting to make these kinds of details evident visually musical as well.

For the inexperienced conductor a good place to learn how to incorporate detail into his conducting motions is to begin with visually emphasizing agogic accents. In the field of Music, agogic accentuation refers to the emphasis of important melodic notes. We often forget this due to the concentration on an instrument we are holding or on the demands for accuracy in performance, etc., but we all know what this principle is from our experience with normal speech. Take a sentence like, “I am going to go buy a hamburger.” If you repeat this each time emphasizing a different word the meaning of the sentence is dramatically changed. “I am going to go buy a hamburger” (as opposed to getting a free one). “I am going to go buy a hamburger” (as opposed to buying two or more), etc

This agogic principle of emphasis may be very old. It is easy to imagine early man, before language when he was making only vowel-like utterances, making some small distinctions through his right brain choice of emphasis on a single vowel sound, such as “oh,” “Oh!,” “oh?” or “Ooooo.” Later, when man had developed a spoken language, but still before the development of written languages, he continued in this same right hemisphere emphasis as a control of meaning, for we still do this today – we carry this from early man, as in the case of our vocal pitch rising when one is alarmed.

This principle must have been crucial in ancient literature, such as with Homer, that immortal blind Greek poet, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. These epic stories were created before the advent of the written Greek language and were so passed down in an oral tradition for some two centuries until there was an available way to write them down. They were passed down by an extraordinary kind of performer called a Rhapsodist, one who is called a musician, never an orator and never a singer in the modern sense. The Rhapsodist delivered these epics from memory before audiences and, according to Plato’s book Ion, named for a Rhapsodist, in which Socrates has a discussion with an actual Rhapsodist, they were creating strong emotional reactions in their listeners.

Socrates. “I wish you would frankly tell me, Ion, what I am going to ask you: When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and shaking out his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles springing upon Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam, — are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking?”

Ion. “That proof strikes home to me, Socrates. For I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs.”

Socrates. “Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in an embroidered robe, and has a golden crown upon his head, appears weeping and panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him — is he in his right mind or is he not?”

Ion. “No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is not in his right mind.”

Socrates. “And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most of the spectators?”

Ion. “Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their faces when I am performing: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them…”

Ion, 534c-535e

We can no longer know exactly what the Rhapsodists were doing in terms of their vocal technique, but I am always reminded of the Rhapsodist when I look at our oldest European music notation, those 9th century neumes, which no one today knows how to transcribe. Those characters do not look like meter or beats to me, so much as symbols to indicate how to perform individual notes or syllables. I might add that, while I have not read of this elsewhere, in the examples I have seen these symbols are over vowels. If they are a system of symbols to indicate, not what to sing, but how to sing perhaps this is long lost information which was later evidenced in a comment by Erasmus (1466–1536), “The accent can justifiably be called, as it was by some ancient grammarians, the soul of the word.” [Works of Erasmus, “The Right Way of Speaking,” XXVI, 422ff]

This may well also be the source of a very interesting observation by the remarkable early scholar, Roger Bacon (1220–1292):

For accent is a kind of singing; whence it is called accent from “accino,” “accinis” [I sing, thou singest], because every syllable has its own proper sound either raised, lowered, or composite, and all syllables of one word are adapted or sung to one syllable on which rests the principal sound.

“The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon,” trans., Burke, I, 259

If there were some ancient system such as Bacon implies, where “every syllable has its own sound,” then one can imagine perhaps the text of the Odyssey composing the music itself.

There are a few more references we should consider. The 6th century AD Greek writer, Paulus Silentiarius, wrote a poem in honor of a deceased lyre player, which mentions an interesting reference to music being the origin of grammar, recognizing that feelings in speech came before rules of grammar.

Damocharis passed into the final silence of Fate; alas! The Muses’ love lyre is silent: the holy foundation of Grammar has perished.

Guido of Arezzo, in his 11th century Micrologus, the first modern notation system to follow the neume system, mentions another vocal characteristic we carry from ancient man, the fact that we often have an unconscious raising of the pitch of the voice in states of fear or excitement. Guido adds a curious and very interesting psychological observation,

We often place an acute or grave accent above the notes, because we often utter them with more or less stress, so much so that the repetition of the same note often seems to be a raising or lowering.

“Hucbald, Guido and John on Music,” trans., Babb, 139

In the Compendium Musices, of 1552, by Adrian Coclico, a treatise written to train boys to sing in Church, we again find a reference to placing specific music under a specific syllable.

When he has learned these things clearly and rapidly, he will then begin to sing, not only as [the music] is written but also with embellishments, and to pronounce skillfully, smoothly and meaningfully, to intone correctly and to place any syllable in its proper place under the right notes.

Caclico, trans., Seay, 6

A final early reference to this connection known to me comes from the 16th century. Tinctoris (1435–1511) makes an incredible definition, “A melodic interval is the immediate connection of one syllable after another.” [Tinctoris, trans., Parrish, 17]

In rehearsal the true value of a conductor lies in his role in communicating the essence of the music to the musicians before him. And here may I repeat my definition of a conductor: the one who brings to the rehearsal and concert all the things not on paper. What is on paper is only the grammar of music and no matter how many hours the conductor spends studying this grammar, it will not reveal the true essence of music itself. Thus this kind of study is very frustrating. The great German poet, Heinrich Heine, wrote, “Nothing is more futile than theorizing about music.” And the great composer, Tchaikovsky, wrote, “I do not understand how to analyze Music.”

The study of the grammar of music may hold some benefit for the intellect, but it does not serve performance.

Just as there is a difference between grammar and public speaking, there is an infinitely greater one between music theory and the art of fine performance.

Francois Couperin

No matter how one defines music theory, no real conception with the passions of the soul can ever be drawn from this.

Johann Matheson, 1739

This definition by Matheson is very similar to the great conductor, Bruno Walter’s goal of score study: “To discover the soul of a composition, not the body of a composition.” The soul of a composition is what Wagner called the melos, the unifying thread, the quintessence of the spirit of the artwork. Earlier, Marpurg in 1749 called this “the distilled essence of emotion.”

This essence of emotion is what the conductor brings to the rehearsal and must communicate to the players. It is the real goal of score study and the beginning point and key is what Francesco Geminiani, a great Baroque singer, wrote in 1749, “You must first be inspired yourself.” I might add that this is the most important standard in the conductor’s choice of repertoire. If the conductor is not inspired, how can he inspire his players? This is the point the great conductor, Antal Dorati, had in mind when he wrote,

If you don’t feel it completely, then you cannot convey it. You cannot “act” music. This will always leave the listener cold. He will know immediately if the feelings are not true.