Rehearsals: Another Run-through or Are We going to get Something Accomplished?

Last spring I went to the Mid American Guitar Ensemble Festival in Fort Wayne, IN. The Festival had commissioned a guitar orchestra piece from Patrick Roux, a French-Canadian guitarist and composer with a long time association with the Canadian Guitar Quartet. The piece was to be performed by a guitar orchestra comprised of about 150 of the participants in the festival. The piece had its inherent challenges and was very much a contemporary classical piece, which I enjoyed participating in the world premier of. I must say that as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to work on the piece and perform it, I relished the opportunity to rehearse the piece under Roux’s directorship. All told we had close to five hours of concentrated rehearsal time under Roux’s baton and it was essentially a masterclass in how to run a solid rehearsal.

To be quite frank, most of the band rehearsals I’ve been involved with since graduating from music school have been poorly run, focused more on running tunes than actually focusing and working problem areas. We’re all supposed to do our homework, but more often than not it amounts to simply sketching out what our parts are and then coming to rehearsal to run tunes, with good enough as the predominant standard and if we went beyond notes into dynamics, it would be classified as an excellent rehearsal.   While this type of rehearsing does keep the frontal lobes tuned into the gross aspects for memory purposes, it does nothing to actually make the performance of the pieces better by fine tuning them, and if this is the type of rehearsal one comes to expect from a band, you can be certain that the band members are going to practice less on their own because fine tuning isn’t expected.

Roux, on the other hand, focused more on timing, phrasing, dynamics and sections rather than consistently running the entire piece. Out of the time we spent, he maybe had us run the piece in its entirety four times, which accounted for about 40 minutes of the rehearsal. The rest of the time was very focused, with no breaks, nor time misspent by relating anecdotes or going off on tangents. We were gathered for one purpose and one purpose only, to work on the piece in front of us and present the best version of it possible in the limited time we had, and that is exactly what we did during the time allotted. One might think that this was all accomplished through a rigid approach and an iron hand at the wheel, but this was not the case. Roux was demanding, yes, but everything was couched in good natured terms and requests, even when he was essentially giving orders. He did what he needed to do, so did we, and we were all quite happy with the results.

This approach carried over to the performance master classes given under Roux and the current members of the Canadian Guitar Quartet. Once the performers finished their performance, the critiques began. All of them were good natured, and while their delivery varied due to their different personalities, the critiques were solid, focused with precision, and involved working on sections, phrasing, attack, dynamics, breathing (both physically and within the piece), matching tone and color, and numerous other aspects. None of it was running through the piece repeatedly, but instead was entirely focused on what needed attention. I was impressed with the sometimes even radical improvements that were made within the allotted 30 minute time slots. This, in total, seven hour window into their world gave a solid experience with what exactly a good rehearsal consists of and just how much can be accomplished through doing so.

Since my experience this spring, I’ve been back in rehearsal with the band I was with when I went to MAGEF. I wish I could say that my experience at MAGEF has wrought change in how the band I’m currently with rehearses, but that hasn’t been the case. I have seen changes in how my classical group rehearses, but it has yet crossed over into my other genre-oriented group despite attempting to instill some changes in how the rehearsals have been run. Old habits can be extremely difficult to change, particularly when everyone isn’t on the same page. It is frustrating to experience the way things could be and then come back to the way they are, but once you’ve done it the right way and seen the rewards, changes must be made.

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Habitual Lateness and its Effects on the Band

Being on time is an important part of being a professional musician at any level. People need to know that you are dependable, and being on time for rehearsals and gigs is one of the most important factors in building a reputation as someone who can be counted on, along with learning the material, being easy to work with, and delivering the goods on the bandstand. Being consistently late shows inconsideration and a lack of respect for your fellow musicians, as well as demonstrating poor time management skills, a poor work ethic, and a lack of commitment to the band and its professional image.   It can also potentially cost the band money when its contracted to start at a specific time and fails to do so, because a key member hasn’t showed yet, or showed late and hasn’t finished setting up and preparing for starting at the official on the clock start time.

Unless there are specific load in times set by the venue, a good rule of thumb for an arrival time is a minimum of one hour before the official start time, depending upon how much equipment you have to set up, which should allow sufficient time to set up and get in a sound check before performance time. If you’re planning on eating before the band starts, then that time needs to be figured in as well, which can push your arrival time to more than an hour before.   If you’re a drummer with a large kit, then it’s going to take more time than the hour so go from there in figuring how much time you need to budget. In order to figure this out you also need to take into account how much time it’s going to take to get to the venue, allowing for traffic and errors in either the directions or your interpretation of the directions. It is always better to be early than late, except for your own funeral. . .

If you adhere to these rules in as much as is possible, you’ll go a long way toward establishing yourself as reliable. If you don’t, then problems will start to arise. First, when you’re late you’re affecting more people than yourself. Lateness affects your band-mates as well. They’ve made their plans and made the effort to be on time, set up and ready to go, mentally, physically and emotionally. When you’re late this throws their efforts off. They start worrying about whether or not you remembered the gig, if you’re going to show up, if you’re in trouble, what they’re going to do if you don’t show up, and the later you are the more of a negative effect you’re going to create. If it is a consistent issue, then they’re going to start to resent your lateness, and often will start to be angry on top of the anxiety, because you’re essentially stating by your tardiness, that you’re not placing the same importance on the gig and the band’s image that they are.

Lateness that pushes back start times can be a deal crusher as well. It can cost the band money for the gig contracted, and have an effect on whether or not the band is able to rebook at the venue where it has occurred. Booking bands isn’t easy; no matter how good you are it takes a lot of effort to break into a new club, and once you have, it’s your responsibility to remain in good standing with the management. Also, there are plenty of clubs out there that have an adversarial perspective regarding paying the band. If you give them any opening to short the band on payment, they will exploit that opportunity to cut costs and they have contracted your band for a service that they expect will increase their profits for the night. If your tardiness costs your band money, your band-mates aren’t going to be too happy about it. If you establish a consistent pattern of lateness that results in the band being unable to fulfill contractual obligations, you’re helping no one. You can probably expect an ultimatum from the band, and if you don’t change your ways they will replace you. No one is irreplaceable, no matter what you might think, and word will get around that while you might be able to play, you’re not a dependable band member.

Being on time is only one aspect of professionalism, but it’s a pretty important one. It tells the people that you work with that you care about the project and the image of the band as a whole. It communicates a sense of responsibility and respect for your fellow band members while reducing the overall presence of pre-show stress and jitters. When everyone is on time and present, everyone can focus on the job at hand, putting on the best possible show the band can which is what they should be focused on. Lateness disrupts everyone in the group, not just the individual who is late. The focus goes from putting on a solid show to are we even going to be able to do the show, start on time, get the sound check in, set up correctly, and all of the little things that shouldn’t even be a factor in the first place. It’s particularly maddening when all of this could be avoided simply by people showing up when they are supposed to. Make your plans accordingly, and if you’re going to be late let people know ahead of time. If it’s a habit, it’s a serious issue.

Moving the Startup Band Forward: How to Avoid a Massive Time Suck

One of the things that can create quite a bit of frustration is when you have all of the musicians and resources needed to start a killer band, and you end up spending weeks going over a very few not so difficult tunes without making substantial progress. Supposedly, one of the benefits of having quality troops in the group is that you should be able to make rapid progress, ultimately leading to getting the band out performing in short order. Even if there are scheduling conflicts regarding rehearsal times, when the band does get together the members should be sufficiently prepared to put the polish on pieces, establish arrangements and move on, quickly amassing the catalogue required to start booking and performing. When this doesn’t happen, what could be a golden opportunity starts feeling like a massive time suck that isn’t going anywhere, and all too often it doesn’t because the members start drifting away due to varying levels of commitment to the project and frustration with the project’s feeling of stagnation. There are several contributing factors to this situation, and, of course, there are ways to deal with them. One of these factors is a lack of commitment in one or more of the band members.

Lack of commitment is something that is usually quite easy to identify, but can be difficult to deal with for a variety of reasons, from established friendships to having a positive past history with the individual which can complicate the situation. Sometimes the issue is simply that the person is overcommitted otherwise, which is understandable. We all end up in that type of situation from time to time and try to weather it out; however, when the band’s goal is to run as an entertainment business this can have a very negative outcome for the band, particularly in the start up stages because in order for a business to move forward successfully the founders have to be on the same page. If the band member’s head isn’t in the game, and all indications are that he or she isn’t going to remedy the situation, then a change needs to be made in personnel in order to keep things moving forward, regardless of whether or not the individual is counted as a friend.

Another factor that often comes into play is a lack of organization. Successful bands require organization to even get started. Clear goals need to be created and agreed upon, as well as placed on a time line. Set a date where you expect the band to start actively playing and book something for that date. There’s nothing like having something on the books to motivate people to get their collective butts in gear.   However, simply doing this won’t make it happen; someone needs to drive the bus otherwise it will never get there. Bands, like anything else done as a group, do require leadership, even if the leadership responsibilities are split up among the band members. Determine what tunes are up for work and indicate who is running the rehearsals. If someone naturally gravitates to this job and has the abilities to do it effectively, turn the reins over to him or her and get the work done. And if everyone does his or her homework, rehearsals will be able to cover a lot of ground without any significant stress. If this doesn’t happen then folks will start feeling like nothing is moving forward, and indeed, nothing will.

A related thorn that can really cause issues is when band members fail to do the preparation work required in order to have really productive rehearsals. If people don’t do their homework, then valuable time is wasted while people learn the material during rehearsal instead of doing the polish work noted above. This can become a massive time suck that significantly slows the progress of the band and can even effectively bring the group to a standstill. If you think about it, this is not a difficult concept to concede to. If a band is going to play live and get paid, it needs to have a minimum of three sets of material, so depending on the type of music being performed one can safely estimate a catalogue of anywhere from 45 to 60 songs. If the band members are relying on a three hour rehearsal every week and people are doing their homework being ready in two months, or even less, is not unreasonable, but if the members are using only that time to even simply learn the material, 45 to 60 tunes is going to take months longer, particularly when one factors in forgetting the earlier material learned because it hasn’t been rehearsed in favor of newer tunes. This situation creates a cat chasing its tail effect and will spell doom for the group in most cases. Good musicians generally don’t want to spend a lot of time in someone’s basement or garage “getting ready.”

If you have a good group of folks together and you really want to keep them together then organization, commitment and a solid work ethic on the part of the players are the three keys to making things move forward, particularly if you are viewing the band as an entertainment business as opposed to a hobby. If commitment levels fluctuate from member to member, then the outcome will never meet its potential. Likewise, if the organization, from goal setting to business planning and then down to rehearsal management, isn’t discussed, set up and implemented, once again the time suck will commence and it’ll only be a matter of time until either things fall apart or the band becomes a permanent resident of someone’s garage. Don’t waste time; take the time to have the meetings to set the direction and allocate responsibilities, and then really do the work that’s required to move forward. By doing so the chances of having a successful band are greatly enhanced, as well as the chances of having satisfied band members.