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What’s It Like to Rehearse a Piece of Contemporary Music?
Daniel Grabois

Chamber music groups spend much more time rehearsing than they spend performing. Music students, in addition to learning how to play their
instruments, must learn how to play in small groups with no conductor and they must learn how to rehearse. Every student group goes through the
experience of playing through a piece at the first rehearsal and then saying, “Now what do we do?”

So, what do we do? It depends on the piece. Some pieces of new music are fiercely complicated rhythmically. Imagine a piece in which there is a
beat (a pulse of time) every second. That’s fairly slow. Now, can you divide that beat into two parts – can you clap evenly twice per beat? How
about three times per beat? Four? Five? Can you make five even claps for every TWO beats? How about seven claps for every three beats? How
about three claps for every four beats? How about clapping three times in four beats, and then changing the tempo (the speed of the pulse) such that
the speed of those three claps becomes the new pulse, and then clapping five times during those three new beats? These are the kind of rhythmic
challenges that can be present in contemporary writing. Often, two, or three, or more players will need to line up on a particular note – maybe it’s
the fourth of a group of seven over two beats. Figuring out where the parts line up and how to make that happen is part of the rehearsal process. In
our group, we call this “getting the math right.”

Part of making the parts line up is seeing the whole picture of the piece. We always have a “score” handy – that’s the term for a copy of the music
in which all the parts are printed, one over the other. Looking at the score, it is not hard to see what is supposed to line up with what. We will then
write “cues” into our parts – little scribbles that show us what other players are doing at a particular time. I might scribble in my part that the trombone
plays three notes over my group of two in a particular spot. That makes it easier, though knowing what is supposed to happen does not guarantee that
it will happen. In rehearsal, we make sure we are all feeling the pulse in the same place, and we play hard passages over and over. Sometimes – ok,
frequently – a passage proves extremely difficult to line up. At that point, we put down our instruments and sing our parts while conducting the beat.
We can see each other conducting, and that helps us feel the time together. When we can get the rhythms right while singing and conducting, we pick
the instruments up again, and this always fixes the problem (always? usually…).

But getting the parts to line up rhythmically is only a part of the battle. When you play a piece of music, you are telling a story. The better you tell the
story, the more interesting and moving it is to the listener. Of course, in order to tell the story, you have to understand it yourself. Composers today are
under tremendous pressure to write original sounding music – to reinvent the language of musical composition. As a performer, when you are faced
with a piece of thoroughly original music, it can be very hard to understand what it is saying. Sometimes the composer will help, and sometimes not.
We came up against this problem when we commissioned a piece from the famous American composer Milton Babbitt. First, the rhythms in the pieces
were ten orders of magnitude harder than anything we had ever seen. And then, the story line of the piece, the mood, the emotions, were extremely
difficult to perceive. When the composer came to a rehearsal, we asked for his help. He is famous for not guiding performers through his music, and,
true to form, he said, “You boys just play what’s written, and you’ll be fine!” We had to perform the piece many times before we felt we had even an
inkling of an understanding of the music, but we came to appreciate the freedom that Babbitt gave us in interpreting what he had written.

We will often invent a scenario or screenplay to go along with the action of a piece. Perhaps a section sounds like an urban street scene. Someone in
the group will imagine a main character in the city. In the following section, the hero takes a vacation, goes to the country, takes a bike ride, comes to
a bridge, and there he meets… A story line like this can provide cogency to the performers so that the piece makes more sense to them, and hence to
the audience.

Sometimes we will sing the lines of music to figure out how we want to inflect them. There are an infinite number of ways to play any line of music.
How should the notes start (this we call articulation)? Do they connect to each other, or are they separated, or somewhere in between? Whose line
should predominate? And so on. The human voice is the most natural instrument in the world, and when we play, we are always imitating the voice,
so singing the music can help us figure out how it should sound on our instruments.

Sometimes we will imagine what a line would sound like on a stringed instrument. The violin bow (or viola, cello, or bass) can create an amazing
diversity of musical inflections. Imagining how one would bow a note can provide remarkable insight into how we should blow it on our brass
instruments. Would the bow grip the note, hit it hard, then trail off and lift off the string? Would it continue to bear down through the length of the
note? Would it lift off the string between notes, or lighten but not lift? Images of bow strokes can help us tremendously with our own “articulation”
(how we strike the notes).

I have an idea that the brass players are imagining how the violinists would play a line. The violinists are imagining how the singers would sing it.
The singers are thinking, “Let’s get a nice, solid, bold sound like the brass instruments.” We all imitate each other.

Once we have figured out how a piece should go, how to line up the rhythms, and what we are trying to say, we have to become consistent. It doesn’t
matter if we can play the piece well on the third try – we need to play it right the first time when the concert comes. We rehearse until we achieve
enough consistency that we can reliably play the piece the way we want it the first time, every time.

Then, as a final step, we must perform the piece a few times. A piece develops as a group performs it – the energy of a concert cannot be duplicated
in the rehearsal studio. After we have been through a few performances, we have the piece right where we want it.

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