Can a rehearsal be better than a concert?

rehearsal concertCan a rehearsal be better than a concert? You be the judge!

Every summer since 1951, the world-famous Marlboro Music Festival takes place my small Vermont hometown. Last week my wife and I attended the free morning rehearsals for two pieces of chamber music — Mozart’s Horn Quintet and Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 — played at the formal concert that afternoon.

The rehearsal

Around twenty-five people showed up in an auditorium that, in a few hours, would be filled with hundreds. We could sit anywhere! Naturally, we chose front row center.

Earlier Festival rehearsals are held in classrooms scattered around the Marlboro College campus. Many years ago, when I taught at the school, I’d wander around during the summer and hear beautiful scattered fragments of music. Auditorium rehearsals are the last before the performance, so they tend to contain long stretches of music, punctuated with only a few pauses and occasional repetitions at the ends of movements.

This rehearsal was no exception. The artists played both pieces through with little interruption. They conferred with each other on stage, but we couldn’t easily hear what they were saying.

After the rehearsal we noticed that several friends were present, and it was easy to stroll over and spend some time chatting.

Rehearsal versus concert

It’s interesting to compare the rehearsal and concert experiences. I think many listeners would agree that rehearsals are primarily about the music, though some rehearsals I’ve attended at other venues have offered fascinating glimpses into the ways in which musicians think and work together.

Concerts are, hopefully, primarily about wonderful performances of great music too, but they are also social events. Sometimes, I admit, I find the social aspects distracting and/or detracting from the performance. Audience coughs, rustling, and occasional clatter are inevitable. Navigating my way through crowds to take my seat, get a drink during intermission, or leave when the concert is over is sometimes irksome.

Paradoxically, we met and chatted with more friends at the rehearsal than we’d probably have at the concert, where it’s harder to physically move near people who you know.

Listening to a breathtaking musical performance with hundreds of others is also a unique experience, with the loud applause and, sometimes, standing ovations emphasizing the depth of feeling that the audience collectively shares and of which you are a part. The rehearsal, in contrast, is a subdued affair, with each audience member individually responding to the music and the performance.

Which is “better”? I’ll leave that as an exercise for you. (Feel free to share your perspective in the comments.)

Final thoughts — a performer’s perspective

For a dozen years I sang tenor with the Brattleboro Concert Choir. This involved many weekly rehearsals, followed by just two or three public performances. Like all musicians, we spent far more time rehearsing than performing.

As a performer I learned the wisdom of a mantra that has stood me in good stead over the years — after I slowly and painfully acquired it. “Process not product!” The frustrating, time-consuming, and taxing process of learning your part in a majestic piece of music and working to sing it really well with others is valuable in itself. Though there is the bonus of finally performing publicly to an appreciative audience, I did not spend my time and effort to be rewarded with applause. I rehearsed mightily because I love to sing for or with others. That, as an amateur musician, is sufficient reward.

Photo attribution: Mitsuko Uchida & Jonathan Biss from Marlboro Music 

Creating something beautiful with others

Brattleboro community chorusFor the last three months I’ve been rehearsing for the Brattleboro Concert Choir’s performances this weekend of Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Kakodesh. Looking back, I realize that I’ve been singing with the BCC for the last ten years.

The first weeks of rehearsal of a new piece are not much fun. I don’t know the music well, and I’m not a great sight-reader. Unless there’s a practice CD available, I usually spend a significant amount of time creating a soulless electronic version of the part I’m singing, precise tones with precise timings, which I share with my fellow tenors. I attend at least one two-hour rehearsal each week. All this work adds up to a large commitment of time and energy to the two, sometimes three, annual concert performances.

So, given the many other interests in my life, and the large number of attractive opportunities I reluctantly turn down, why do I choose to sing with the Concert Choir year after year?

Part of the answer is my pleasure, as the performance dates approach, of my ability to sing increasing competently at points in the music. Sometimes I experience singing beautifully, even if it’s only a portion of a phrase that suits my vocal abilities, and feeling in harmony with the musical moment is emotionally satisfying.

But the major rush I, and probably all my fellow choristers, feel is the joy of creating, being a part of, and sharing a beautiful musical experience with others. No one person alone, however talented, can bring our performance into being. To do so, our musical director, our soloists, our choristers, and our orchestra are all needed, and must collaborate effectively at many different levels.

At both performances this weekend, there were times when audience members were weeping.

The conferences I design and facilitate are not rehearsed, and what happens does not flow from a central musical score. But what the BCC performances and Conferences That Work share is the joy of connecting with others to create experiences that are meaningful, and sometimes profound.

I love being a part of both of these worlds.

And I hope you are lucky enough to also have the opportunity to experience this connectedness in some way in your life.