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 

Five reasons NOT to use a Conferences That Work meeting design

Conferences That Work meeting designI’ve been promoting the Conferences That Work meeting format for so long that some people assume I think it’s the right choice for every meeting. Well, it’s not. Here are (drum roll!) two meeting types and three situations when you should NOT use a Conferences That Work design:

Most corporate events

Many corporate events have a tight focus. Management have desired outcomes for the meeting: e.g. developing new products and services, communicating changes in company strategic goals, training and incentivizing sales teams, implementing successful product launches, etc. The function of such meetings is primarily top-down: effectively communicate management objectives, answer questions, and get employee buy-in. Fixed agenda corporate meetings are not a good fit for peer conference designs. Why? Because they are predominantly about one-way broadcast-style communication. Participants are there to listen and learn rather than to determine what’s individually useful to them or to build intra-company connections.

Special events

Special events involve a mixture of entertainment, celebration, and raising money. While some may include impromptu participant involvement, they concentrate on creating a wonderful experience for attendees. Special events are carefully choreographed in advance and participant interaction is generally limited to the traditional social forms of meals and parties. So they are not a good fit for the spontaneous generation of topics, themes, and participant-determined process that peer conference designs generate.

When simultaneously scheduled alongside traditional meeting formats

Much as I would like to tell you that participant-driven and participation-rich event formats are common these days, it just ain’t so. As a result, many conference attendees have not encountered these designs before and have not experienced how effective they can be in creating valuable connections and learning with their peers. When meeting planners add participant-driven sessions as a track to an existing schedule of traditional presentations, few attendees will pick the unfamiliar. Unfortunately, this convinces the organizers that few people are interested in these formats, reinforcing a return to a familiar predetermined program.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this mistake made … well … that would pay the bill for a very nice dinner out.

When time is short

Participant-driven and participation-rich events are messy and, by the standards of a content-dump-into-listeners-ears event, relatively inefficient. You can share some good information in a ten-minute talk. (Even if most of the audience will have forgotten it a month later.) Try to build connections and learning in a group of a hundred people in ten minutes, however? Little of any significance is going to happen in such a short time.

I’ve run the core Conferences That Work design in a day numerous times, and it’s always a rush. A day and a half is the minimum for a group to really benefit. A peer conference design such as Open Space doesn’t need so much time—a few hours can be useful—though it omits some of the features that make Conferences That Work so effective.

Valuable peer learning and connection takes time. It’s worth it. If you don’t have enough time, a peer conference isn’t like a podcast you can speed up and still understand. Schedule the time actually needed for the process to work and wonderful things will happen. Shortchanging the time, guarantees frustrated and unhappy attendees.

When a meeting is significantly about status rather than learning and connection

Sadly, in my view, some meetings are primarily about asserting and demonstrating status. Government, political, and, to a lesser extent, academic conferences often fall into this category. If your conference attendees come from a culture where power and influence is firmly controlled by the people in charge, a Conferences That Work meeting design will be a poor fit. A format that does not reinforce their dominance threatens high status individuals.

So when should you use the Conferences That Work design?

I thought you’d never ask. If you have all attendees’ attention and enough time to for the process to work (see above), a Conferences That Work meeting design is a fantastic (I would argue, the best) approach for meetings of communities of practice (this link explains in detail what communities of practice are). That includes all conferences, colloquia, congresses, conventions, and symposia.

Association and client conferences are clear candidates for Conferences That Work. You can easily integrate traditional conference elements into the design, like keynotes, up-to-the-minute research findings, recognition ceremonies, and social events, etc.

You can make existing conferences more participant-driven and participation-rich by carefully incorporating peer conference process into future events. Over the years I have helped many associations successfully make this transition.

But the best time to implement Conferences That Work is at a brand-new conference! (A good example is the edACCESS peer conference, now in its 26th year, and still going strong.) Why? Because people typically create new conferences when they find the need to meet for a new purpose. At that moment in time, invariably, there are no obvious experts to invite. Opening with a peer conference design allows a group of relative strangers with a common interest to make fruitful connections and learn productively about and from the expertise and experience in their midst. The experience is so powerful, that I don’t know of a group that has decided to stop using the format.

Image attribution: Flickr user apionid