Ben Bram is the music director of The USC SoCal VoCals, the 2008 ICCA champions. Ben is a junior majoring in music industry at the University of Southern California. This week, he shares his unique insights on how to run an effective rehearsal.
The first requirement for a healthy rehearsal is a strong leader. If you don’t have a lot of experience, make sure you’re armed with an acute self-awareness and a keen intuition. The following steps are geared towards directors of student-run collegiate a cappella groups, but most if not all of these points can be applied to high school and professional groups as well.
-Leave it at the door. The mood of a rehearsal is of the utmost importance and directly translates into productivity. Set a good example for the rest of the group by coming in positive and energized, regardless of whatever may be bothering you. Be aware that you set the tone of the rehearsal. Even if you’ve had a bad day, force yourself to enter with a positive and productive energy.
-Start on time. Even though your group is an extra-curricular activity, take it seriously and create a professional rehearsal environment. Enforcing promptness will create a productive atmosphere, while allowances for lateness will most likely lead to allowances in other areas. If you tolerate lateness, the group will probably discover that you tolerate other distractions as well. It’s a slippery slope.
-Have a plan. Don’t run rehearsals flying by the seat of your pants. You owe it to your group (who in most cases has elected you to lead them) to do some preparation. Know which songs you plan to work on, and what your specific goals are for them. Make notes in the arrangements about dynamics, phrasing, tone, etc. Repertoire choice and order during rehearsals is also important. If the group is tackling a very challenging song, sing a familiar, fun song afterwards to keep up the energy and morale.
-Warm up properly. Come up with a diverse regiment of warm-ups, each with a specific goal in mind. Do the rudimentary vocal warm-ups first, then move on to blending exercises, intervals, dynamics, etc. Throw in a new warm up every now and then to keep it interesting.
-Take breaks. A fidgety group is often an unproductive one. Take short breaks—at least 5 minutes every hour—to keep the focus fresh. This time is essential for the group to be social, otherwise jokes and side conversations will start to invade the rehearsal time.
-Keep the group focused. Collegiate groups are extremely social. This camaraderie is really special, and truly does add another dimension to performances that I see missing from many “hired-gun” professional groups. However, too many jokes and side conversations during rehearsals can kill productivity. Don’t be afraid to share in a joke with the group, but also know when it’s time to regain focus.
-Communicate well with other leaders. If your group has multiple leaders, communicate with them before rehearsals, not during. If you are not all on the same page, it makes it confusing and difficult for the rest of the group to accurately ascertain the information you’re trying to present, and it will also make them less confident in their leaders.
-Know the voices of the ensemble. Make it your priority to really get to know all the voices in your group. Know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, what the different ranges of their voices sound like and what their habits are. With this information, you are so much more prepared to make informed decisions to bring the ensemble to its full musical potential.
-You will be wrong sometimes. Accept this fact early on and you’ll be much better for it. Just because you’re the director, doesn’t mean you’re always right. The best leaders are those who know when to admit their mistakes. If someone else in the group presents a good idea, don’t be afraid to take their cue. Don’t feel as if you have to do everything yourself. Which moves us on to the next point…
-Don’t go at it alone. Don’t be afraid to seek advice from the group and make use of everyone’s skills. If someone has a particularly good ear for dynamics, by all means make use of their talent! Allowing the entire group to have an involvement in the musical process will make it much more fun for them and they’ll give you more of their focus. However, with that being said…
-Know when to put your foot down. Maintain a balance between firm leadership and open receptiveness. You can't rule a cold dictatorship, or else you will have a mutiny on your hands. Keep people involved, allow for comments and include everyone in the musical process. But don't let it get too out of hand. You're still the leader, and when people get too much freedom, the process becomes too chaotic. It’s all about balance.
-Inspire your group. Constantly give the group something to work towards and articulate your goals for the group. If you’re always satisfied, the group won’t feel the need to improve. Give praise when it is due, but also push the group to work even harder. Your group will thank you for it.