Bandleading 101

Come to grips with the fact that people like to laugh and have a good time, and whether and how much you want this to occur in rehearsal. It’s up to you, and be sure you take responsibility for everything that happens in rehearsal; because of the fact that you dictate the environment, you are.

If you want zero joking around and talking, simply make sure you never lose the floor, and the way you do that is by always thinking two or more steps in advance and knowing precisely what you are going to play and what rehearsal technique you are going to use. Then, whenever you cut the band off, jump right in with what you are going to do without waiting.

You can always institute programmed pauses, asking if anyone has any input, without letting go of the talking stick. Many times sections need to talk among themselves to fix things that don’t need to get on your radar. Be sensitive to this, know how to differentiate between this and merriment, and treat it accordingly.

On the other hand, if you are going to run rehearsals looser, be intentional about it and don’t get mad when there is talking, etc. Communicate exactly what you want. Never assume that everyone should know how you want them to act.

Remember, as much as people want to believe otherwise, the basic way rehearsing happens is through repetition. You can disguise the fact that repetition is occurring through rehearsal technique, but the more reps you get on music the more it improves, period (at least with good players).

Some good rehearsal techniques include breaking the music down by musical element or by section and then building it back up, slowing the music down, starting from the end of the score and working backward, and playing the music from left to right without stopping.

Things to pay attention to and address are, misplayed notes (obviously), balance, blend, intonation, time, playing together, accenting and driving the music, dynamics, interpretation and concept.

If you make a suggestion and then run it and they are not implementing the suggestion, tell them to exaggerate it until it sounds ridiculous. Then if the exaggeration is what you want, remind them that what sounds ridiculous in the section sounds great out front. If the exaggeration is too much, then it’s easy to back off.

Do not be afraid to make suggestions to individual people. If you do, do it very gently. If you are afraid of doing it, you will come off as strained and that will make it awkward. Make is sound completely friendly and natural, not like there’s something wrong: “Dave, maybe you’re just a little high on the Bb”. The tone of your voice has a lot to do with success of a rehearsal.

I never tell people what to do. I only listen and make suggestions. I ask that people simply try my suggestions, and if they don’t like them they can ultimately blow it off. It’s a good stance, because in reality no conductor can have control over the way people play. If someone wants to do something, they will do what you say in reh and then play it the way they want in the performance. So there’s no sense in setting up any false expectation when it comes to the degree of power the conductor actually has.

However there is, in reality, a hierarchy of creative license within an ensemble. Folks definitely have veto power when it comes to solos. They usually have veto power when it comes to lead or principal playing. If they know they have license they will respect you more and be more likely to listen to you. What I end up telling lead and principal players has to do with their responsibilities to play in a way that the ensemble can follow. I hardly ever try to correct a lead player based on my personal taste, unless there are style factors that influence the overall sound.

When it comes to section playing, the playing is more dictated by their responsibilities to the section sound. It is more cut and dried.

Expect to have the most interaction (at least the most critical interaction) with section leaders and soloists. That’s the nature of things.

And never, never, ever get angry in rehearsal. Every time you get angry you lose credibility. You can lose credibility quick and easy, but gaining it is slow and painstaking. Regardless of how you think you are perceived, start your “new job”, forcing yourself to believe that the group respects you and that you are seen as a credible director. The reason why is that you project the way you perceive that people perceive you, and if you start with doubts you will merely reinforce whatever doubts people actually have.

By automatically always acting like everyone in the room loves you, you project the self-perception of a loved person; you create a feedback loop that inevitably generates that good will, and even the elusive quality that all leaders seek – charisma.

Finally: bad leaders are unorganized, undisciplined and emotional in rehearsal, and oppressive and attention-seeking in performance. Good bandleaders establish firm structure and are super-positive in rehearsal, and they get the hell out of the way at the performance.

if a rehearsal leader is bad, nothing gets accomplished and there is mutual disrespect between the leader and players. If the leader is good, everyone knows he/she is in charge, and there is good progress on the music.

However, if a leader is great, the people have no idea they are being led, and the music magically comes together with fire and commitment on the gig. Under great bandleaders, players perform in a way that they or anybody never dreamed they were capable.