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Open rehearsals should focus on 'opening up' what makes the final product so meaningful.

by Drew McManus
November 22, 2004

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Recently, I came across an article in the Boston Globe by Richard Dyer that examines some historical approaches to how the Boston symphony conducts open rehearsals.
For those not familiar with open rehearsals, allow me to explain. Most orchestras offer patrons an opportunity to sit in on an orchestra rehearsal. Typically, they events are the dress rehearsal before a performance and the orchestra usually runs through a piece with a minimal amount of stopping and rehearsing.
Those in attendance are usually charged a fee to attend which is substantially lower than a full price ticket and orchestra marketing departments usually sell the idea as a less expensive way to enjoy a concert.
In Boston, Richard Dyer points out that in times past when the conductor would actually stop a run through performance because something needed to actually be rehearsed, patrons would sometimes respond in a very negative fashion – sometimes openly booing. This open rehearsal system isn’t unique to Boston, it’s a standard format.
The Globe article also goes on to point out some of the obvious problems when an orchestra actually uses the time during an open rehearsal to rehearse. Such as once the orchestra stops only the audience members closest to the stage can hear some of what the conductor says. To the rest of the audience it’s like hitting a mute button in the middle of a recording and then have the recording start back a few minutes earlier once the sound resumes.
And for someone expecting to attend a program billed as a somewhat complete concert it’s a justifiably annoying experience. But that’s where the real potential for an open rehearsal is going to waste. It shouldn’t be presented as a watered down concert experience, instead, it should be promoted as an outreach tool.
Let Them See What Actually Goes On
One of the prevailing problems in classical music today is the wide spread lack of basic understanding of the music among concertgoers. Even most program notes need a pocket music dictionary to help most concertgoers understand what’s being talked about, not to mention those in attendance with little concert going experience.
So instead of trying to build the rehearsal into a performance, make those in attendance see the real rehearsal. They need to experience what a rehearsal is like, how much time and effort goes into a production, and the variety of ways communication exists between those creating the art.
I’ve put together programs that do exactly this sort of idea and they do a remarkable job of creating a deep level of interest and repeat involvement among new concertgoers as well as intensify interest for more experienced patrons. The last thing you want to do with a program like this is allow those participating to hear the concert from start to finish. Their admission to the rehearsal should also include a ticket to one of the performances. That way, they can not only receive the satisfaction of listening to the pieces in their entirety but they can anticipate the sections they listened to in rehearsal. 
Will the violin section capture the sound the conductor kept working toward? Will the ensemble be able to get through the technical passages without one section in the group getting out of sync like they did at rehearsal?
There are a number of ways to create an open rehearsal program that do not restrict the ability for musicians to make progress. The Globe article suggests that the conductor should use a clip on microphone so when they are giving any verbal instructions all of the audience members can hear what is being said.
But that shouldn’t be all that happens; it’s still too static of an experience for those in attendance. Those participating in the open rehearsal need a guide – and it shouldn’t be the conductor (after all, they’re busy rehearsing). Ideally, a trained musician or knowledgeable docent (much like the type of orchestra docent I advocated in a series of articles at my Adaptistration column) should be available to provide insight and explain what is happening on stage.
I’ve done this before using groups of my adult private music students and it’s been just as much fun for me as it was for them. It never ceases to amaze me just how much some of them notice, even those who have never seen an orchestra in person before. In general, classical patrons aren’t given nearly enough credit for how quickly they can learn and internalize what goes on in a concert hall.
The idea itself is incredibly flexible; you can implement it with a full 106 piece orchestra, opera productions, small ensembles, bands, and right down to solo recitals.
Yes, you’ll have to keep the ratio between orchestra docents and concertgoers relatively small, such as 14-1, in order to make the experience meaningful for those participating. Concertgoers attending the open rehearsal should have the freedom to ask questions to their guide whenever they have one and they should get an opportunity to meet one of the musicians at one point in the process.
I’ve used dozens of variations on this basic theme, some involving up close and personal experiences such as having a small group of concertgoers on stage during one part of the rehearsal. Others incorporate overlooked educational aspects of the concert experience; sometimes I have the group move to different locations in the hall to experience the sound and sights from a different perspective and show them what they might have otherwise missed. 
But the best ideas come from the participants themselves. Once they begin to take part in this sort of experience they will begin come up with some terrific ideas. And in this case the concertgoer knows what they don’t know and will find a good way to rectify the problem. 
That’s the point, you want to create a larger portion of your audience who want to become more involved, they want to learn more, and they want to be involved in some way. This will let them create a sense of ownership and pride in what their orchestra can accomplish.
I’m willing to bet that most of the people out there reading this article have already come up with at least half a dozen ideas for how to run a program like this. I invite you to write a letter to the editor and share those ideas. Even better, contact your local orchestra and tell them you want a program like this and what you want it to include.

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