The most rewarding aspect of the premier of The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year was the positive response from the musicians in the ensemble afterwards. I was overjoyed to hear from players who I respect and admire that they had fun performing and participating in the project and that they would do it again.
This large ensemble collaboration, and the reaction it would illicit from the people involved, was something that I was apprehensive about from the onset—what if the people I’m working with don’t like my music? What if they don’t like me? This project? The other people in the room? Leading up to the first orchestral rehearsal, insecurities like these rumbled around my head, mixing in with imagined scenarios about everyone quitting at the last minute or catching some catastrophic illness, or simply not showing up to begin with.
As a composer, I’m used to spending a lot of time on my own. The idea or practice of collaboration is not necessarily built into what I do in the same way it might be for a classical instrumentalist, who works regularly in chamber ensembles and orchestras, or for a jazz musician, who spends much of his or her musical development playing in groups. So, I might have anticipated that the most challenging and educational part of my EM grant was the large-scale collaboration that it involved.
The collaboration aspect of my grant mostly involved reigning in the forces that I needed to stage my opera. This entailed convincing 5 singers, a rehearsal pianist, and a conductor to devote a semester of their energies, talents, and hard work to learning and committing to memory 45 minutes of my music, asking a chamber ensemble of 18 musicians to commit to at least 6 hours of rehearsal, a mandatory 2 hour dress rehearsal, and the performance all for a small honorarium, and finding other friends or colleagues to fill in other various production roles, for example, the spotlight operator, and the super-title operator.
Because I was fortunate enough to have partnered on this project with a cast of devoted and unbelievably talented singers (Laura Soto-Bayomi, Joshua Quinn, Patrick Dean Shelton, Sami Stevens, and Diamanda La Berge Dramm—who might be known around NEC as a classical violinist, but this woman has a budding opera career ahead of her!), a phenomenal pianist (Alexander Zhu), and an enthusiastic and skillful conductor (Matt Szymanski), the bulk of my anxieties fell upon assembling and rehearsing the orchestra.
Some of these anxieties were justified—indeed, several key players had conflicts at the last minute and needed to be hastily replaced, but most of my anxieties, and certainly the most substantial ones, ultimately proved to be a waste of emotional time and energy. After all, the performance happened, and it was a strong and energetic performance in front a full house!
So, as my own record of what I’ve learned, and perhaps as a tool for other awkward, reclusive, and neurotic composers, I’m going to list the most important tips I gained from the experience of assembling and working with a large ensemble:
- FOOD—everyone likes walking into a room with snacks. Whether or not it’s consumed, I definitely think it boosts morale.
- Say thank you, say thank you, say thank you.
- When you accidently have 5 measures of the bassoon part in alto clef, give your bassoonist a new part and a trillion hugs and maybe a latté.
- Whenever possible, don’t stop. The best way to work through musical problems is to just keep plowing through.
- Give a list of general notes to work on at the beginning of the next rehearsal, so it’s fresh in everyone’s head when they start—be concise, articulate, specific, and gracious.
- Give specific feedback to players individually at the end of rehearsal.
- Trust the musicians in the ensemble. They know what they are doing, especially if they go to NEC.
- Say thank you about specific moments to specific people.
- Say thank you in ways other than verbally.
- Saying what someone is doing right is more effective, then saying what someone is doing wrong.
- The people that show up to rehearsal on time are on your team. Don’t lecture the five people in the room on time about being on time.
- Treat the first rehearsal as a read-through—it’s just a chance for people to get the music in their fingers and ears, and the environment should be relaxed, fun, and low-pressure.
- Create an environment that allows performers to be transparent with you about problems in the parts, problems with the schedule, etc. Panic yields only more panic.
- Have a clear artistic and musical vision and goal.
- Be able to articulate that goal both on a general level, and how it should be applied specifically in particular moments or instrumental parts. In short, know your music and be able to show that you know it! This seems obvious, but it feels that so many composers are afraid of talking about their work. An inability to do so fails to garner respect from the people who’ve devoted time and energy to playing it.
- For some reason, morning rehearsals are better than afternoon rehearsals with large groups.
- Seek advice from players afterwards about how to improve your parts!
- Things tend to always come together at the last minute. Which is ok. Get acquainted with being ok with that. Because that’s just the way these things work.
So, there it is! My guide to working with a large ensemble as a composer. For a condensed version, refer to #2, #8-10, #13-14, and put a star or check or something next to #18!