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8. rehearsal techniques

Running an efficient, musical, and fun rehearsal to prepare an ensemble for a performance or recording requires a set of diverse skills. This chapter presents some general rehearsal techniques, including rehearsing ensembles that include a rhythm section (at least bass and drums, but also usually guitar and keyboards) playing groove-based music in any of a wide variety of contemporary styles, including rock, funk, jazz, Latin, Afro-Cuban, etc. The presence of the rhythm section significantly changes how the director conducts and rehearses the ensemble, as explained later in this chapter.

preparing for the rehearsal

There are several important things to do to prepare for rehearsal. Some things you need to do just once, before the first rehearsal, but there are also things you need to practice during the rehearsal process leading up to a performance.

1. Analyze and mark your score. You need to know the music well to run an effective rehearsal. Part of the process of rehearsal preparation is getting the score ready to use in rehearsal and performance.

While you will obviously need to look at your score from time to time while directing, you should have your head up and eyes off the page as much as possible. Eye contact with the players is extremely important to the sensitivity and musicality of the performance. With a score that’s carefully marked you will be able to glance down at the score and quickly see the important musical elements at any given time. You will be able to anticipate entrances and cut offs and changes in dynamics and tempo. Then it will be easier to direct your attention to the players as you give cues and musical direction.

In contemporary pop music, rehearsal marks and double bars are usually placed at the beginnings of structural sections of the piece. These marks are helpful in making the form of the music visually apparent. However, they are often too far apart to show the level of detail necessary during rehearsal and performance. You should mark the internal phrase structure of the music, usually every 4 bars or so, depending on the music. I use a pencil to draw a heavy line down the page and put handles (like those used in repeats) at the top and bottom of the system.

Music for contemporary concert music, film scores, experimental music, and non-rhythm section based styles often have a different usage of double bars, rehearsal marks, and measure numbers. Regardless of the score layout, you should mark your score to show important events that help organize the music as it flows through time. You should be able to tell at a quick glance exactly where you are in the score.

When you direct a larger ensemble (which obviously will have a bigger score page), it can be very helpful to identify the instruments as they enter and decide how you will cue their entrances. I do this with a red pen. I also like to mark the instruments in the foreground so that your eye is immediately drawn to the most prominent elements in the music. I use a yellow highlighter for this.

2. Set the tempo. For a lot of contemporary pop music, the tempo needs to exactly correct to get the right groove. In addition, the tune needs to begin at the correct tempo right from the first note. While good players can adjust the tempo if it’s a little off, getting the tempo wrong at the beginning of the tune can have a devastating affect on the music.

In some situations, and very commonly in rehearsal, you can take time setting the tempo: snapping fingers on 2 and 4, singing a bit of the tune, and letting the time settle before counting off the tune. You can also use a metronome to get the tempo exactly right. In many performance situations, however, you will need to start the next tune fairly quickly after the end of the previous tune.

In situations where you can’t take a lot of time to find the tempo, I recommend picking a part of the tune that has the right rhythmic or musical quality so that the tempo sticks in your mind. Then, bring that passage to mind before you start the tune. Like many of the things discussed in this handout, this may be something you need to practice methodically before performing the piece.

Obviously, in conducting non-groove based music, a more conventional preparatory beat is used instead of count off.

3. Set the count off. One of the most important thing you’ll do as a director is start the tune, using what’s called a “count off.” Conductors of “classical” orchestras and ensembles (specifically ensembles without a rhythm section) don’t give a verbal count off, but use a preparatory conducting gesture to start the music. For music that’s based on – and begins with – a rhythmic groove at a carefully designated tempo, this kind of prep beat isn’t sufficient and a verbal count off is essential.

The kind of count off needed for a particular tune based on a variety of factors. Once you decide on the count off, it is essential that you give the identical count off every time, in all rehearsals and performances. In a way, you could look at the director’s actions in conducting the chart an aspect of the performance that needs to be practiced methodically and consistently.

There are several factors affecting the count off:

Tempo: in general, faster tempos need longer count offs than slower tempos. So a medium tempo in 4/4 might need a two bar count off, while one bar might be sufficient for a ballad.

Meter: in a similar way, a meter with fewer beats per bar, such as 2/4, for example, would probably need more measures in the count off than a meter like 4/4 or 6/4. A tune in an odd meter might also need a longer than count off than a more common meter.

Pickups: pieces that start with pickups need to be handled carefully. A pickup that is only a few eighth-notes before the downbeat is usually not a problem. A longer pickup, like the beginning of the standards “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” or “There Is No Greater Love,” requires a careful approach.

You need to figure out the best way to count off the piece, tell the band exactly how you’ll do it, and then count off the tune that way every time in both rehearsal and performance. 

Kicking off (starting) the tune: There is a kind of “ready, set, go” method to follow when you kick the tune off:

  1. Center yourself in front of the band and get their attention. Your arms are down by your sides. “OK, everybody have their music ready? We’re going to play the tune from the top.”
  2. Quickly and succinctly describe the count off. “Remember, I’ll give you a two bar count off, then we’re in with the guitar pick ups on beat 4 of the second bar.”
  3. Lift your arms. Wait for silence (or ask for it).
  4. Give the count off.

general rehearsal techniques

Here are several important things about rehearsing to keep in mind:

1. Work from big to small. Work first with the most important and musically critical things. Then work at the detail level only when the big things have been taken care of.

Big things include:

  • Style and feel
  • Tempo and any tempo changes
  • The “road map” (formal structure of the arrangement, including any repeat notation)
  • Anything that might cause a problem, such as a change in time signature, tempo, style, unusually groove, etc.

Usually, as you work though these big things during the first few rehearsals of the tune, many smaller problems – errors at the detail level – disappear as the players get more comfortable with their parts.

Errors at the detail level include:

  • Wrong notes
  • Wrong rhythms
  • Articulations and dynamics
  • Tuning issues specific to the chart (such as the doubling of solo violin with flute in a problematic register in a particular passage) as opposed to overall tuning

Most good players know when they’ve made a mistake and don’t need the director to point it out. When the director immediately points out mistakes early in the rehearsal process, it can damage the players’ morale or the atmosphere of the rehearsal. If wrong notes or rhythms keep happening after the first few readings, then it would be appropriate to correct these errors. There might be a wrong note or rhythm in the part and the player is actually playing what’s written. Part of what you want to check during the initial rehearsal of a tune is that parts are error-free.

At any rate, it’s better to wait and work at the detail level later in the rehearsal process. First, get the tempo, style, and groove happening. Once the tune is coming together – and the players are having fun and playing with musicality and a good groove – then you can dig deeper into the details as needed.

2. Don’t talk too much. If the chart is well written and notated at a professional level, you shouldn’t have to say much before kicking off the tune. The important things that you do need to say include the big things about the tune: the tempo, style, feel, road map, and any possible problems. They also need to know how the tune will start (and end, sometimes).

After playing the tune, if there are errors or things that need to be fixed then of course you have to address these things clearly and completely. In other words, you need to know what the problem is and be able to articulate your thoughts. This is usually fairly easy to do. However, if you have a less specific or more subjective criticism, such as “it has the wrong energy,” “it doesn’t feel right,” or “something’s wrong here but I don’t know what it is,” then it’s better to consider the problem at a later time (not during rehearsal when the band waits while you stare at the score and scratch your head) and find a way to articulate what’s bothering you.

In any case, it’s best to keep the band playing as much as possible and let the music itself teach the players what they need to know.

3. Be the leader but not a dictator. When you are directing during the rehearsal – whether it’s for the whole rehearsal or just during one song in a larger rehearsal that includes other writers and directors – you must give the band direction and leadership. This doesn’t mean you have to be harsh or arrogant, just that you communicate your intent clearly, keep things moving along, and make decisions as needed during the rehearsal. It’s important that you allow the players to ask questions and make suggestions, treating them with consideration and courtesy, but you also need to let them know (usually subtly rather than overtly) that you are making the musical decisions. It’s generally most effective if you keep the focus on the music and avoid personal criticism of any of the players. 

4. Allow your personal style as a director to emerge. There is no single way to direct an ensemble. Effective directors find a way to let their own personality emerge in their directing, rather than trying to conform to some ideal, either real or imaginary. All musicians have played in ensembles with directors they admire and might want to emulate in their own directing. We’ve all also played with directors who model qualities and behavior that we seek to avoid.

The best directors I’ve worked with are those whose attitude during rehearsal is much the same as their normal persona, but who are clearly and effectively focused on the task at hand. Just like in your playing, as you gain more experience and skill, your personal directing style will naturally develop and emerge.

5. Communicate clearly. However your style develops, you must learn to communicate your ideas clearly and concisely. While this may seem to contradict some of the points made above about not talking too much and developing your own personal style as a director, the ability to communicate your ideas effectively transcends style. This often means that during rehearsal you need to speak more loudly – and articulate more carefully – than you do in your normal speaking voice. This is particularly true when you are in front of a large ensemble or are in a large space. This makes some directors uncomfortable, especially those not used to public speaking. However, if that’s the case, you will need to consciously work to overcome your discomfort.

6. Be positive, but not patronizing. It’s important to let the players know how they’re doing in rehearsal. If things are going well, you need to tell them. However, don’t exaggerate. Comments like “Wow! That’s awesome! That was amazing!” can sound patronizing, especially if they are not completely true. Players usually know when they’re playing well or poorly, and if you constantly compliment them with exaggerated statements like these, they will tend not to trust your judgment.

More useful comments acknowledgements the things that are going well while keeping this in perspective. So, a comment like “Good job. The feel is really coming together and the time feels solid. We just need to play with more attention to dynamics and articulation,” is more useful to the players and lets them know you appreciate their work but that you’re aware that there is more work to be done.

7. Be clear about what you’re rehearsing and why. You will frequently rehearse specific parts of the piece, rather than running the tune from the beginning to the end. When you do, you need to be very clear about where you’re starting and what exactly you are trying to achieve. It’s not useful to say, “That was great: let’s take it at measure 55.” It’s better to say, “The horns aren’t tight at 55. We’re going to run that section. Horns, please pay attention to the articulations, especially on the triplets in m.59. We’ll run this several times until it’s completely secure. I will give you a two-bar count off and then we’re in at the pickups to 55. Any questions? No? OK, here we go.”


There is a tremendous amount of material available to anyone interested in learning conventional conducting techniques, but there’s not a lot out there about conduction contemporary music with rhythm section. There are several things about conducting groove-based music that are different from traditional conducting. Whenever there is a rhythm section playing time, conducting technique changes.

Conducting time: There are a few big differences between conducting a “classical” ensemble and a rhythm section-based ensemble. One difference is mentioned above – that a tune with a groove needs a verbal count off. Another big difference is that when you are playing a tune with a groove, you conduct time for a different reason (and often in a different way) than you do with “classical” (non-groove oriented) music.

When you conduct music with a groove, you are not creating the time with your conducting, pulling the ensemble along – you are riding the groove. You should keep time with your conducting throughout all (or most) of the piece. By conducting time, you show the ensemble that you are actively engaged in the music. If you’re just standing there, motionless, then your involvement with the music is invisible.

In addition, conducting the time can be very helpful in syncopated sections where the meter might get obscured or lost.

The beat pattern: Three things to remember about your beat pattern:

  1. The size of your beat pattern should reflect the dynamic level of the music. When the music is soft, your pattern is small and usually in just one hand; when the music is loud, your pattern is big and you might use both hands.
  2. Make sure everyone in the band can see your hands when you conduct. Don’t drop your hands behind the music stand or hold them to the side of your body where some of the players can’t see them.
  3. Use a click beat when the time needs to be very precise rhythmically so that players have a visual reference. A click beat can be very helpful during stop time passages, highly syncopated sections, and sections with a lot of rests.

Giving cues: One of the most important functions of the conductor in groove-based music is to cue players on their entrances. A good cue has two parts:

  1. Eye contact with the player well in advance of the cue (which gets the player set) and;
  2. A clear prep beat (to help the player begin their part with confidence).

As you prepare the score, you should pick the entrances you are going to cue and then set the way you will give those cues. Once you set the cue for a particular entrance, give that cue the same way every time. This is part of your technique as a conductor and one of the things you should practice as you prepare the piece for rehearsal and performance.

conducting practice

Like any musical ability, conducting is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed. While I know conductors who can conduct a score from sight in much the way a well trained musician can read a piece on first sight, most writers need to practice conducting their music before and between rehearsals.

Here are several stages for you to practice conducting your chart.

  1. Practice beating time at the correct tempo while reading the score. For this first step, don’t worry about the count off, cues, dynamics or anything else. Just work on having your beat pattern, in the correct tempo, be completely solid as you conduct through the tune, from beginning to end. Conduct with your right hand, turn score pages with your left. (Obviously, reverse this if you’re left handed.) If you have an audio demo or mock up of the piece you can practice with it. If not, use a metronome.
  2. Next, add dynamics to your practice. This will probably involve using both hands.
  3. Next add the cues you’ve marked in the score.
  4. If you’ve been using a demo, now use a metronome instead. This requires that you keep your place in the music in your head rather than listening to an audio track.
  5. Finally, practice conducting the entire piece without a metronome, from beginning to end. It can be helpful to sing along with the score, picking significant lines or events to vocalize.

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