Principles of Ensemble Leadership Part 2: Rehearsal Scheduling

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Welcome to part two of my ongoing discussion regarding how to be an effective band leader.  I’m very pleased with the response that I got from the first article on this topic.  I got some nice comments and I noticed that a lot of people viewed the blog.  Thanks for your interest!

A friend of mine once said to me, “Music is easy, people are hard.”  It wasn’t until I started leading bands how prophetic that comment was! Now don’t get me wrong.  I love sharing my music with other artists, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most talented, wonderful, and generous human beings one could ever meet, but there are challenges that arise when you’re in a leadership role.  For this installment I’m going to focus on ideas regarding “musician management” and how to ensure that the logistics of organizing rehearsals and performances with multiple musicians can run more smoothly and easily. This is an incredibly broad topic, but I’ll do my best to illustrate some of the points that I consider most important.

When I started writing music for the Bjorkestra, I didn’t think about having to deal with the organizational aspects of running a large ensemble.  I sometimes think if I did, I might not have actually even gone through with even setting up the first rehearsal! Luckily for me though, there were several musicians interested in the project from the beginning, which made it easier to get musicians to rehearse, and things developed methodically enough so I wasn’t completely overwhelmed.  Regardless, I have a lot of respect for anyone that leads a big band…it’s a whole lot of work!  It doesn’t have to be a big band though, as those of you who lead smaller ensembles can attest, in order for organizing musicians and rehearsals to be a challenge.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as we delve into the world of musician management:

No one will ever care about your project as much as you do: This is something that has resonated with me time and time again over the years.  It’s sad but true, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the musicians in your band, a producer, an agent, manager, your mom, whatever.  But why should anyone care as much as you? It’s your music that you’re hiring people to perform, and you’re the one who will ultimately be receiving the accolades for your project’s successes (a good thing) as well as having to accept the consequences of it’s failures (that’s life!).  What follows is:

Don’t take things personally: This is hard to do, because as artists it’s incredibly easy to forget that those we’re hiring/collaborating with have lives, careers, and ambitions of their own.  But just because you’ve written some incredibly brilliant music doesn’t mean that anyone is going to bend over backwards to make themselves available to rehearse or to do a gig for little or no money.  It also doesn’t mean that they’re going to hesitate to call you at the last minute to cancel on your gig if they get a job that pays more or is what they may consider a better opportunity.  This doesn’t mean that a bandleader needs to be a pushover or the most understanding person in the world, but eliminating the emotional component from the equation when certain issues arise can help to avoid saying or emailing something you might regret in the future, as well as more reasonable decision making regarding the musicians involved in your project.  Speaking of which…

Working with the right musicians: This can take a lot of trial and error and experimentation, as well as a lot of personal introspection as to what we consider being “right” for us.  One of the reasons why I love living in New York City is because of the high concentration of incredible musicians that possess an extremely professional work ethic, and are so passionate about music that they are frequently willing to put art over monetary gain.  I also find it important to work with people that I can relate to on a personal level, and with whom I share a mutual respect.  This is what works for me, on both an artistic and practical level.  Having the right people involved in your project doesn’t guarantee that there are not going to ever be logistical and/or interpersonal issues to deal with, but it makes it a whole lot easier and way more enjoyable in the long run.

With those ideas in mind, for remainder of  PEL: Part Deux, I will discuss a very practical issue regarding band leadership:

Rehearsal Scheduling

One of the things I hear the most when I’m talking to a fellow musician and the subject of the Bjorkestra comes up is something like, “I don’t know how you do it, I have enough trouble organizing a quartet rehearsal” (I just heard it today, in fact!).  Actually, scheduling with a large ensemble can sometimes be less challenging than it seems, because chances are there are going to be only a few key players in the group, and the remaining musicians (generally the horn players in my experience, but not always) can send a sub if necessary.  This isn’t always the case, because sometimes you need everyone there if you’re rehearsing a new piece for a performance, or the music is super challenging, but with a smaller group like a quartet or quintet, rehearsal scheduling can be even more of a challenge because every band member may be considered essential personnel.

Consequently, regardless of how big your group is, it’s always a good idea to give yourself plenty of lead time to set up a rehearsal.  I find that generally three to four weeks in advance is reasonable, although if your rehearsing for something really important where everyone has to be there then six to eight weeks in advance might be necessary. With the big band, I do everything via email.  I create an email list on my Yahoo! account with everyone’s email address in the band and then send out the email blast to everyone all at once.  This also makes it so I don’t have to remember who is in the band and type in 17 email addresses every single time I need to write an email correspondence to the entire group.  Before I write the email, I determine what the optimal time frame is going to be to rehearse (I always try to rehearse the Bjorkestra within a week before a performance) and what days and times I’m unavailable, and then based on that I send out the request for everyone to get back to me with their specific availability for those dates and times.  I always include specific because there are going to be those people that get back to me with “I’m free during the day Monday” and what they mean is “I’m free until 5pm Monday.”  So it’s best to get hourly availability if at all possible.

Then it’s time to wait for everyone to respond to the email.  Some people get back to me right away with their availability, many within 24 hours, and a few within 48 hours to a week.  Occasionally there will also be one or two that don’t get back to me at all.  Then it’s time to get on the phone and either politely text or call them and ask them to respond to my email.  That usually does the trick.

So now that I have everyone’s availability in my email inbox, it’s time to do the scheduling! Fun fun fun.  I actually kind of like this part, because its a little like putting a puzzle together and seeing if there’s some time that can actually work for everyone.  I create an Excel spreadsheet that includes the names of everyone in the band in cells of the left hand column, and the possible dates for rehearsal in the cells of the top row, and then plug in everyone’s availability, keeping my fingers crossed (which is of course very difficult while typing) that an appropriate rehearsal time will emerge from the maelstrom.  Generally with the big band it’s an exception to the rule, even with six to eight weeks lead time, that I can find a time that works for everyone, but there will be a couple of dates that could work for almost everyone.  In these situations I might call the unavailable musicians and ask (and occasionally beg) them to can change their schedule to accommodate the rehearsal time that works best for everyone else.  If they can, great.  If not, then I usually ask them to find a sub for the rehearsal.  This takes the pressure off me to have to make a load of phone calls to find someone who can rehearse, and I can focus on moving forward the rehearsal and maybe even, if I’m lucky, the music itself!

Now that I have the rehearsal time good to go.  I email everyone back (via the email list I created, including the people that can’t make it so they can forward the info to their subs) with the rehearsal date and time.  I usually do this before I  get a rehearsal space set, because at this point a week might have passed between me sending the original availability request, and I want everyone to get the time blocked out in their calendars.  I find that if someone’s schedule changes in the interim, they generally will let you know though…but not always, which can be a drag but that’s the way it goes.  In this email I ask everyone to RSVP and confirm that they received the email.  Then, once again, I wait, and in the meantime find a rehearsal space.

Speaking of rehearsal spaces…here’s a nice website for those of you looking for a space to rehearse in NYC:

Two to five days before the rehearsal, I send one more email.  This reiterates the date and time of the rehearsal, and includes the address of the rehearsal space as well as any additional information, such as BRING A STAND!  I don’t like it when emails have all caps, but I very frequently get asked if a stand is necessary for a rehearsal or a gig, when I’ve already written it in an email, so I excuse myself for this one small email indiscretion. 🙂

So that’s how I do it! It’s a bit of work and slightly anal, but in the end it gets the job done.  This level of organization eliminates much of the stress that can be caused by not having a full band to rehearse with the day before a rehearsal, or being unsure if someone is going to show up to rehearse, etc. It also demonstrates that you’re also respectful of your band member’s time and schedule as well.    Once you’re used to whatever method that you engage for scheduling, it becomes a more natural part of the rehearsal planning process, and will allow you to focus more on the music making rather than the logistics.

As always, keep the comments coming.  I’d definitely like to hear about how other bandleaders handle their scheduling issues too.


Principles of Ensemble Leadership: Part 1


I’ve decided to finally write a little bit more than usual.  January has been sort of a slow month, and I’ve had the idea for a while now to write a series of blogs about leading bands, so I figure I’ll give it a shot!

I’ve been leading an 18 piece big band for 6 years, and have been the leader of several other 3-6 piece ensembles as well (I currently lead three different projects and co-lead one.  I’ve also been a sideman in bands too numerous to mention.   These experiences have all contributed to developing some specific skill sets that have enabled me  to successfully lead my own projects. By “successfully” I don’t necessarily mean my musical endeavors have always been profitable. Instead, I mean that I’ve been able to  have my music performed on a fairly consistent basis, by excellent musicians, for audiences around the world.

This discussion is going to cover some of the fundamentals of leading ensembles and how to efficiently and smoothly get your musical message “out there” as a band leader.   I’m going to focus on the creative, interpersonal, and administrative aspects of leading a band.   I hope it will start some interesting discussion/comment threads!

So…let’s start from the beginning.

Music Preparation

Unless you’re planning on starting an all-improvisational group or a jam band, obviously without at least some written music there’s going to be no way to get your music played by other musicians, unless they’re all telepathic or willing to take the time to figure out lines that you sing/play to them.  Many of the groups that I play in, lead, or encounter in the jazz world in New York City are dealing with fairly complex and challenging music for several musicians, which further increases the necessity for written parts and scores.
Knowledge of composition, arranging, songwriting, etc. are all important factors being able to commit your musical ideas to the page, and of course these areas of study represent a lifetime of learning , but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume  that you already have a set of songs/compositions that you’re ready to share and be played by other musicians in either a session or rehearsal.

The goal  for effective music preparation is to be able to have your music and ideas presented as clearly as possible for performance and interpretation by other musicians.  This doesn’t mean that what you’re presenting is the final draft, or that there can’t be mistakes here and there,, but there must be an intention for clarity.   If this isn’t taken into consideration, it can make for a very frustrating situation for the performers, since valuable time and energy will be wasted in attempting to decipher what is written, and you’ll be frustrated as well because you won’t get to hear your composition played properly.

Here are a few suggestions that can add clarity to the presentation of your notated music:

Learn to use a music notation program: If you’re hand written manuscript looks like that of a professional-level copyist, then you don’t have to worry about this.  Otherwise, if  you don’t have experience using a music notation program such as Finale or Sibelius (there’s a few others, but these two are the kings), then I’d strongly suggest taking the plunge and acquire an up-to-date copy of one of those programs.  There is a pretty steep learning curve for effectively using these, particularly with Finale, but in the end it’s totally worth it.  A great place to start is to create a simple lead sheet from a hand written tune.  It might take a while to do at first, but when you’re finished you will marvel at how much better your music looks, and it will be way more easy to read.   If you’re writing for larger ensembles, these programs are even more of a time saving tool because when you’re creating a score, the program also creates the individual parts.  Finale and Sibelius also have MIDI playback capabilities so you can preview your work, which also helps avoid mistakes such as wrong accidentals, rhythms, etc.  There are definitely some challenges that arise from using these programs – music notation is a slippery slope, but I think the benefits ultimately outweigh the drawbacks and limitations.

Working with scores and parts: When I was at Manhattan School of Music, one day in big band we had to play through several arrangements that were written by students in the composition & arranging class, taught by legendary big band arranger Manny Albam.  Manny was conducting the band, and by the third or fourth arrangement he was completely fuming because almost every arrangement had a single problem in common: the rehearsal letters in the score didn’t match the rehearsal letters in the parts.  It made it virtually impossible to rehearse the music.  So basically, what’s in the score should be in the parts, and the fundamental measure to measure layout and road map of the individual parts have to match each other as well.  Sometimes I find it necessary to simplify and condense rhythm section parts, and when I do that, I double and triple check to make sure that the parts correspond exactly to the score.

Music layout: In my experience, Finale is horrible with this…I think Sibelius might be a little bit more intuitive on this front, but anyway it’s a good idea with music that has even phrase structures (e.g. 2, 4, 8 bar phrases) that you try to have four bars to the system.  If there’s measures that are full of triplets and/or 16th notes, it may be necessary to have only two or three bars in the system.  If you want to learn more about music layout etiquette and notation in general, check out this book.  Also, make sure to thoroughly proofread a piece before you print it out to ensure that individual notes are not crashing into each other and that text, expression marks, rehearsal letters, and articulations are all in their proper position on the page.

Transpositions: It’s always a good idea to have all of your parts transposed properly. Here’s a chart of instrument transpositions.    In NYC,  I’ve found most professional musicians are very good at sight reading, and a great deal of them are just as good at sight transposing.  I’ve developed a fairly high level of skill myself transposing from concert pitch to E flat, as well as from B flat to E flat, as long as the music isn’t too crazy…but lately I’ve been wanting to read only music that is transposed for my instrument, particularly if there is improvisation with chord changes.  I think that there is a slight barrier to optimal interpretation of a piece that’s created when having to transpose…and of course, not everyone can do it in the first place.

Taping parts: As I write some of this stuff I’m feeling like I’m being too basic and obvious, but then I think of all the times that I’ve gone into a rehearsal or performance and there are these basic things that are overlooked in terms of music preparation, and they create problems.  Not having pages taped  is one of those things.  Taping parts is boring to do, but completely necessary, especially because most of the time musicians have crappy wire stands (like mine) that seem to be designed to have music fall off of them.  Also, if there are parts with three or more pages, it makes it much easier to turn pages and no one has to worry about the music getting out of order.  Scotch (tape, that is) is your friend!

Phew! So that’s some of the real basics out of the way.  Hope it was enlightening to you all!

In the next installment I’m going to talk about scheduling musicians for rehearsals and performances.  Stay tuned…