Frequently Asked Questions

Rehearsal Techniques
Some suggestions to keep your rehearsals
moving, effective, and interesting






Do you use a rehearsal plan?  Do you spend time looking at the scores you will be rehearsing, looking for the trouble spots, arranging the selections for variety to alleviate sameness and boredom?  Here is a plan that has worked well for many years, one that will save time and energy.

1. Check your calendar for your next performance.
2. If the decision has not already been made, chose the selection(s) you will perform at that program (service).  This will be the major emphasis of the rehearsal.
3. Check your calendar for the following performance.  If you have decided what is to be performed, this will be the follow-up selection.
4. Plan a warm-up, with bells, clapping, singing, whatever, to get the group working together.
5. Read through a “distant” selection or two, with little corrections except where the piece breaks down.
6. Thoroughly rehearse the selection for your next program.  It may be too late to “woodshed” the number, but all corrections should be made, with special attention to dynamics, blend, balance, and musicality.

An alternative plan is similar and may be preferable when performances are weekly or on some regular basis.

1. Select your music and assign dates for performances.  In churches, this may be by the Church calendar, the pastors sermon topics, or general seasons.
2. Arrange your music in your music folders in reverse order of their performance dates.  That is, one that is six weeks off should be in the front.  This Sundays number should be the last one, unless  … (more on this later)
3. You may begin your rehearsal with a warm up if you wish.  It may be just as well to select tricky measures from the least known piece and use them as a warm-up.
4. Read through all the music in the folder, spending more and more rehearsal time as you get nearer the performance date.  You can always go back to a number if you have extra time at the end of the rehearsal.  Reserve a substantial amount of time for the next performance number.
5. Every rehearsal folder should have a “chewing piece,” something is difficult and will make your group work.  This might be a festival type number or something that you may never perform.
6. The final selection at rehearsal might be a selection that the group enjoys and knows well.  This will give a good taste even after a hard, less than enjoyable rehearsal.

Whatever system you use, planning your rehearsal will save time, and your appearance of control will help secure your place as leader.

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How do you conduct rehearsals week after week and keep your people interested, learning, progressing in musicality?  The key is planning and conducting a rehearsal that is problem oriented and using various rehearsal techniques.  Using the same approach for every selection and every rehearsal will not accomplish your goals as quickly as using different approaches for different problems.  Rehearsals must be interesting and exciting, not monotonous, else your people may rebel, lose interest, or stop attending.

One approach to rehearsal is to play or sing the selection straight through the first time, a technique advocated by Harry Robert Wilson, a musician and educator who shaped the conducting careers of hundreds of directors.  The purpose during this first “run through,” is to do everything “just like you want the final performance to be.”

To Dr. Wilson, this meant setting the tempo, ringing or singing the right notes, following dynamic markings, achieving musicality, and maintaining character.  Now, before you choke yourself laughing, perfection on the first read was not expected.  What was expected is to introduce the selection to the people the way you want the finished product to sound.  Later rehearsing could be done at slower tempo, etc.

This run through will give you an idea where to begin detailing work.  At this point, another approach would be advisable, for continuing to just “run through” a piece will reinforce mistakes and make correcting them more difficult.

It will appear that most mistakes will be with rhythm in playing handbells.  The other three major mistakes would be having a “wrong” handbell in hand, having the handbells in the wrong hand, and ringing the wrong hand.

By the way, you can tell how experienced a handbell ringer is by his reaction to ringing a wrong note.  The novice will make a face and other gestures.  The more experienced will continue to ring as though nothing happened.  The “professional” will look as a neighbor.

In my experience, getting correct rhythm serves to correct other matters, for when the group rings together, the members can hear better balance.  This will also help remind them of the dynamic level.

Rhythm correction should be approached from the music, itself.  Indeed, there are rhythmic exercises that can be used as warm-ups and teaching methods, but when a piece breaks down because of a rhythmic error, it is best to use that section rather than revert to a rhythmic exercise.  Clapping the problem rhythm or setting words may be helpful in correcting rather than continuously and repeatedly ringing it.

As with any musical correction, I recommend that the mistake area be put back into the context of the piece, adding a measure before (and ring a bit after), and then backing up several measures to a break point.  After several repeats, proceed to the next area that needs correction.

One more point on correcting rhythms.  Find similar patterns in the piece and point them out to the group.  Also point out variations of the rhythm.  Knowing something different is coming will alert the ringer to a potential problem.

Aristotle said that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end.  I believe it was Tchaikowski who said that if we begin well and end well, we can get by with a lot of mistakes in the middle.  He did not advocate this mediocrity; rather, his premise was to be sure the beginning and ending are solid.  This never bothered Victor Borge, for he seldom played the ending.

For this reason, and I’m sure others, after a read through, Tchaikowski would often rehearse the ending of a selection near the first of a rehearsal.  Then he would work on the previous section, continuing to the end.  This was repeated until the entire movement was performed.

Sections can be determined by thematic material, form of the work  (A-B-A, etc.), key changes, time changes, bridges, or problem spots.  An easy way to spot sections is to locate the double bars throughout the work.  Double bars indicate a change to the music, often a key change or meter change.  Read the music before and after the bars, however, to be sure to attain a good entrance.

You don't have to play the selection to the end each time.  You can vary the sequence by playing two sections together, etc.  It is a good idea to always read the piece completely through after you have played in sections.

This is the most common of practices is to hit the distress spots (spotting).  Start at the beginning and play straight through or until it falls apart.  You rehearse the spot, restart and continue until you reach the next problem ...and so forth.  This method is useful when time is short, particularly a week or so before a presentation.

One other rehearsal technique is to “practice the joint.”  Where sections join, particularly if there is a change of tempo, key, meter, or character, the “joint” should be rehearsed until everyone feels the changes.

Sectional rehearsals are usual with choral groups, and in some cases may be helpful with a handbell group.  High trebles, mid trebles (the battery) and bass section may be able to rehearse sections separately before combining with other sections.  Extended lines of scales or arpeggios rehearsed by sections might save a lot of time in a regular  rehearsal.

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Workshops are the time to teach.  Rehearsal is a time to rehearse.  Well, there will be some teaching at rehearsals.  The point is, the less talking by the director and the more rehearsing by the ringers seems to be the desire of everyone.

A Sunday school teacher once told me that he did not like for his class members to ask questions or enter discussion.  He said that he had studied and knew what he wanted to present in the lesson, and as the most qualified person there, he should be the one to talk.

In a bell rehearsal, that is true, also, but it is not a time for the director to pontificate, other to correct, encourage, or demonstrate.  It is not a time to relate stories or lecture on the esoteric nature of selection.  The group needs to rehearse notes and nuances.

Save the discourses and jokes for another time.  Have a fellowship period following rehearsal.  Meet for pizza for a nice dinner at an elegant restaurant.

Have you watched these college football reruns on television?  They eliminate the time between plays, the commercials, the time outs, etc., and reduce the entire 2-3 hour game to a one-half hour interview with the coach.  Actual playing time, about 30 minutes.

Ever wonder how much ringing (or singing) your group actually does during a rehearsal?  It has been suggested that we check with a stopwatch to find out.

Some instruction (talking) is necessary.  Rehearsing is more important.  Be sure you use rehearsal time for what it is intended.

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While with ensembles it is possible for all members to share in the musical decisions, in order to have an efficient, productive rehearsal of most groups, some one person must be in charge.  In most groups, this is the director or conductor.

If the director is prepared for the rehearsal and/or performance, discipline matters and other distractions will be minimal.  However, there are times certain etiquette must be enforced for the group to learn and enjoy ringing bells.

1.  Talking should be kept at a minimal, and most comments should be directed to the conductor. Side conversations between ringers not only take their attention away from what the conductor is saying, but also distracts others who are trying to listen to directions.

2. Fellowship is good, but enjoy it before and after rehearsal.  When you don't listen, you have to ask the recurring question, "Where are we?"  or "Where are we starting?"  This, too, is a waste of time.

3. The conductor wants to know where you are experiencing problems. Ask to repeat a problem section.  The earlier you request help, the less likely you are to rehearse errors until they become muscle memory.  A repeated mistake is difficult to correct.

4. Be present at every rehearsal.  Missing bells are a plague to a handbell group.  Even when you arrange for a substitute, the group chemistry is not there, and your presence is missed.

5. Be on time, every time.  If your group has twelve ringers, being late five minutes is the waste of an hour.  Wasted time can never be recovered.

6. Everyone takes responsibility for setting up and breaking down tables, pads, cover cloths, music, and handbells (and other equipment), according to the agreement among the group.

7. All chewing gum, candy, and other snacks should be left until a break or after the rehearsal.  The residue from your hands or gloves could get on the bells. This is not good.

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