Learning new music: practice or rehearsal?

Matthew Rumble of Southampton Concert Wind Band (SCWB) describes what it's like to learn completely new music alongside composer Robert Laidlow for the Adopt a Composer project. 

As a musician in an community ensemble, you frequently arrive at rehearsal to see a new piece on the stands. More often than not, the piece will be something that you already know. Occasionally it will be an arrangement that you haven't seen before, with different keys, linking passages, tempi and orchestration that are different from what you are familiar with. It may even be a piece that you haven't heard before, let alone played.

Despite this, as a musician in 2019, it is at least possible to search for a previous performance or recording online and familiarise yourself with the piece through listening. This lets you to absorb the structure, the flow, the style – the feel of the music. Building familiarity this way means you can focus more in weekly rehearsals on your own conductor's take on the piece; to pencil in those cues which are more noticeable from your spot in the band than they may appear in the audience seat of a typical recording.

Southampton Concert Wind Band is, in my experience, a uniquely talented group of musicians who all individually play to a high standard. Together we frequently tackle challenging pieces and have mastered many 21st-century compositions with the direction and insight of our conductor, Calum.

It is a Thursday evening in early January and I arrive at rehearsal to see a set of pages of music on my chair that have clearly been recently printed. Many players will be familiar with the oft-quoted approach to rehearsals:

 "You don't come to rehearsal to learn your part, but rather to learn everybody else's part" - Eugene Corporon

With this particular piece on a dark cold Thursday evening, that just isn't an option! The first play through is a real eye-opener – technically and intellectually stretching in equal measure.

It is the first time in many years that I've had the chance to play through genuinely brand-new music, and it is clear that the parts are technically challenging for all sections of the band.

There is a collaborative process of iterative refinement with the composer (Robert Laidlow, is there with us, talking through the intention behind each section of the piece, helping us to see his vision for the composition, while in turn each player has a real opportunity to share the reality of how best they might achieve that with the instrumentation of a full symphonic wind band). I go home tired but inspired.

A couple of months later, and I have missed some rehearsals. In the intervening weeks, both with and without the composer in attendance, the band and the piece have clearly been continually worked, refined, enhanced. What was initially hard and unfamiliar is sounding more organic. The band now demonstrates a real understanding of what else is happening around the ensemble both as they play, and arguably immediately when they stop – who are they handing over to, where does the line go next, what is the shifting soundscape that they need to be a fundamental part of communicating to the listener.

The free, unconducted sections are now living and breathing, a prominent themic motif is immediately more coherent as it is stated and re-stated around the sections.

There is clearly more enjoyment and less fear within the band  – we have each learned our parts in a room full of other people learning theirs at the same rate of progress!

And so we arrive at our latest rehearsal, a warm late spring evening in early May. This is the last time we will have a chance to work directly with the composer and his mentor, Fraser Trainer, before the premiere in 10 days' time.  As a band we are excited to show off our interpretation of his piece to him, to indulge his senses in what we have made of his work, to help him fully experience his creation. We are proud of what we had achieved over the past weeks of practice and keen to get his feedback on how his work has matured in our care. A few minor amendments to balance later, and we are ready…the premiere awaits!

Southampton Concert Wind Band will premiere Jumpcut/Longshot at the Royal Victoria Country Hall, Southampton, Saturday 18 May 2019. Book tickets.


Follow Adopt a Composer groups and composers on social media:

Southampton Concert Wind BandTwitter / Facebook

Robert LaidlowTwitter / Facebook

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The Adopt a Composer project matches vocal and instrumental leisure-time music groups with some of the UK’s most promising composers to collaborate on creating a new piece of music. The project leads to a première performance and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. If you’re a music group or composer and you’d like to take part, find out more.