Monday, June 11, 2007

Organize Your Practice Time Like a Stage Director

In the last few years, I've played for quite a number of operatic productions. In each of them, one of the first things I notice is the deadline of opening night that looms over the entire rehearsal process (and has tens and often hundreds of thousands of dollars riding upon its success). Everything that happens is geared towards preparing for the opening. So when I arrive on the first day of rehearsal, I nearly always receive a detailed production schedule of the entire show from the first musical rehearsal to closing night.

After several years of working by this type of schedule in the theatre, I began to think--what if one were to schedule practice time in this way, with preparation for the public performance the ultimate guideline for where all the other steps begin from?

Here is a step-by-step, top-down process of how you could schedule your practice time in this way. In the real world, performers have a large number of rotating works and performances to prepare for but for this list we will include only one program for performance (oh, the luxury).

1. Determine all the performance dates for the program. These are the written-in-stone deadlines that will determine everything that happens before.

2. One week before the first performance of the program will be designated "tech week", in which the finishing touches will be applied, remaining problems fixed, and you do the dress rehearsal of the program. In many theatre productions, there is also a preview process--you can do this too by performing the program for a casual audience at least once to test out the program before the real thing. When I was at Eastman, Jean Barr insisted on not one, but three dress rehearsals before each doctoral student's lecture recital. Sure enough, her students excel.

3. Determine how long a time period you will need in order to learn and rehearse the entire program. In professional productions, rehearsals usually start 2-4 weeks before tech week, depending on the level of company and their operating budget. For your program, you should be thinking of starting to learn the music 4-12 months ahead of the first performance in order to adequately prepare.

4. Once you have the performance times and final rehearsals in place, write up a schedule for the steps in the process, ie. memorize 1 month before concert, all pieces learned 3 months before, music chosen 6 months before.

5. Once you have all the steps planned out, now you can allow yourself time to immerse yourself in the process of learning, discovery and exploration that are essential to moving forward artistically in addition to climbing the steps of the recital mountain.

In other words, the quality of the process is as important as the final product--having the steps mapped out can ensure your enjoyment of both getting to the final destination and enjoying the ride there.

Once you're a professional (even before that for collaborative artists), you'll need to be able to map out this type of process dozens of times in a season, with a multitude of overlapping concert dates both for yourself and your students.


  1. Anonymous2:07 PM

    Great idea, Chris! As you say, if only there were just one event to prepare for! Still, I think this is a very useful way of focusing one's practice time well in advance.
    I'm really enjoying all the useful tips and passing them on to clients also!
    Congrats on your new job too, by the way...

  2. Thanks, Valerie! It's not really a new job, more like a job within a job.

  3. Dear Chris,
    FABULOUS Blog. I'm an ex-opera singer, currently a Musik-Bibliothekarin in a big opera house in Germany. This season is the one from hell -- 51 different operas and ballets are being performed. We have 4 or 5 new young pianists on the staff, and they are completely overwhelmed. We've had several embarrassingly poorly played staging rehearsals of Walk├╝re, Cunning Vixen, etc. Our head conductor tells the pianists it would help if they ´knew the piece and thought of the harmonies instead of trying to read the music and play all the notes. Do you have any suggestions for a better approach to having to play masses of new music?? Thanks!

  4. Awesome comment, Cyndee. I answered your questions in a separate post and am also awaiting reader comments with further advice for your repetiteur squad:

  5. An extension of your idea (which I use frequently) is to divide the score by the characters who are singing together. For instance, with Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, you might spend time working on JUST the music that Fiordiligi and Dorabella sing together, then that of Ferrando and Guglielmo. It helps to acquaint with the character traits, and also makes the task of learning a large new score all at once much less intimidating.

  6. With regards to organizing your practice time, here’s a simple method to increase your repertoire easily. It has worked for me very effectively:

    • Make a list of the songs you’ve learned (particularly the ones you really like), and number them
    • Divide them into groups of 5. It’s easier to target groups of 5 than a list of 50 or 100 songs
    • Starting with the first group on your list, practice one song each day, or every other day
    • Continue with the second group in the same fashion, then the third group and so on
    • When you finish the last group, start over with the first group.

    Wish you success with your music!