Rehearsal: never quite enough!
Updated: Jan 30
As a musician I’ve had to do many seat-of-the-pants gigs over the years but a recent one made me wonder if adrenalin is what gets us through these potentially unnerving performances. Can too much rehearsal render our musical brains complacent?
It was yet another dreich, chilly Saturday morning, week before last, and I was up early getting organised for a gig in Aberdeen. Loading the car with instruments and gear – one large, heavy keyboard, a weighty 120 bass accordion, smallish keyboard amplifier, stands for keyboard and music, and gig bag full of leads and pedals – and the little Clio was beginning to sag.
With the gig at 4pm, I had declined the offer of accommodation in order to get home the same day. I aimed to arrive around lunchtime, allowing time to find my way around a city I’m not greatly familiar with, and then a brief rehearsal ahead of the event.
Iolaire Disaster: 100 Years On was part of Aberdeen University’s May Festival programme, and writer and friend, Donald S Murray, would be talking about the loss of HMY Iolaire on 1st January 1919 and reading from his acclaimed novel on the subject, As The Women Lay Dreaming. He had invited me to join him in the musical element of the show, along with songwriter Donald Anderson and Gaelic singer Donna Dale. As a great admirer of Donald’s writing, and knowing about the Iolaire from my own family, I didn’t hesitate.
With the A96 unusually quiet, it was an easy drive, albeit the wipers were working hard. I love how the countryside changes as you go east of Inverness, and houses gradually morph from sandstone to granite, the fertile farmland unrolling as you pass through Keith, Huntly, Inverurie. Eventually finding the right building on University campus, I was pleased to arrive almost on time.
Donald, Donald and Donna were already there, and I was delighted we’d been allocated a rehearsal room in the music department with a baby grand piano, meaning I did not have to carry my keyboard and amp up to the second floor. When you must habitually carry heavy tools of the trade, believe me, small atoms of joy like this are what can light up my day!
This was where the fun began because not having met these new musical friends before, we had also not rehearsed any of the material. Donald Anderson had sent through song files and I had duly worked out some piano and accordion parts, as well as practicing the two songs I was to sing, but we hadn’t put any of it together, got used to each other’s playing and singing, or harnessed any of the little things that comprise successful group performance.
Bands usually rehearse at least semi-regularly and so have most things nailed by the time they walk onstage, but individual players coming together for a show is different. Often there is very little budget to allow much rehearsal time, or simple logistics work against you, so what limited time you have is spent in complete concentration. There is nothing quite like knowing you have one single hour of rehearsal, prior to a performance, to focus the mind!
The adrenalin pumped as the clock ticked down and though I felt a little on edge as time drew close to packing up and getting to the venue, no-one panicked. We worked steadily through the songs, so by the time we reached Powis Community Centre and the audience started to arrive, we felt fine, confident even. I’ve learned from experience that bristling nerve ends keep me sharp and I knew I had to trust to instinct. Happily, the event went well; Donald’s talk and readings from his book were deeply moving and heart-rending, and we were thrilled, and relieved, the music had worked.
A word of caution to young musician readers – practice is not the same as rehearsal. Rehearsing for a performance is both desirable and essential, but when rehearsal time is limited, those long 10,000 hours of practice you already put in will serve you well!
(First published by Scottish Provincial Press 14th June 2019)