We rehearsed with the orchestra last night. We are behind the orchestra (from the audience’s point of view), so it looked different from the one I heard this weekend, and it sounded different as well, because it is the University Symphony Orchestra. They did a good job, though.

Adding the orchestra changes rehearsals. For one thing, you have to change the rehearsal order so you can do all the bits with brass and then send them home.

It doesn’t seem as though it could be a general principle, but I think that all the rehearsals with orchestra that I’ve ever attended involved doing the brass bits first so the players could leave. I had thought that it was a financial thing — like maybe the brass costs more than the rest of the sections or something — but these were students, and we still did it.

And then there are the communication issues.

Actually, our conductor is good with instruments and with voices. Sometimes you get a conductor who is good with instruments but doesn’t think about the physical requirements of human instruments. I worked with one who clearly thought of us as organ stops, which was an interesting and different experience. He used to have detailed technical conversations with the organist, while last night’s conductor just looked over at the harpsichord at one point and said, “Have you got anything else on that thing? A lute, maybe?”

There were the sotto voce conversations with the concertmaster, who happened to be the prof of the student symphony. Lines like, “Let’s hear tutti from the beginning this time, and then senza” are not heard in choral rehearsals. But that is not the communication issue I have in mind.

No. The big difference in adding the orchestra is finding your place in the music.

In a solo, you can say, “Let’s start at the A flat.” This will not work for things like Messiah, as there are way too many notes. In a choral piece, we often use the words, as in, “Begin at ‘He shall reign.'” This doesn’t actually work that well for Messiah. You may not be familiar with the piece, but you have probably heard of “The Hallelujah Chorus.” Click on that link for a YouTube where you can see the score as you hear the music, and you will notice that there is a whole lot of repetition. You would have to say things like, “Let’s begin at the 14th ‘Hallelujah’ in the bass line.” All the choruses are like that, so we don’t use the words as a reference point for Messiah. We do, however, use the titles of the choruses, as in “He shall purify” rather than “Number 17,” which is what the instruments use. (I don’t know whether number 17 is “He shall purify” or not, by the way.)

We generally use page numbers, and then measure numbers. (If you looked at that YouTube, you saw the music on the screen, and might have noticed that there are vertical lines dividing it up into little pieces. Each piece is a measure, and sometimes there are little numbers at the edges of the page so you don’t have to count from the beginning.) But the instrumentalists have different page numbers, or no page numbers. Sometimes they actually have more pages than we do, and our music has, as the conductor put it, “A big ol’ rest” for a while as they are strutting their stuff.

Indeed, the different instruments may have different page and measure numbers, for all I know.

The solution to this is the system of “rehearsal letters.” There will be, on all the different pieces of music, an “A” at the same point. That way, instead of saying, “measure 135,” you can just say, “10 measures after H” or whatever the case may be.

Then we all count over from the rehearsal letter.

Our conductor is a very courteous man. He could see the singers frowning over “Chorus number 17” and getting slightly panicky at the counting over. Not me, of course, because I am a calm person unless I am on a freeway, but there was a certain stress level involved. Some of the choruses are so dashed fast that there is a certain stress level involved just in trying to get all the notes in. Here is a YouTube of “He shall purify” which may give you some sense of this.

So, anyway, the conductor was switching back and forth for us. He’d say “I want a warmer vowel at measure 98” and then “Will you pull both the eighth notes with the bow at 6 measures before C.” At one point, he said, “Let’s go ahead to letter 2.” We all looked at him in consternation. From that point on, he said, “Letter K, as in 2” whenever we came to that part.

He is really a very nice man.

Today I have computer work, some customer service stuff to deal with, the gym, book club, class, bells, and choir. I have cinnamon rolls started in the bread machine, so my kids might not notice how scratched-together their dinners have been lately.

That’s the plan, at least.