musicians sat in a small untidy room with various musical instruments

© Andrew Ellis

Whether musicians perform in a stadium or in a room above a pub, the quality of their performance depends partly on how well they have rehearsed. In rehearsals musicians hone their stage act and work on musical togetherness and on the ordering and dynamics of their live performances.

All major cities have rehearsal studios, often old warehouses that have been converted into a warren of practice rooms. Bands and solo performers rent these rooms and usually spend hours in them developing their live sets, sometimes for months before an important tour. Cohen (1991), for example, describes the contrasting rehearsal strategies of rock bands in Liverpool's Vulcan and Ministry rehearsal studios during the mid 1980s.

The rehearsal room is where key performance issues are worked through by musicians. Perhaps the most crucial element of this process is that it allows musicians to improve their ensemble skills through working with other musicians. Musicians and audiences often talk about bands being 'tight' and rehearsals are where this tightness - a form of musical and visual togetherness and unity - is formed and communication between members of a band is developed. The key is to get the band to sound as together as possible in terms of timing (all elements of the band are in time with the flow of the music), dynamics and expression (so the band collectively give emphasis and light and shade to the material). Rehearsals also allow band members to familiarise themselves with the song structures and individual parts. The repeated nature of the rehearsal process means that these elements can become hardwired into the musician's brain making them seem almost 'natural'. As the psychologist Caroline Palmer (1997: 117) notes, "performing music... [is] among[st] the most complex forms of skilled serial action produced by human beings", and psychologists "often use music performance as the ultimate example of human motor skill".

Rehearsals are also where an act's stage show is worked out. The sequencing of a live set is important. Whatever type of music they play, musicians need to begin a performance confidently and with a song that immediately grabs the audience's attention. Once they have got that attention, they have to make sure they keep it by taking the audience on a journey through their material. The order of the songs is key so that there is impact with the opening number, a smooth flow between fast and slow songs and the pacing of songs that are very similar to each other. The set often ends on a dramatic note so that the audience is left wanting more.

To sequence a set effectively takes many hours of rehearsal. Bands may play low-key secret gigs before a major tour to try out the set. This is a form of live rehearsal allowing the sequence of songs to be fine-tuned and the technical dimensions of the show to be tried out. This means making sure that sound engineers can quickly adjust amplification settings; that lighting engineers know the exact pattern required for each song; and that music technicians can quickly and efficiently change guitars and other instruments during the show.

Oddly, sometimes acts can seem over-rehearsed. Despite the fact that all audiences want to be entertained, part of the pleasure of going to a gig is wanting and expecting it to be a special occasion. To deliver a good show the front person - usually the lead singer - makes contact with the audience. Deciding how to introduce songs, and sometimes band members, is part of the show and needs to be rehearsed. Too often however, singers stick to a well-rehearsed script, and if every aspect of the show is running smoothly a performance can end up seeming soul-less. By definition spontaneity can't be rehearsed, so some aspects of the performance are best left for the night itself.