Rehearsal marks

While I’m grappling with the next choreography topic, I’d like to share something I recently learned about: rehearsal marks in handbell works. Rehearsal marks (typically letters) are used in orchestral works, so the conductor doesn’t have to wait while everyone finds, say, measure 213. S/he would refer to “Section G, 4 measures in” or “the pickup to section L.” They’re useful landmarks for working with others, like an accompanist or quartet partners, or someone learning new music.

Here’s what a rehearsal mark looks like:

Rehearsal mark example

(This is from Patrick Doyle’s ‘Non Nobis Domine,’ copyright © 1989 Air-Edel Associates Ltd, adapted for solo handbells with permission.)

I tend to memorize my handbell solos as I learn them, so I don’t think in terms of measure numbers. I do think in terms of sections, especially problem sections, so why not label them? It’s far more effective to work on problem areas than just do full run-throughs, both in rehearsal and in individual practice. Learning a piece and working on it in sections also allows more solid execution during performance. One principle of recovery is to move to a secure place in the music. It would be very difficult for a soloist to memorize the position of every bell on the table at every single beat of the music. However, it’s not hard to memorize what the table looks like at 4 or 6 specific points in a piece, and it’s essential for handbell soloists to do that. Those are logical points to establish rehearsal marks.

When working with my accompanist, I can tell her, “Let’s start at E,” or “next rehearsal, I’ll be ready to work on C and D.” We make it a rule not to stop for mistakes; we work through them to practice recovery, then go back and sort out the problem. As a result, we don’t have to stop in performance. If you do stop during performance (which I don’t recommend), you could communicate where you want to restart by rehearsal mark. I think it would be very difficult under the stress of that situation to recall measure numbers. A rehearsal mark gives you a point of reference that you are likely to recall, if you’ve been using it all along, and that your accompanist instantly understands, so you can move on.

I stumbled across this idea recently when two events converged. I’ve been working on a piece originally written for choir, and the source document had rehearsal marks. I transcribed the work into notation software (with permission from the copyright holder), and included the rehearsal marks. The piece is very repetitive, so I shortened it, and the measure numbers no longer matched. I wanted to be able to go back to the source document to compare it to my version (e.g. to correct an input error). My accompanist and I found ourselves referring to the sections, not the measure numbers.

Meanwhile, I was invited to substitute for a local bell director. His choir was rehearsing a piece adapted from an orchestral piece, complete with rehearsal marks. I had never noticed rehearsal marks in a bell choir piece, and I immediately realized how useful they might be. My theory is that bell choir music originated from pieces written for solo piano, which doesn’t generally have rehearsal marks. When people started writing specifically for handbell choirs, perhaps no one recognized that conventions developed for working with a musical group would help handbell choirs as well. I’m also told that because handbell pieces include all the measure numbers, rehearsal marks would be redundant. Personally, I see the need for a division of the piece larger than a single measure. I need all the help I can get!

If you’d like to use this idea, simply add letters (starting with A at the first full measure) to your score and your accompanist’s score. Use large capital letters and draw a box around them; make them highly visible. You can do this by hand, or in notation software; it’s command R in Sibelius. Place a new letter at each significant change in the music. That might be a new verse (e.g. of a song or hymn tune), a key change, or introduction of a countermelody. You can use as many letters as you like, even going into double letters if needed, but I would expect a typical 3-4 minute solo to go up to somewhere between D and F. If you have a lot more than that, consider grouping more phrases. Remember to develop a mental snapshot of what the table looks like at each letter, as you practice the piece on your own, so you can start at any letter in rehearsal. Also overlap the sections in practice, going at least one beat into the next section before stopping, so you can put the whole piece together for performance.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,