The 20 Second Rule

The concept is an ancient one- even in the Ice Age, bear pelt wearing maestri who conducted with mammoth teeth were instructed to talk little, stop rarely and let the other cave men play their saber tooth flutes in rehearsal.

However, it was my friend, bassoonist extraordinaire Chris MacFarlane who gave this practice a name- “The Twenty Second Rule.” The rule is simple- when a conductor stops the orchestra, she or he should be able to say whatever needs saying and have the orchestra playing again in 20 seconds.

It’s a noble principle, and when applied, everyone gets more done in rehearsal. It limits you to pretty much one point, which vastly increases the likelihood that said point will be remembered, and it keeps everyone’s focus levels high, rather than giving a minute or two for players to lose energy or forget what they had wanted to adjust in their own playing from the last time.

In theory, every orchestra I know is in favor of the 20 second Rule, mostly because it sharply limits how much talking a conductor can do. However, these days, I find that many players are so achingly desperate to ask about a bowing that the odds of them hearing that one point and the place you’re starting from in one hearing over 20 seconds is nil. Nevertheless, some people seem biologically compelled to begin asking questions the instant the conductor stops, demanding of the concertmaster “That bar where you changed the bowing then shook your head violently “No!” …. Should we write that change in? Wait, where did he say we’re starting from? Why did he stop? Where did you say he said he was starting from? What about that bowing? Damn it, why can’t he speak up, I don’t know where he’s starting from? What was that?”

It’s not unusual for someone to be asking about a bowing I am actually changing/deciding at that moment, completely oblivious to the fact that they are the only one on the orchestra who doesn’t know the answer to the question simply because they were so uninterested in what was being said because they JUST …..HAD……TO…….ASK…….. ABOUT ……….A …………..BOWING. After all, what is the use of stopping if you can’t tap the person in front of you on the shoulder.

Anyway, I got thinking about the 20 second rule yesterday in a different context. I try to completely separate my conducting and cello personalities- chamber music players tend to not like being bossed around, and there is so much about how one can go about rehearsing chamber music that is better than what is allowed with orchestra that I wouldn’t want to impose orchestra expectations.

Then, at one point in the day, I realized I was getting a little worried that something was wrong with the rehearsal. That little “you’re slipping into a bad pattern, dude” alarm went off. After a few more minutes I realized my brain was wanting us to use the 20 Second Rule. We’d stop because bar 16 wasn’t together, but even as we were deciding to start at bar 8, one of us would also want to change an articulation or get the countermelody louder. It wasn’t just that we were making exceptions to the 20 Second Rule, it was as if we had abolished it altogether….

Once I realized that was what was bothering me, I could relax a bit, but I started wondering if we should try for something like the 20 Second Rule in chamber music? Would it keep us more focused and productive, or would it stifle enquiry?

Should it apply to other things in life as well? “Honey, you’re burning the chicken. Can you flip it and continue cooking from figure 8 please?”

I certainly appreciate people who can order their drinks or food in 20 seconds or less. No order should ever begin with the word “Um……” and, unless you have a dangerous food allergy, you should never order by saying “I was wondering……. can I get the ______ without the _________” unless you can complete the transaction in 20 seconds or less…..

I still haven’t decided about the 20 Second Rule in chamber music. Some of my favorite chamber music colleagues, ones with decades of experience, seem to have learned the value of saying little and playing much, but on the other hand, chamber music work ought to allow us all a little more room to be quirky and opinionated than orchestral work does.

Okay, that’s today’s blog. Now back to bar 8.

But first, about that bowing….. When you were shaking your head, did that mean……

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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5 comments on “The 20 Second Rule”

  1. ComposerBastard

    20 second rule as I understand it deals with “promotions”

    There’s also the 20 minute rule which applies to “meetings” and also giving “speeches” in public.

    Maybe composers should stick to 20 second rules in writing? Or maybe that should be a 4 minute rule….hmmm got me thinking.

    Mapbe blog posts should be restricted to 20 seconds.

    Maybe comments to blogs should be restricted to 20 seconds…If thats true I have overstayed my welcome

  2. Michael Monroe

    I’ve been trying to be more disciplined about how much I talk during students’ lessons; a 20-second rule might help, at least when we’re working through a piece. When I first started teaching, I tended to assume the students were paying for words, so the more I said, the better. I’ve slowly learned that, while there’s always something more to say, the student often does better when I’m mostly listening, especially because, as you said, one idea is likely to stick better than dozens.

    I actually learned this some from my watching my daughter’s lessons with a very old-school Russian violin teacher. The teacher is not mean or intimidating, but she controls focus by speaking minimally and quietly, and by listening intently. I’m amazed at how she’ll patiently listen to my daughter painfully sightread her way all the way through a new etude. It’s probably true that the teacher’s below-average English contributes to her approach, but my daughter has done so much better than she did with a previous teacher who was always “on,” always joking, always coming up with clever analogies, always “teaching.” With the new teacher, the communication is often accomplished with simple redirections while playing, or with little gestural reminders about shoulder, arm, bow-hold, etc.

    As for composerbastard’s comments, maybe we can all use Twitter as a model. The 140-character limit drives me crazy, and it’s not good for substantive, nuanced arguments, but I’m often amazed at how it helps me distill an idea. Ken, maybe you could start Twittering your rehearsal comments onto a big screen that the orchestra could see! (OK, that’s a bad idea, but I had an amazing class experience in which I had laryngitis, so I showed an opera DVD while typing running commentary off in a side window. It was quite successful, and allowed the music to be heard without my blabbering over the top.)

  3. Elaine Fine

    I like the 20 second rule, and think it could apply well in chamber music. Actually, the best chamber music rehearsals I have had have involved 20 seconds of discussion as a maximum for a given situation, and perhaps 200 seconds of action to collectively reinforce those 20 seconds of discussion.

    In chamber music “play it, don’t say it” tends to be extremely effective.

  4. Paul H. Muller

    I play in a university orchestra and we have student conductors from time to time and it is always amazing that they will stop us playing and then not tell us why. It is a trial by fire, they are learning and we are all very sympathetic, but if you are just starting out as a conductor be sure you can explain – in less than 20 seconds – whaT you want changed or played differently. Also, repeat the starting measure at least twice, and loud enough so us old guys in the back row of the brass section can hear it.

    The thing that I find distracting as a player is when some second clarinet player or third violin asks the conductor a question directly. The players should always consult with the principal first, and let him ask the conductor for clarification. This keeps the chatter to a minimum.

    The chamber groups I have played with are much more informal. Anyone can ask a question or ask to go over a passage, but the director starts and stops the playing. This seems to work and I believe it is all done within 20 seconds.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi everyone and thanks so much for the comments.

    Interestingly, none of the other guys read this post until after the tour and I decided not to say anything, but as the week went on, we gravitated much more towards the 20 second rule, and the rehearsals got better and better. Paul- you are absolutely right that it is generally inappropriate for non principal players to ask questions of the conductor in rehearsal for many reasons- more often than not, the principal knows the answer and time can thus be saved. The exception is the Berlin Phil, where all players are expected and required to speak up in rehearsals or lose their jobs!


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