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……