We conductors nearly all talk too much in rehearsal; we seem to be hard-wired to respond to mistakes by explaining something. We should resist that temptation, because explanations are usually unnecessary and a waste of valuable rehearsal time.

When we have to stop in rehearsal, I strongly believe in the 85/15 rule: 85% of the time, we should be back making music in 15 seconds or less. The key is 1) clearly and succinctly articulating why we’ve stopped, and 2) immediately resuming playing.

Some routine examples of how to do that:

“Low brasses, a little lighter please; let’s go two before F.” That takes five seconds.

“Flutes, not quite so much separation in the line after letter E. Three before E please?” Seven seconds.

“Trumpets, intonation please at letter B. We’ll start right at B.” Four seconds.

“That attack wasn’t quite together; let’s go again please from four before A.” Five seconds.

I once watched a conductor stop because of a poor attack, drop his hands, settle back in his conducting chair, and launch himself into a classic self-serving, time-wasting soliloquy. “That attack wasn’t together. Attacks have to be together, because the spark created by good attacks is what makes good performances exciting. When attacks aren’t together, even though an audience might not realize exactly…” and he was off to the races while his players’ eyes glazed over.

Even if this had been one of the few times (the 15%) when something did need explaining, efficiency should still have been the guiding principle. We really have to resist our human tendency to get carried away with the sound of our own voices.

Here’s an example of how to effectively explain an important concept while still keeping it short:

“Saxes, the clarinets have the line; please don’t compete with them. Every time you play, your style, sound, and volume should say to the audience either ‘Listen to me’ or ‘Listen to someone else.’ In this spot, we’re looking for ‘Listen to someone else.’ OK, let’s go from the third bar of D.” Even this example of both explaining what we want and teaching a concept takes only about 20 seconds. The key is keeping the additional explanation short, simple, and memorable.

But even if we get good at short, effective explanations, “unnecessary” trumps “short and effective” every time; if it doesn’t need to be said, don’t say it. Or, as the old maxim goes, “There is no greater sin than doing well that which should never have been done in the first place.”

Remember, the players usually know how to fix a given problem; they don’t need us to explain everything. They just need us to say why we stopped and then give them another chance to play the passage. It’s amazing how often merely playing it again will fix it.

I really believe that talking too much is the single most prevalent rehearsal mistake we make. We have limited opportunities per rehearsal to make our points, so we need to pick and articulate those points carefully, or we start to “lose” our players.

I’ve read that baseball infielders hate playing behind a slow pitcher, because it’s so much harder to stay in the flow of the game. After every pitch, they go back on their heels both physically and mentally, and they have to “get back in the game” after every pitch. That’s a perfect analogy for ensemble musicians in rehearsal; a slow, tedious rehearsal with a lot of talking makes it a lot harder for them to “stay in the game.”

So stop only when you must, and get moving again immediately. You’ll accomplish much more, and your players will really appreciate it!