In rehearsal it is important to speak loudly and clearly. The musicians need to be able to hear and understand you without difficulty. If you are in a small room with an ensemble of 8 musicians, you may not need too much adjustment from your normal speaking voice. If you are talking to a large orchestra of 80 in a large, resonant acoustic, with people to the side of you as well as in front, you will need to speak slowly and with projection. This might sound trivial, but if the musicians can’t hear what you are saying they either have to interrupt and ask you to repeat yourself (frustrating, and wastes valuable time) or they just ignore you – obviously not what you want!
A useful exercise is to take a friend or colleague into a large hall and practise speaking to each other from opposite corners of the space.
Too Many Words
You may have found long sentences particularly difficult to understand in the sort of environment described in the previous section. This leads to another piece of advice about communication: avoid speaking too much. If you ask musicians in orchestras or bands what annoys them most about conductors, at or very near the top of the list is always something about stopping too often, talking too much, and not letting the orchestra play. Or, as a violinist in an American professional orchestra is once reputed to have said:
“Give a musician a baton and it goes to their mouth.”
Think about how you can make yourself understood in as few words as possible, while still being polite and positive and using words like please and thank-you.
Sir Mark Elder recommends dispensing with verbs whenever possible:
“Trumpets. Letter H. Softer please” as opposed to “Trumpets, please could you play softer at letter H”.
Again, this may seem trivial, but there is a finite number of words that musicians will listen to in a rehearsal so it is important not to waste them. Our goal should always be to communicate as much information as possible with gesture, while the musicians are playing.
When you do stop to speak, follow these rules for imparting information:
- Wait until everyone has stopped playing before you say anything
- If you need to check a detail or place in the score, do that before you speak so that you are not looking down while talking
- First say who you are talking to (the whole group? Just the sopranos? Only the percussion section?) then where are you talking about (the beginning, the end, bar 749…) then what you want to correct or change
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, after letter Q it’s too loud trombones.”
- It is not clear until the very end of the sentence who the information is aimed at
- When the players finally realise you are counting from letter Q they probably miss the information you are trying to impart because when you are saying it they’re counting 11 bars after Q
- It uses negative language
“Trombones…. Before letter Q… One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. A little softer please.”
- It identifies at the start who the information is aimed at, meaning everyone else doesn’t have to concentrate
- Identify the landmark and whether counting before or after, count out loud so everyone arrives there at the same time, meaning that the information can be communicated effectively
- It uses positive language – asking them to play ‘more softly’ rather than ‘less loud’