Ask more, tell less

The path to musical nirvana starts with a single question. And the path to musical hell starts with telling the ensemble what to do.

We know it's a good idea to untie our shoes before we take them off.

But after a long day, lots of us just can't be bothered. We force them off, feel deep relief and don't think of it again.

Until, months later, you notice a weird wear patch where you've been repeatedly pushing them off each night. Or maybe they've stretched and don't fit so well. Or the heel is collapsed and broken.

In Alexander Technique this is called end-gaining. Disregarding the means (wrecking your shoes) in the haste to get to the end goal (foot freedom!).

When we're solely (see what I did there?) focussed on the goal we'll stop at nothing, regardless of the process we use to get there.

The downside is that when we disregard the process our success is actually a crapshoot. We might reach the goal we're focussing on, but by leaving the process up to chance it's a complete gamble.

On the flip side, if we focus on achieving our goals through good processes our success is far more likely.

So what does this have to do with conducting and rehearsing?

Short term gain, long term cost

Generally, conductors like to talk. We have lots of knowledge to share, insights and clear ideas about how the music should sound. However, telling our ensemble everything we know might in fact be stifling their growth.

The trap is simple:

The more I tell them what to do, the quicker the results seem. (The sweet relief of forcing your shoes off).

The more I ask questions, the slower the progress appears. (The agonising wait of untying your shoes).

These perceptions are real in the moment. However when we zoom out to consider their impact over time it's a different story.

When we ask for "trumpets, play quieter here" they generally play less, and the problem appears solved. Ditto for "use more air", "play what's written on the page", "sound more anguished here" and so on.

However, when we come to the exact same passage five seconds, minutes, days, or months later we're often back to square one. The information hasn't stuck.

And so we say again: "Trumpets, play quieter here".

Over time, we get frustrated: "Trumpets, FOR THE 100TH TIME, play quieter here, PLEASE!"

What seems like a quick fix in the moment, ends up being many ineffectual 'quick' fixes which amount to a LOT of wasted time and not much progress.

Short term cost, long term gain

On the other hand, when we ask questions the pace of improvement can seem unbearable.

"Trumpets, who has the melody here?" often results in stunned looks, shrugs and "I dunno". And so we need to invest more time to say "OK, this time while you're playing, listen for who has the melody here". Then we invest more time playing it again.

Often it takes several more play throughs to help the trumpets (and everyone else) to expand their awareness beyond themselves to understand where the melody is.

Once they can hear it they often adjust their volume to compensate. However if they don't another round of questioning might ensue:

"If the violas have the melody, what do you need to do?"

You might require even more questions of others in the ensemble:

"Violins, can you hear the violas clearly compared to the trumpets?"

"What do the trumpets need to do so we can hear the violas? Why?"

All of this is more time up front.

Compared to the seeming instant results of "Trumpets, play quieter", questioning feels like a monumental investment of time we just can't afford.

That voice in our head says: "Come on, folks, the concert is coming up and we're really not ready. We can't waste time with this learning business!"

We're are unwilling to take the pain of the up front investment to get the long term rewards later - because the pain in the moment of "what if the concert is a disaster" is deeper and more imminent.

However, when we do choose to invest in the learning process those long term results are enduring.

The pay off

If we've invested in asking questions, the next time we ask "Who has the melody here?" the musicians have a principle and a process to fall back on:

"When I know who has the melody I can adjust my playing to ensure it is clearly heard"

Through direct experience, experimentation and failure, they have discovered how they can have a positive impact on the sound of the ensemble. (Yep, experience, experimentation and failure all take lots of time!)

When we keep reinforcing this understanding by continuing to ask questions (rather than instructing), eventually these principles and processes become second nature. This happens even more quickly when we give praise for the processes before the outcome:

"Trumpets you did such a good job at listening for the viola melody, and now the music makes so much more sense to the audience"

Nirvana or nightmare - it's your choice

Just think back to your own ensemble experiences. Once upon a time you didn't know how to play in time, in tune or in balance with others. Now you automatically adjust your playing/singing in the moment to fit in with those around you.

The only reason you're capable of doing this is because you learned why, how and when to make those adjustments on your own. Then you repeated it enough times for it to become automated.

We all dream of a day when we get to direct ensembles that are full of people like us and our colleagues. "If only my ensemble could...(insert dream skills)".

If we really dissect what is at the heart of these dreams I believe it's this:

We wish for an ensemble of independent, thoughtful, aware musicians who take responsibility for their contribution.

The path to this musical nirvana is really very straightforward:

Asking questions promotes individual decision-making, responsibility, independence and constant improvement.

So is the path to musical nightmares:

Telling ultimately promotes dependence, inertia, disengagement, carelessness and thoughtlessness.

Small actions, consistently taken

If you're an end-gainer and decide you'd finally like to start untying your shoes (or asking questions) you're unlikely to make an instant change. It's not how we humans work. Change is messy, fraught, and it takes a lot of repetitions to change a long-held habit.

Our best chance for change is to take small, consistent actions.

  1. Pick one thing you tell your ensemble to do a lot
  2. Transform it into a question
  3. Put it on a post-it note on your score or music stand
  4. Ask the question
  5. Notice how it goes
  6. Repeat steps 1-4 next rehearsal

Just asking one question per rehearsal over time (even the same one over and over) will help the practice become more familiar and easier.

If you need some negative reinforcement you could do this:

We will fall off the wagon and revert to telling mode. It happens to all of us, especially if we feel time pressure. Just know that it will happen and make the choice to dust yourself off and begin again.

Ask a question at the next rehearsal and keep stepping toward that musical nirvana.


  • When we focus on the destination, not the journey, learning actually suffers
  • Telling and direct instructing feels like a quick win but ultimately leads to dependence on us for all the answers and lack of engagement
  • Asking questions promotes ensemble members to think for themselves and be active musical decision-makers
  • Questioning requires more up-front investment but results in a long term pay off: getting you closer to ensemble nirvana
  • Incorporate just one question in each rehearsal to start seeing and hearing results (be patient!)

This part of a series of posts related to our 2022 Calendar which features monthly topics to challenge and inspire you to grow your capacity. If you haven't got yours (it's FREE!), get it here.

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