On the Control of Tempo

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I wrote recently about how hot weather has been challenging the capacities of some vocal ensembles in the UK to control tempo. And I said that I was seeing this as a good opportunity to develop techniques to help people control this. So I thought it might be useful to do a quick follow-up with some practical ideas on the subject.

First, a general point. I spend a lot of my life pointing out that it's at the place where we can't quite do something that we grow. Hence, one of the reasons it is valuable to exercise our skills in varying and challenging circumstances is both to stretch ourselves in the dimensions we are not used to being stretched, and thereby to discover which skills we need to develop in more depth.

Technique is something we need for the bad days. On the days when our intuitive musicianship is in the groove and everything works effortlessly are wonderful (and our reward for the grafts on the days when this doesn't happen), but we need the wherewithal to sort things out by conscious intervention when they're not happening by themselves.

We can do this by applying the Inner Game principles of Awareness and Will.

Awareness is how you develop perception of a musical element. Rather than the director always being the one to say, 'We're slowing down here!', we need to get the whole ensemble alert to what's happening. Rehearsal tactics to support this could include:

  • Having singers take turns to sit out with a score and mark where they notice the ensemble getting either faster or slower, then comparing notes
  • Having the ensemble sing with their eyes closed, and then assess on a scale of -5 to +5 what happened to the tempo
  • Include tempo control explicitly as a dimension to comment on in duetting

The point with these exercises is not to do anything about the results, but just to practice noticing.

Will is how you take control of a musical element. You practice manipulating it, often in quite extreme ways compared to the adjustments you need to make in regular rehearsal, in order to develop the capacity to control it consciously. Rehearsal tactics here could include:

  • Toggling between two strikingly different tempi
  • Having singers take it in turn to start the song at different speeds
  • Having an imaginary dial for singers to change the speed as they sing - like a toggle switch in its use, but offering a continuous, scaled range of options, rather than a binary pair

Another thing worth considering with tempo is how it interacts with feel, or groove (march, swing, Latin, minuet, waltz, rock, funk). These are distinct musical elements, but they influence each other. If you speed up a minuet enough, you will find yourself with a Viennese waltz; if you slow down a sling swing, you'll also find the pulse loosening off into a follow-through feel.

Hence, playing with a piece using different rhythmic styles also indirectly supports the overall capacity to maintain tempo.

One of the classic ways for a group to lose tempo (other than being too hot!) is hesitancy, a slight 'after you, after you' approach to singing. We need to encourage everyone to lead a little more. The passing round of leadership in the various Inner Game exercises is intended to support this, and singing with eyes closed likewise can help.

Rehearsal tactics that remove some of the comforting blanket of sound that people have been resting in and that make each singer step up to the mark a bit more are also useful: duetting, splitting a choir into mini-choirs, quartetting.

As is often the case, you start off looking at what you think is a musical element, and you end up finding yourself dealing with singer psychology. But you do need to work at both ends of this equation. A choir full of proactive singers still needs an understanding of tempo and its expressive impact; a choir with the technical capacity to change speed at will still needs to step into the breach together.

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