My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The danger of asking, "What's your tempo?"

Image from Wikimedia Commons
As an accompanist/collaborator type I ask this one question at the start of just about every musical encounter:  

"What's your tempo?"

It seems like a pretty straightforward question, doesn't it?  But it's surprising to me how frequently there is no real answer to the question, being answered instead by the not-so-desirable blank stare.  That's not very comforting or helpful, I have to say.  A step up from the blank stare is the metronome marking response - "I take it right at 47 per quarter note."  That's when I typically respond, "I'm sorry.  I'm not a metronome."  

Now before you say that I'm being unusually critical and negative spirited, let me say that I really do understand how hard it can be to answer my own question.  For years and years I felt like I was constantly pulling tempos out of thin air, hoping and praying that whatever came to me was something that would actually work.  I admit I was always guessing, which was definitely not conducive to feeling in control of my musical environment and even more scary, my performances.  I imagine my collaborators weren't so fond of my rabbit-out-of-the-hat tempos - sorry, dear collaborators - forgive me!  

So why is it such a hard question?  

I think it's a hard question because many of us are not really taught how to answer it.  Or perhaps there's this unspoken assumption that we, as musicians, are supposed to be walking metronomes, able to bring up a given metronome marking at any moment, in any situation whether it be nerve-ridden or not.  Well, I just don't think that's very realistic.  

Tired of dealing with all this tempo nebulousness, I decided that I needed to have a plan for myself when coming up with tempos, especially since as a collaborator I am often the one that has to start off a performance, hopefully with the "right" tempo for everyone involved.  Here's what I have come up with:

  • I find a passage in the movement or piece I'm playing that is made up of faster notes.  I find that with faster passages my fingers and body tend to fall into a tempo that enables me to play it in a comfortable, non-stressed manner.  If I'm accompanying someone else, I use as reference a passage the other person has to play or sing that can tend to give him or her trouble.  With singers, tricky passages tend to involve lots of words sung in quick succession or words that have a lot of consonants that have to be fit into a small space - think German words like, "Schloss" or "Angstschweiß."
  • I then take that tempo that I slipped into and go back to the beginning, remembering internally what that passage felt like and connecting a very concrete pulse with that tempo.  I then start the piece using that same pulse as my internal guide.  

More often than not, this method works quite well and gets a performance started on the right foot, and a comfortable one at that.  I have also found that taking the 20 to 30 seconds needed to do these steps prevents me from jumpstarting a performance too quickly which can also rattle some nerves.  Even better, it's simple and built on something concrete.  

Now when someone asks me, "What's your tempo?" I'm going to smile and say, "Listen to this.  This is my tempo."  

No more rabbits in my hat.  



  1. Oh, that blank stare -- I know it well.

  2. A well written blog....and I enjoy reading all of them. Starting following your writing when I got my first computer a few months ago. Enjoy the Bach WTC Bk. 2. I am working on E major, and also the 3 Preludes and Fugues by Clara Schumann. Working in a Pop/Rock band in the 1970's helped to develop a good sense of beat and tempo. My guitarist husband is equal to a metronome any day!!. Classically trained musicians who only play "solo" do not develop the same sense of listening as collaborative musicians. Keep up the excellent writing and playing. Nancie

  3. Hee hee, Billie. I'm not surprised you can relate!


  4. Nancie,
    I'm wondering if I could borrow your husband for a bit every now and then to remind me of how wonderful it is to have the pulse internalized by someone else. What a cool thing!

    And the E major Prelude - truly one of my favorites. So incredibly lyrical. I don't know the Clara Schumann so thank you for mentioning them. I will look for those.

    Many thanks for reading and taking the time to encourage and comment.

    Happy playing!


  5. I tend to do the same thing in terms of finding the trickiest passage to figure out the beginning tempo. I think it's a very good (and safe!) approach and I will continue to use it, but I find that the danger is that the less tricky stuff feels or just plain ol' IS slow. Along those lines I've been trying to incorporate the concept of ebb & flow at least a bit. Show me a recording that actually sticks to the beginning tempo! Of course that's a bit riskier in a collaborative effort where everyone has to be on the same page when it comes to how acheive that.

  6. Thank you for your comments, Tina. Funny you mention that slight danger because it's something I almost included in the post. I tend to use sections as reference that aren't the absolute hardest for that very reason - it can often make the whole performance too slow and for only a handful of notes, that's often not worth it. I try instead to choose a passage that's moderately challenging but that has a tempo that feels most right in my mind and body. That's the tempo I choose. Then for those most challenging sections I rely on the whole ebb and flow thing, like you said though I try to find a musical reason for the ebb and flow so that I don't do it for purely physical reasons.

    Good point! Thanks for bringing it up.

    Happy ebb and flowing :-)


  7. For some pieces (maybe many) the tempo is related to the style and form of the music -- for example, if it is based on a dance form. And composers usually do give some indication, too.

    I know it's anathema to many, but I like to use the metronome to ground myself and to try out different tempos to see which works best. I also like to practice at different tempos so it does not feel so mechanical -- like I am playing the piece purposefully, with some sense of discovery, instead of it rumbling along automatically.

    What I hate is playing with a group (chamber or orchestra) and starting at a good tempo but then drifting into another unintentionally -- if it should stay fast, it gets slow, and vice versa. It just kills the whole thing, IMO.

  8. I've read Ludwig van Beethoven was the first composer to use the metronome reflected in eight symphonies - it is suggested the metronome was created as a hearing devise which helped evolve music - if you have excellent hearing - can you discipline yourself to hear an imaginary tempo?

    sounds of silence

    as ever - great post Erica

  9. Erica:
    Your posts always inspire and stimulate thought and action. A story: I avoid the pitfalls of collaborative performance by my one rule: Never do it. Never, never, never, never, never. I don't care how excellent, accomplished, professional, or whateveh - I simply do NOT - Well, LOL - I was live on TV and during an interview (at the piano made a bit of ill-advised play with WolfgangAmadeusWillieNelson's tune CRAZY - there was an Okie Opry singer in the house - and everyone piped in that I could accompany her in the tune in the next segment. What could I do? Say "Oh no! Never Never Never Never Never" and stamp my foot? OMG (that's "Oh MY GAGA!") I reminded myself-do NOT ask her either What's your tempo? OR What's your key?
    There I was, couldn't even spell "Collaborative pianist" and suddenly I were one!
    You do the best work Erica! You are a constant light in my life and I thank you from the depths of my heart.

  10. Wayne,
    That's an incredible story - I so wish I could have been there to see the look on your face as you negotiated all that. And it's quite all right if you stick to your "Never, never, never, never, never..." line. You do so much for the world of music, the world of children...some others of us will cover the collaborative part of the show ;-)

    Thank you for sharing, Wayne, and as always for your encouragement.

    All the best,

  11. Harriet,
    I love your idea of trying out different tempos - such a good idea. And I find that in doing that I often get to a particular tempo and feel all the pieces and notes simply falling into place like it's the tempo that it's meant to be, at least for me and for that particular moment in time.

    And yes, I can totally relate to the frustation of feeling a tempo go down the wrong path. It can be so difficult to get out of those situations to and to find the best tempo again, especially when so many people are involved. I suppose that's why conductors can be so important. As long as they're good, that is!

    So good to hear from you again, Harriet!


  12. Five Reflections,
    Wow, what a perceptive, interesting question - "if you have excellent hearing - can you discipline yourself to hear an imaginary tempo?" Perhaps that could be a key for really listen deeply to hear that imaginary tempo. I think sometimes we rely on other things such as metronomes to find tempos but perhaps all we need are our ears.

    Thank you for your comments!


  13. Ah, but what about tempo changes (which I like to do in my music?

    What if a composer puts a tempo on the page but it sounds better slower or faster?

    A quartet played one of my pieces which has the effect of an accel. while maintaining the tempo. It's important to NOT increase (or decrease) the tempo because when they come out the syncopation is intense. So, they need to keep the internal beat in their heads. They didn't and the syncopation section sounded like a train-wreck.

    They smiled at me afterwards and said "that section didn't go so well, but otherwise how was it?"

    In a similar situation I was auditioning for a musical. I'd practiced the piece and had it down. When the pianist asked me my tempo, I tapped it out for him. He then played it about 10bbp faster, which was just enough to throw me off.

    The next year I practiced another piece at a variety of tempos so I made sure I could sing it at any tempo he set. Sure enough he played faster than I'd asked for, but I was able to stick with him and get through. I didn't get the part because I can't really sing - but I was able to get through the performance well enough!

    While I personally believe music should have a sense of rubato, knowing the kind of music I write this isn't always reasonable to ask of the musicians unless there's a conductor there to make the subtle shifts in tempo, and even that can be questionable in the more intense sections of music.

    In the end, I find if you really want to learn to keep a steady tempo - get a metronome. Practice the piece you want to play and determine what the metronome marking is. THEN - work it so you can play the piece at 2 clicks slower, 4 clicks slower, 8 click and eventually 16 clicks slower than you want - AND STAY IN TIME. Then do the same speeding the piece up to at least 8 clicks more than you felt the piece should be played at. The importance here is learning to be "mechanical" in your tempo. It isn't about always playing all the right notes, but making sure the stresses are always falling on the beat in line with the metronome.

    Session drummers do this to ensure when they have to play in on music they don't know they can keep a steady beat.


  14. Greetings, Chip.
    And thank you for your comments. I think your technique of being able to play a given piece at many different tempos is a fantastic one - I do that a lot in all sorts of different situations. When I'm nervous about something that's full of too many notes, I will often purposefully practice several clicks faster than I want to see how my body responds under that type of stress. I pay attention to what I have to leave out, what falls apart,'s very revealing! It also means that when I go back to the correct tempo, it feels more like a piece of cake. A good thing!

    I also like playing pieces too slow as well. I did that a lot in preparation for when I performed a concerto with an orchestra. It was a college/community orchestra so I knew that playing at a fast clip probably wouldn't be very realistic. And it's interesting to me how different a piece can feel at just a bit of a slower tempo. As long as it isn't too slow, it can really be quite acceptable musically, at least most of the time.

    Interesting comment about that quartet that performed your piece and voluntarily accelerated even though you had already written that into the part. I feel that Brahms does the same thing with slowing down - he writes it into the part in an incredibly ingenius way, without using tempo indications like "ritard." So as a performer if you impose a ritard on one of these passages, it never works and ends up just feeling and sounding pretty bad and awkward.

    And a final note, I wish I could have heard you sing on those auditions, hee hee! I would never be caught dead singing for any sort of audition!!