|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.