keeping the tempo

Another favorite subject, apart from trills, for musicians to get really upset about is the question of tempo. Here I do not mean absolute tempo, but rather two things:

The ability to produce varying note values within a piece to the same, unchanging beat, and

The willingness and skill to enable the other players to play together with oneself while not giving up one’s own musicality.

Most musicians are rock-sure that they play at a stable pace, and they get very angry when this is challenged. This is most unfortunate because the problem of getting things together is ubiquitous, and is usually a matter of tempo stability. I would claim that any group rehearsal of any concerto by Vivaldi (for example) earlier or later will produce a discussion about tempo. Keeping the beat is, in fact, difficult.

The usual way out, with a sigh, is the metronome. I do not like the metronome in ensemble rehearsing. It reduces the already upset musicians to reproduction machines, and at the end it shows only one thing: we perform more regularly when we are kicked along by some external force. In the wake of such a metronome session, the old argument that the device counteracts musicality gets new fuel. But why does it do this? Because, in facing the tick (or plop or bleep) that never is wrong, we completely give up ourselves; we start acting like a congregation of bulls staring at a red dot (angry and paralysed) – all the benefits of rehearsing in an ensemble are abandoned, and no learning advantage is being put in their place. Mooh.

Preparing for tempo issues requires something of a Clouseau-esque attitude: “I will handle this — aleune.” Because homework is solitary, we will, however, have to devise manners of interactiveness that help us understand where the problems lie and enable us to train ourselves in a manner that, during the next rehearsal, will be helpful. Home training with the metronome does not have the function of preparing oneself for proving one’s point at the next rehearsal. What can it teach us instead?

1) it helps me to find those passages I cannot (yet) play in the required tempo. The solution here is a simple matter of noticing and stepwise working towards a goal.

2) it helps me to find passages that are unstable. They could, for example, begin or end too slowly, or too fast. Such defects are at the root of the most typical ensemble problems, and they are often very difficult to detect. Working with the metronome to find these irregularities requires a lot of patience, a keen ear and a very acute mindset. All these requirements are virtually excluded if one, in the traditional brain-dead manner, plods along with the tick until ‘it’ seems to sound a bit more regular. One has to have clear questions in mind before one starts playing a certain passage against the metronome: Where do I anticipate – where do I hear – deviations from the beat? Are they all caused by the same thing, or do I retard at one spot but speed up at another? Is my retarding or speeding-up caused by a technical issue or is it a matter of not being musically prepared?

Eventually, one will be able to single out a few bars or half bars that perhaps upset the tempo stability of an entire line or more. This work takes time and, as said before, utter concentration. It is, in fact, only fair to seek these matters out at home: nobody wants to wait all that time only to witness acts of self-confrontation under a magnifying glass.

3) it helps me to identify those moments in the music, where it (the metronome) is totally out of place. Some parts of the music just die if played metronomically. The metronome may be always right, but one must know when it has to shut up.

Suddenly we have arrived at the matter of musicality. I made a very simple test. I practiced, and subsequently recorded, the violin part of an allegro of a Bach sonata. In this, I took care to avoid any excessive rubato, while trying to play musically nevertheless (in fact, I counted in my mind like a maniac). Then I played this recording to myself and attempted to play the obbligato part on the harpsichord to it.

It was impossible. I had to dismantle the piece phrase per phrase in order to learn how to reconcile these two manifestations of my own musicality. Then I turned the whole exercise around; I recorded the harpsichord part and re-played it while trying to fit in the violin part. Unsurprisingly, this went quite somewhat better, but there were still moments of unexpected disagreement between me and me.

This example shows how utterly ridiculous it is if people, who are confronted with ensemble requests, get huffy and fight for their artistic integrity. At whom was I supposed to get angry now? At myself, at myself, or at Bach?

The technique of playing to one’s recordings is especially accessible for violin players. Just record one part and play the other: you will be surprised just how musical you are. Do defend your artistic integrity: against yourself.

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