One of the most common questions I get about solos and excerpts is “What tempo do you take for ______”. If I had a dollar for how many times I’ve been asked how fast I take Porgy and Bess… Sometimes the answer is easy and sometimes it’s not. Since this is such a common dilemma I figured a blog post was in order.
While the metronome is one of the most valuable tools a musician can use, I do not like using beats per minute when answering the tempo question. Sure I could say “Play Porgy and Bess at 115 bpm”, but that doesn’t really help in the long run. Remember, the metronome is just a tool and you won’t have it in the performance! If I have a very clear image in my head of style, attitude, and musical goals; I actually arrive at my ideal tempo more often than if I try to pull 115 right out of the air. Sure one day it might be 113 and the next it might be 117 but I am much more consistent when focusing on musical ideas than tempo markings.
- Using Recordings
Most people go immediately to YouTube or audio recordings to check the tempo someone else took for a solo or excerpt. I do as well! However, this is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle. Sometimes I leave my research with more questions than answers! Let’s say we listen to 6 recordings and the tempos are 86, 90, 92, 100, 96, and 87. Hardly a clear picture. Rather than just taking the average and deciding upon 93 or so, I use this information and allow it to confirm my ultimate choice. Let’s say this excerpt is laid back and heavy in style. Perhaps, that means I want to take it on the slower side to show that weight. Maybe 89 is best as it is slower, but not the slowest. What if the excerpt is light and energetic? Perhaps leaning towards the top end of the range is appropriate. Say, 96? I see recordings as very valuable, but not the definitive resource. Even if I’m auditioning for the Chicago Symphony, I shouldn’t take the tempo they took with Barenboim on a recording. Maybe the rest of the musicians hated that tempo. What if it is totally contrary to every thought I have about the piece? What if only half the committee even played on that recording? Just because a great orchestra took 1 piece at 1 tempo, doesn’t mean you should. Let style and musical decisions guide your way rather than 1 example.
- The room
The room you are performing in can have an influence on your ideal tempo. I remember I took an audition in high school for All-State and the timpani part of the audition was in the auto shop. No lie…. Talk about a less than ideal environment. If the room you are playing in is small and extremely dry, perhaps you might want to take a tempo slightly quicker so you don’t sound too naked. In contrast, if the room you are playing in is large and boomy, perhaps you want to take your tempo slightly slower so the panel can actually hear every note you are playing. These recommendations are slight and should not change the overall style you are going for. You don’t want to be thought of as insensitive to the space, but you also want to be true to yourself.
- You are playing by yourself
When playing an ensemble work by yourself (an excerpt), the tempo most orchestras take may not sound as representative when playing the part solo. For instance, it can be hard to get 90 musicians to fly through the beginning of Carnival Overture. The train just moves slower with 90 people on it as opposed to just 1. I like to take Carnival slightly faster than most recordings because I don’t have to worry about anyone else keeping up. This also helps the character I’m going for of light and energetic. On the flip side, an excerpt might sound better slightly slower than when played in the group because it can demonstrate control.
- How do all of your tempos relate?
In an audition setting you are playing multiple excerpts, from multiple pieces, representing many styles, in very quick succession. For example, let’s say you are playing 12 excerpts in a round. If 5 of those are right in the middle of the “acceptable tempo” range and 7 are on the “slightly quicker” than normal range, you might be perceived as nervous or out of control by the panel. While I would never change your philosophy greatly on any particular excerpt, I would recommend looking at all of them in total and ask yourself “Am I talking too large a percentage on the fast side?” Or… “Am I taking too large a percentage on the slow side?” You can use quicker or slower tempos to help you represent character extremely well, but if you always tend to lean to the fast or slow side, it can be seen more as a tendency than a conscious choice.
- What tempo can you actually execute consistently?
If your Bach solo just doesn’t feel comfortable at the tempo other colleagues are taking it, then why try to fly too close to the sun and risk failure? The example I use to students is imagine you are standing next to a 100 ft cliff. If I asked you to stand with your toes hanging off the edge you would be pretty nervous! Especially if a strong breeze came by. But if I then asked you to take a step and a half backwards, all the sudden your comfort level would increase dramatically. It’s the same with your tempo. If your marimba solo or excerpt just doesn’t feel comfortable, just back off 3-4 clicks and see if that changes things. It may not change the style as much as you think and you will gain a lot more points in execution than you might lose from a less than ideal tempo.
- If there is a tempo change, make it obvious.
This falls under the category of our perception vs. our listener’s perception. The listener often needs help hearing the subtle dynamic and tempo changes we are trying to make. Sure subtly is important, but if the music has an obvious tempo change, make your tempo change obvious. A few clicks may not be enough. You don’t want the panel to ask the question “are they rushing or was that a tempo change?”
- When should you play the performance practice and when shouldn’t you?
This is a case by case basis obviously but hopefully I can give you some tools to help decide. My first instinct is to always play the ink. That’s what the committee is looking at and it’s hard to argue against it. However, there are instances when deviating from the ink makes sense. The second lick of Shostakovich’s Polka doesn’t say to accel but every performance does. If you make your accel obvious (see #6) the panel will understand what you are doing. Sometimes a change can be too much of a risk. The part could be really obscure and you may know more about it than the panel. For instance, the glock part to Magic Flute is extremely loud in the opera. There is a lot going on onstage and for it to be heard it has to be played out. If you played the part in an audition “mf” however, it would be in such stark contrast to everyone else, you will probably lose some points.
There are other times in which the choice can be much tougher to decide. The opening of Pines of Rome does not indicate a tempo change when the meter switches to 3/8, however, every single performance of this changes tempo. I know because I’ve played it many times and I’ve listened to tons of recordings. The spreadsheet below depicts the tempos of 9 different recordings of major symphony orchestras. This may seem obvious to make the tempo change, however, since there are rests at the meter change and the panel may not be thinking in the same manner you are, they may question why your time got bad all the sudden. This is a tricky one for me because I have to put trust in the committee to remember the performance practice. I don’t have a definitive decision for you however this transitions me perfectly to #8.
- When you make a decision, stick to it!
To make the best impression in a performance or audition, you want to appear as confident as possible. This means right or wrong, executing the decisions you made in the practice room as accurately as possible. Even if the committee doesn’t agree with your interpretation, they would rather hear a confident one they can understand then a half-hearted effort that might even sound apologetic. In an audition they can always ask you to play it differently. The committee may know tendencies of the hall or the orchestra that you don’t, so if they ask you to play something differently take it as a good sign! They want to hear more! So once those decisions are made, stick to them!
- In the practice room, don’t be afraid to practice slightly over tempo.
We all know the benefits of slow practice. Your first music teacher probably explained that to you, but we rarely talk about practicing “over tempo”. If I told you, you could win $300 if you could lift 200 lbs off the ground, would you train and stop right at 200 lbs? No! You would train so that you could comfortably lift 200 lbs off the ground even when you weren’t feeling your best. The same can be applied to tempo. If you are playing a tricky xylophone excerpt that needs to sound light and effortless, why not try practicing 10 clicks above tempo and then backing off so the ideal tempo actually IS easier. If you find you are slowing down in the trickier passages but maintaining tempo in the straightforward sections, practice a few clicks over to get better at moving through the tough stuff. This is not something I would recommend doing for a large percentage of your practice time because bad habits could form and the feel could change too dramatically, but it is definitely a tool that can be very useful!
- Finally, what tempo do YOU like the most?
Choosing an ultimate tempo can be tricky and there are lots of factors to consider (clearly…) but ultimately YOU have to make the decision. YOU have to take ownership of the performance and feel like it represents YOU. Ok, enough with the all caps… you get my point. If you go through this process and find that you just like Colas slightly quicker than others, then go for it! If you think the solo in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra should be slower, then go for it! All of these choices we make help give the panel a sense of our personality. Being too bland and conservative isn’t a great thing. Obviously being wild and out of control isn’t either, but choosing your spots and showing some personality will separate you in the end.