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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

 

Tempo traps

Introduction
Metronome Markings
Other factors influencing an appropriate tempo
Tempo and expression
Tempo and rhythmic activity
Tempo distortions resulting from musical structures
A glossary

Determining just how fast or slow a piece of music should be performed can be a lot more complicated than it seems. In fact, even professional players and composers often disagree.


Introduction

Tempo is an Italian word meaning speed or movement. But determining just how fast or slow a piece of music should be performed can be a lot more complicated than it seems. In fact, the business of determining at what speed a composition should be played continues to be a point of debate even among professional players and composers.

The most obvious factors influencing a performer's decision are the composer's suggestions, particularly the use of Italian terms (Adagio, Allegro, etc) and any accompanying metronome markings.

The precise meaning of Italian terms is subject to interpretation. 
Such indications cannot always be accepted at face value, however. The precise meaning of Italian terms is always subject to interpretation, and metronome speeds can be just plain wrong. In many modern editions of Baroque and early Classical works, for example, metronome speeds are indicated on scores without any statement in support of their historical accuracy. Transcriptions for wind band may therefore suffer the same fate. Then there is the question of to what extent the tempo of a piece should be altered at various points by the performer in order to provide for greater musical 'expression'. 


Metronome Markings

How seriously should you regard the metronome indications given by a composer? After all, on more than one occasion, the specific tempo that even highly regarded composers have indicated on their scores have sometimes been disregarded by  performers, and the composer themselves have later admitted that the performers' tempo was the more effective one. Composers have sometimes also suggested metronome speeds so fast that it is widely believed they may have been working with faulty metronomes (the most well-known example is the Funeral March in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony).

 Metronome markings are often suggestive rather than prescriptive. 
Most composers in any case probably regard their metronome markings as being suggestive rather than prescriptive. In the nineteenth century, some composers even opposed the idea of metronome marks altogether. Brahms, for example, adamantly rejected metronome marks. Other well known composers had similar ideas, although they were not always very consistent about it. In his book on conducting, Wagner tells of an incident in which Mendelssohn maintained during a discussion with him that the metronome was unnecessary because any good musician could easily judge for himself the proper tempo of a piece of music without any such artificial help. The next day, however, Mendelssohn forget the argument completely. Sitting down to play a piano piece by Berlioz, he asked Wagner how fast it should be played!

Stravinsky went to the opposite extreme, abandoning Italian terms altogether, replacing them with a metronome number and insisting that his music be played exactly as written. For him the metronome marks were absolute, and woe betide any performer who ignored them!

One of the earliest attempts to assign specific metronome speeds to Italian words was carried out by the German flutist and composer Johann Quantz. Taking the human heartbeat of 80 to the minute as the standard and using 4/4 as the time signature, he assigned one pulse as being equal to a half note (minim) in allegro, a quarter note (crotchet) in allegretto and an eighth note (quaver) in adagio. A glance at any good metronome today, however, will show that the meaning of Italian words are given in ranges rather than precise definitions. 



Other factors influencing an appropriate tempo

One's general approach to a particular work will also influence the choice of tempo. If the intention is to make every detail clear, then a slower tempo may be selected. On the other hand, if the idea is to take a broad brushstroke approach, then a faster tempo will probably be more appropriate. Depending on the particular work involved, both interpretations may be equally legitimate. It is also important to bear in mind that a highly rhythmical piece may give the impression of being faster than it actually is. What is ultimately important is what members of the audience imagine they are hearing, not the actual tempo the conductor adopts.

 Don't adopt a rapid tempo if the ensemble cannot keep up the pace. 
There are also other factors to consider. These include the style and the historical period of the piece, and the mood of the text (if a song is involved). The acoustics of the auditorium where the work is to be performed also needs to be considered. A high level of reverberation, for example, usually indicates that a slower speed should be adopted if the music is to have a positive impact on the audience. Last, but not least, is the ability of the players. There is obviously little point adopting a rapid tempo if the ensemble is technically incapable of keeping pace.


Tempo and Expression

During the Romantic Period of Classical music (late nineteenth century), much emphasis was placed upon constant shifts of both dynamics and tempo in an attempt to achieve greater heights of musical expression. Some of this went to the extreme, introducing departures from original tempo markings that could hardly have been imagined by the composers of the works concerned. As a result, during the early decades of the twentieth century there was a swing away from unauthorized ritardandos in favour of strict precision.

 Musicians, it seems, can never win. 
The rubatos so favoured by Romantic period composers (and even commented on favourably by earlier composers such as Mozart) were also avoided, as were the Luftpausen (air pauses) introduced by German musicians. During the second half of the twentieth century, however, there was a counter reaction, with critics complaining about the lack of 'personality' in musical performances and need to inject more 'vitality' into one's playing.

As musicians, it seems, we can never win, for there will always be someone to complain about some aspect of the performance! My own inclination is to follow the tempo indications of the composer as strictly as possible, only allowing small departures from the score after having studied the music in detail to ensure that I have a good reason for doing so. As I have pointed out in the ''general principles'' section, there is an important difference between 'interpretation' and 'expression'. Interpretation comes first, expression second.


Tempo and rhythmic activity

There is an important difference between rhythmic activity and tempo. Good composers know how to create the illusion of increased tempo simply by increasing the amount of rhythmic activity in a piece of music. Thus, it is important that conductors and performers do not speed up the tempo simply because they have come to a section where a composer has written an acceleration of activity into the music. The reverse is also true. The tempo should not slow down simply because of the presence of a greater number of notes with longer time values.  Unfortunately, many ensembles - as well as their conductors - seem to act as if they were not aware of the distinction between these two concepts. . 


Tempo distortions resulting from musical structures

As just about every conductor who has tried to get an ensemble to maintain a steady tempo knows, inexperienced musicians have a tendency to slow down or speed up for reasons which have nothing to do with the musical debates discussed above. The following is a list of situations where this is likely to happen.

Ensembles tend to rush when playing:

 
  • a dropping phrase containing short note lengths.
 
  • a phrase leading towards a tonic harmony.
 
  • short rhythmical figurations, especially when the last note is longer than those that preceded it.
 
  • a passage involving sequential movement.

Ensembles tend to slow down when playing:
 

 
  • long repeated notes.
 
  • passages involving movement immediately after at bar-line.
 
  • legato melodies in a minor key.


Glossary

Tempo sometimes means 'movement' rather than speed. Here is a short list of expressions which include the term.

Tempo alla breve: indicates that in a bar nominally of four beats, the speed is so fast that it is to be heard as having two beats only. In other words, the music is performed twice as fast as the notation would suggest, with the breve being the standard of mensuration instead of the semibreve.

Tempo comodo: At a speed convenient to the player.

Tempo di ballo: 'Dance speed' or in a dance style.

Tempo giusto: This has two meanings:

 

The speed that the style of music demands (usually moderato).

 

Exact rhythm.

Tempo ordinario: 'Ordinary time', but with three different meanings as given below:

 

An ordinary rate of speed. eg. moderato or andante.

 

The same speed as before (like tempo primo)

 

Give the beats their ordinary value (eg after a tempo alla breve indication)

 Tempo primo: Resume the original speed.

Tempo rubato: 'robbed' time. A controlled flexibility of time, in which some notes are deprived of part of their length or played slightly longer for the purpose of musical expression.

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