When I was a fluffy and precocious piano student, before my classical chops succumbed to middle-age spread, I once had a fantastic lesson with a visiting Russian prof that has stayed with me to this day.
I was a flashy young buck, and much enamoured of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies at the time. The one I happened to be working on I think was the much underrated 10th (click here for a recording by Hamelin).
She stopped me after less than a page and said: you’re not in control. She told me to think of the minimum tempo at which I thought the piece was still bearable. Every time I started she stopped me and just said: slower.
Eventually we made it through, and I felt like I’d been practising it as a painful grinding exercise. I waited for further guidance – she nodded quietly and then just sat there. After a moment of silence, I started again, back up to whizzbang speed, and she immediately stopped me again. She asked me why I’d sped up.
Didn’t I realise that it actually sounded faster when I was in control?
She was right. Speed is an illusion, particularly when you’re performing. Seasoned theatre actors know this. They know that you have to perform at a tempo that may seem painfully slow to you on stage so that your delivery hits the room at a natural pace and is perceived clearly. They also know that delivery that is too fast (often because of nerves or distraction) is usually experienced by an audience not as brilliant bravura, but as a confused jumble.
I know it’s a different medium, but sadly a lot of TV and film actors these days don’t seem to have this insight… (Actually, I also think that many composers to picture these days seem to think that “underscoring” means underlining the action five times in thick coloured marker pen, which gives the dialogue even less chance – but that’s a rant for another day.)
FAST AND LOOSE? NO, TIGHT IS RIGHT
Interesting to reflect that most of the really tough jazz numbers you love and aspire to weren’t actually played all that fast – they were played up certainly, but they were played accurately and – well, they sounded fast. They still do.
Giant Steps was recorded at around 280bpm, Moment’s Notice at about 230bpm. Cherokee was usually done in a range between those two. That may sound blistering, but the number of times I’ve heard bands today kick them off even faster and struggle to make anything coherent out of them… Actually, all of them work really well much slower than you’d think.
I’m aware that certain tunes just seem to have a natural tempo range – inside it they sound right, outside it they don’t seem to quite click. But if you bear in mind the issue of precision you’ll probably find that the acceptable lower limit of tempo is a lot lower than you ever thought it was. Honestly.
Now I’m not against playing fast – there’s nothing duller than a whole night of medium swing (although a whole night of relentless speedfreakery gets pretty boring too). But the point I’m trying to make here is that up tempi shouldn’t feel fast to you when you’re playing. If they do, you’re probably beyond the point where you’re in control and you’ll probably find you’re surviving the tune rather than playing it…
And speed comes from precision to start with. There’s a convention in classical music typography to put brilliant fast passagework in small font. There’s also a saying among pianists: small notes get big attention.
Your thoughts are welcome below, as ever.
See also How to Kick Off a Tune.