Feeling the tempo before you begin

I did a piano workshop recently at which a number of different people played. One of our topics was tempo. How do you decide at what speeed to play something, especially if the composer gives no indication? Even written instructions such as Andante or Adagio are largely evocative, leaving plenty of room for debate.

The simplest way to look at it, I think, is that tempo is indissolubly linked to character. If you first try to understand the character and mood of the piece, the tempo will often present itself to you as an obvious ingredient of the whole. This is a better way than that old chestnut of a method, identifying the most difficult bars in the piece and basing your tempo on the speed at which it’s possible to play those.

When watching those different pianists, I noticed that it was sometimes very difficult to guess what tempo a person was about to adopt, because they sat completely still until the moment they began to play.

With other pianists, their musical intention was evident before they had played a note. One could see a sort of preparatory wave travel up through their body as they mentally set in motion the tempo they wanted. Their arms and hands became subtly animated, as though they were conducting some inner music. Seeing this ‘wave’ helped to prepare the listeners as well, and when the pianist began to play, the tempo felt organic. Even if they had chosen a tempo which was not the one I myself would have taken, I found it was easy to be sympathetic to their choice, because I had seen them calling it into being.

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This entry was posted on Sunday 15th September 2019 at 11:26am and is filed under Inspirations, Teaching. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Feeling the tempo before you begin”

  1. Mary Cohen said on

    Yes! Absolutely! The organic feeling is then easily transmitted in chamber music. I once took some pupils, who had all always learned this organic way (and you could see felt every piece before they started) to some workshops with an orchestral player, who insisted they all re-learned the way of starting their pieces by counting in. I sat quietly in a corner, trying not to weep…

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