The Moderato Trap

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Raymond Warren, who was Professor of Music at Bristol when I studied there used to talk of the way that Brahms so easily falls into what he called the ‘moderato trap’. Fast movements aren’t so very fast, slow movements aren’t so very slow, and there’s not much room between for the tempi of what should be of a genuinely moderate speed. I’ve been noticing a similar effect in a number of the groups I’ve been working with lately.

If you know Aaron Dale’s arrangement of ‘Love Me’, this is a classic example. It’s a fabulous arrangement, not just because it’s well-conceived and entertaining, but because it enables people to out-perform their current level. You’ve got to love charts that do that. But the thing that foxes a modestly-skilled group compared to a highly skilled group is control of tempo. In the hands of a less skilled group, it gradually speeds up from its throbbing start until the almost-bump-and-grind feel transmutes into a rhythmic world more reminiscent of the Archers theme tune.

Conversely, I’ve encountered a number of up-tempo songs that performers want to deliver as really driving, white-knuckle rides, but end up relaxing somewhere along the line so they end up as merely quite sprightly.

So the question is twofold: what causes this, and what will cure it? Why do ensembles find their tempi reverting to the mean, and how can they stop it happening?

I think the origin of the problem is in rehearsing the piece with an under-characterised approach to rhythm at the early stages. The point about tempi that are a slower or faster than the bulk of a group’s repertoire is that they stand out. They catch the audience’s attention because they hold them in a pace of experience to which they’re not accustomed. They take an audience out of that comfort zone where they don’t really need to pay attention because they know how the music is likely to go, and holds them there. (At least, they hold them there if the tempo is maintained.)

Now anything that surprises an audience is likely to surprise the performers too on first acquaintance. Ensembles are made up from much the same kind of people as audiences, and if a certain tempo is designed to stop an audience switching off, it will necessarily demand a more positive approach from the singers as well.

There are also technical issues that get in the way. A slow tempo often speeds up with the help of closing word sounds down too early, and a fast tempo slows down as people struggle to get their tongues and lips moving fast enough. But these are part of the same experience of getting people out of their comfort zones. We tend to operate our vocal apparatus in habitual ways, and musical demands that challenge those habits require us to sit up and take notice.

Now prevention is always better than cure, but never more than in this case. As both the expressive impact and performance challenges come from confounding an habitual relationship with musical time, you will be fighting the desire to relax back into the normal the whole way. And if you learn the notes and words in that mode, it’s much harder to break out of it later: you’re fighting not just the weight of habit in general, but in that song too.
If, on the other hand, your formative experiences with a song engage with the expressive power of its tempo, that sets a pattern that is much easier to build on. As my friend Maddy points out: the way people do something the first time is overwhelmingly likely to become the way they keep doing things.

But supposing you identify this issue only after it’s arisen – how do you deal with it? Three strategies are useful:

  • Imaginative effort:Integrate the experience of tempo into the wider sense of characterisation. Think not just about speed, but about feel, and therefore what that does to how you stand, how you move, what kind of vocal colour is needed. Just what kind of person is this song about anyway? The more vivid the characterisation, the more all the disparate musical elements will cohere into the effect you’re after.
  • Technical analysis: Address the specifically physical motions that are implicated in the tempo changes. To an extent this is treating the symptoms rather than the cause, but concrete physical actions are directly susceptible to conscious change.

  • Practice at many different tempi: Rehearse the song in a range of tempi, both faster and slower than the target one. This develops the capacity to choose the speed you sing at rather than letting your habitual responses decide. Starting at different points in the song is also a good idea, especially if you usually work from the beginning. This uses the Inner Game principle of Will.

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