St. John the Unfinished, NYCImage by Michael Tinkler via Flickr

My thoughts on this subject are by no means exhaustive… however, I have had reason to think about tempi very recently and often ever since I’ve been working.

There was a fascinating interview on NPR not long ago with Yo-Yo Ma, in which he talked about his discovery that the performance tempo in his head, which sounded right to him on stage, was not necessarily the whole story. He had been experimenting with recording, placing the mic various distances from the stage. By the time the sound reaches the middle rows of the auditorium, the back, or the balcony, things change. I would love to hear him speak further about this.

My most recent experience with tempo ambiguity was this past weekend. There are, of course, many different types of singing voices. This particular concert included a song with a metronome marking at the beginning. For the singer’s voice in this song, the indicated tempo was too fast.

During rehearsal experimentation and discussion, we decided that we would try a slower tempo. For me, that meant playing longer 8th notes. The whole thing then sounded way too lugubrious ~ it was a “wave” song, w/lapping waves in the piano part. The rocking boat was sinking fast!

Next, the singer tried lightening up. That allowed the tempo to move forward. Problem solved! We had a slower tempo than indicated, but it fit the singer’s voice and still depicted the composer’s intentions.

Which leads me to mention songs and arias sung by many different types of voices. “Rejoice greatly” is certainly on that list. A coloratura can handle a much faster tempo than a lyric here. Something that would be very helpful in this case, if you audition with a piece with many tempo options, would be to write in a metronome marking at the beginning for the pianist, thus eliminating a lurching tempo change between the introduction and the singer’s entrance.

On occasion, metronome markings indicated by the composer are impossible to sing! Poulenc’s “Air vif” comes to mind. (Too fast!) Singers need time to get the words out.

More about words: consonant clusters and double consonants need time (think Italian, German, & English).

In addition, a metronome marking could be a composer’s error (I know of a case where this happened ~ her metronome was broken for a month or so before she realized it) or a publisher’s misprint.

A thought about piano reductions w/very slow harmonic progress (i.e., Wagner): when played on the piano, sounds held for a long time fade out. In performance w/piano, you’ll need a slightly faster tempo so the sound can be continuous.

In a live hall, fast tempos will most likely sound blurred. Try going a little slower!

A good (extreme) example of a live hall is The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NY. It’s enormous, and has a 7-second reverb time. Someone I know directed the cathedral choir for several years. There is a NY Times review praising his placement of the singers! Placement of the performers in any situation is important, but with that much reverb, it’s that much more of a challenge.

So, as I stated at the beginning of this post, my thoughts are not all-inclusive pertaining to this topic. But I hope they are helpful. Just try to remain flexible, listen, experiment, & make the performance as clear to the audience as possible.

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