As a musician, whatever your level, your first and foremost responsibility is to express the beat. Communicating beat comes before everything else be it rhythm, intonation, tone, or musical expression. The text on this card gets at how musical elements such as phrasing, dynamics and intonation can affect tempo and how establishing a steady tempo ultimately provides the foundation for those ideas to work successfully.
Finding the right tempo is one of my favorite lessons to teach. It is a powerful moment when a student locks into a tempo which is steady and accessible for including all of the technical and musical qualities desired. It was a turning point for me when I first achieved this ability in my own playing.
When a student reaches the point of more independence in their practicing, I tend to ask more independence of them in terms of interpreting their music. The timing of when a student is ready to take on this added responsibility varies from student to student. Students who work from the Suzuki repertoire may be ready to start dealing with interpretation some time around mid book 2. Rather than telling students exactly what to do with phrasing and how to nuance dynamics, my approach is to encourage them to make some decisions for themselves.
For instance, Waltz by Johannes Brahms has many dynamics in the revised Suzuki Volume 2 for Violin edition. These dynamics can serve as kind of training wheels for students who are learning to be responsible for their own phrasing. The printed dynamics give students the framework for the direction of the phrases but the exact how and when of executing the dynamics can somewhat be left to the student to figure out. For the dynamics that occur at the beginning of the second section, I encourage my students to drive the crescendo by adding more weight in the up bows and then work at sustaining the gain in volume at the end of the down bows.
What does this all of to do with tempo? I’m sure that I’m not the only teacher whose students reach the point of playing with beautiful dynamics and phrasing to then find them incapable of maintaining a steady beat. Working on tempo is a critical step not to be overlooked as part of working on phrasing or anything other musical element. Although I’m mostly writing about phrasing in this post, the same issue exists for working on intonation. It doesn’t matter how well one plays in tune if one cannot play in tune in tempo.
After practicing and working so hard to develop maturity in phrasing, it can be demoralizing to tell a student that they have to slow way down to establish a steady tempo. This is a hard pill to swallow for sure. At this point your student has lived with the piece for a while and has a lot of pride in how far their musicianship has come. It is also important for the student to have fun with the music and explore the exciting elements of playing hard music really fast. It is challenging for teachers to strike a balance. I want the student to be excited and inspired but understand that tempo is actually more important than anything else in the music.
At face value, tempo isn’t very sexy. What seemed like well-played, exciting music, is revealed as a technical mess when played with a metronome. To fix the problem, one might be tempted to take the tempo way down to the point where the pulse of the music is unrecognizable. My suggestion is to hold off on using a metronome for a while. I have found it works much better to have students discover their own inner sense of beat and to have them do the math.
Even for students who don’t enjoy math, subdividing rhythms can teach the lesson for you. If students can break down rhythms themselves, you as the teacher can eliminate your role as the bad guy with the metronome. Once a student has cleaned up their rhythm, intonation, and expressive elements as they relate to tempo, they can move forward with selecting an appropriate tempo according to the tempo marking of the piece, musical style and their skill level.
Inspiration for Violinists card deck This “Steady tempo” card is part of a 50 card deck. Every card has a unique image and text inspiring musicianship, mindfulness and spirituality. On sale through December 2021, $22 with free shipping in the US. Use offer code holiday2021.