The Cop-Out. It’s one of the easy solutions to a dragging, sluggish tempo. Move it along! Problem solved.
Or is it just a cop-out? And doesn’t the easy solution merely create another problem? What if the composer calls for a slower tempo? “Speed kills” as the saying goes, and it’s true in music too — Nothing can kill the desired effect of a slow, deliberate tempo like the addiction to speed. The composer likely had a good reason to specify this tempo – and it’s important to try and respect the composer’s intent.
And even when there is no specified tempo, if we always resort to this easy “move it along” solution, pretty soon all of our repertoire will begin to sound the same, no matter what the mood of the music should be.
Avoiding the Need for Speed. Often as not, this compulsion to speed up is pushed on the conductor by singers who, feeling burdened by a slow tempo, believe that to “move it along” will make things more comfortable. As a singer, I have been guilty of this myself. As a composer and a singer, I will say that it’s better to respect the specified tempo and take one or two extra breaths, than to try and do the phrase in one breath by speeding up. Respect the effect! It’s far more important than being able to brag that you did it in one breath. This principal holds in both choral and solo singing.
It’s Psychological. But much of the time, the problem is really in our minds anyway. It’s the product of a faulty or neglectful attitude toward the music. The most reasonable and best artistic solution is to detract our attention from the unease of a “dragging” tempo by reducing the drag in our attitude, and concentrating our efforts on musicality.
Musical Energy. This means feeling that constant sense of energy – to shape the line, to let it flow and stretch, like a lovely winding road stretching and curving through the countryside. Give the line you sing – even through the rests – a continual feeling of forward travel. Many other metaphorical images might apply here – a flowing stream, ocean waves, the blowing breeze, drifting clouds, even pulling taffy.
The main goal here is to avoid the feeling of stagnation, and find the climactic points of emphasis and aim for those destinations, to discover in each phrase the constantly renewing cycle of tension and release that is the essence of music, and of life. It’s a sure bet that if you are thinking like this when you sing in a slow tempo, you won’t be thinking of the drag. And more importantly, the audience won’t perceive the drag.
Moving the Breath. Proper and continuous breath energy, emanating from the pelvic region through the contraction of muscles just above the waistline, is necessary to achieve this continual melodic flow. Remember, this energy must never feel locked or stationary. Never allow yourself to go into “cruise control.”
Crescendo, Diminuendo, Accelerando, Ritardando. When we are shaping the phrase with this sort of energy of motion, we might feel that these dynamic and tempo changes are at work, and to a very subtle extent, they are. But it would be painstaking and not a little tedious to try and plan out every small nuance of volume and speed in every phrase. It’s much simpler to think of those “destination” points, those tension climax and release spots in the phrase.
Words Speak Louder. Here’s where the text provide the answer. We ask which words in the phrase are most important, which are of secondary importance, and so on down the line. Find these words and use them as the points of climax in the phrase.
Expression. Get in touch with the mood of the piece you are singing, and more specifically, the immediate melodic line. Turn your energy to really expressing that mood or emotion.
Slow Down and Save the Music. Whenever you find yourself thinking about how draggy the tempo is, re-focus your mind on making music. And don’t cop out with speed! The aesthetic police might pull you over. Join Email List