In my day-to-day life as a percussionist / producer, the tempo of any given song or piece of music is everything. It determines what’s possible – not just for me, but for the vocalist(s), the other musicians in the band, the dancers, TV camera movement if applicable … the list goes on.
One of the most common requests I get, either from musical directors, or (interestingly) straight from directors, is to “speed it up – it’s lacking energy”.
And you know what? 99% of times, that request comes either during the dress rehearsal, or on opening night. Always at a time of high stress. Coincidence or not?
To begin, let us look at the phenomenon of human heart rate, and how it affects our emotional response to various stimuli. Throughout the day, your heart rate increases or decreases depending on a number of factors – physical demand, chemical interactions (coffee, nicotine), emotional episodes, and stressful situations.
Here’s a little experiment to try – although most of you won’t need to, as you’ll already know the answer just from reading this.
Go away and listen to a song that always pumps you up. Or watch some of your favourite sports moments – your favourite knockout highlights, your favourite goals … maybe a scene in a movie that always excites you. Whatever you choose, sit down and relax – do it at your normal heart rate.
Now, go and do something to raise your heart rate. Have a coffee (or four, if you really want to simulate rehearsal or opening night conditions) Go outside and do a few sprints – run up and down the stairs several times, go and do some push ups.
Get that heart rate right up, and now go and repeat your song listening? Do you feel the same excitement? Of course not! Your pulse rate is elevated – now you need more stimulation to achieve the same level of excitement – even though you have just listened to the exact same song – yet now it feels slower! Am I making sense yet?
So – taking a journey back in time to the very first rehearsal – here’s what happens. The MD and Artist or Performing Company choose their song(s), and after a few rehearsals, decide on a tempo for each song, which they feel is perfect. The choreographer and dancers then work for days or weeks, basing their work around this tempo (all their jumps, spins, etc). The lead vocalists or instrumental soloists rehearse their parts, also basing their breath control and other factors around this tempo. Rehearsals at or around this tempo become very comfortable, and the soloists all feel confident and in control of their own personal performances – all is good!!
Now – we get to dress rehearsal day, or opening night. The director, musical director, choreographer, and pretty much the entire production team have now been working for about 48 hours straight, and are full of caffeine and stress. In fact everyone involved is experiencing a highly elevated heart rate, from both caffeine and pure stress. This is where the world falls apart – suddenly everything feels T O O S L O W . . . . .
But it’s NOT too slow! It’s being performed at the same tempo as rehearsals (which incidentally really excited you when you first heard it at that tempo – as your audience are going to hear it for the first time tonight). This is the correct tempo – the tempo at which the singers can take in enough air to sing through the next phrase … the dancers can complete their jumps and spins in time to the music – the musicians can use whatever alternate fingering they decided upon, and the conductor can still conduct in the ‘four’ which everybody made a note of in rehearsals. You have been working on this since day one and it has been fine – now is the time to trust yourself!
The energy is NOT in the speed. It’s in everybody performing together at the high level in which they did at rehearsals – the entire production is running beautifully, like a finely tuned machine – everybody is in time, in tune, and focused. Because there is no panic!
Elevated heart rate can and will cloud the judgement of the greatest musicians in the world – if you allow it to. The correct tempo for a song can be as obvious as a poke in the eye, but if you don’t trust yourself, you’ll quickly give in to this ‘speed trap’. Think of a few classic songs – my favourite examples are Michael Jackson’s BEAT IT and BILLIE JEAN. Listen to these songs at their original tempi – they’re slower than you think! Imagine – these songs at their original tempi absolutely set the world alight! They are timeless classics. Yet, if you include them in your show, you can be 100% sure that on dress rehearsal night they’ll suddenly be much too slow for your liking. Go figure!!!
Remember that highly stressed, highly caffeinated heart rate of yours I mentioned a few minutes ago? Way higher than your normal heart rate? Well here’s another interesting thing to consider. The people you’re really hoping to elicit a huge emotional response from are your audience, right? Well, consider their situation for a moment – they’re at leisure tonight, enjoying a nice night out at the theatre. They might have had a glass of wine in the foyer on their way in, and they’re now ready to settle down in their comfy seats to enjoy a pleasant evening of entertainment. They are certainly not experiencing the same type of stressed-out elevated heart rate as you are.
So if you give in to your instincts, and issue that dreaded command ‘Faster, More Energy’ – believe me when I tell you that you’re serving yourself at the expense of not only your performers, but also your audience.
Put your trust in your first instincts – you’re an accomplished director / MD – that’s why you’re there in the first place! Think back to those initial rehearsals, remember how those tempos excited you, and trust yourself Don’t be afraid to use a metronome, and mark those speeds for your rhythm section. They’ll thank you for it! Not only that, but on opening night, when you’re up to High Doh , they’ll make sure that the tempo is exactly where you need it to be. And when they are secure in their tempi, without any threat of needing to speed up, that’s when they can really rock out, and deliver their deepest grooves and best chops.
We don’t have to treat every performance like a pop concert, and stick with the click, but when we stick pretty close to the plan, everyone’s a winner, the show is a hit, and the music is great
It has taken me many years to put these pieces together clearly enough in my own head to be able to articulate them here – I hope they can be helpful to some of you in times of doubt
Love and respect to you all,