The Right Tempo - 2

In actual performance, the choosing of the right tempo of a piece depends upon the artist’s understanding and apprehension of the music - its form, texture, and mood; but there are, of course, technical matters which he will have first of all to take into consideration.

The amateur band conductor must of necessity consider the standard of technique achieved by his men. However much he would like a certain allegro movement to flash and sparkle, it is useless to set a speed beyond the ability of his bandsmen. He must cut his coat according to his cloth, and try to achieve something of the spirit of the music by rhythmic accentuation and clarity of playing within the limits of the band’s technical standard.

The same applies to very slow music. It takes a very fine band to sustain an adagio movement with fine tone, just balance, and quiet intensity - retaining the interest and ‘flow’ of the music. Young and immature bands may well need to play a little above the indicated tempo in such instances.

Even in directing a top-grade group of players, the wise conductor will give every consideration to the technical demands of the music. As an example, consider a group of mast-moving, lounged semiquavers. If this is to be single-tounged, there is a speed-limit above which it cannot be well played. If the same passage is to be double-tounged, there is a speed-limit below which it cannot go. The conductor will lose no prestige if he ascertains from his players the best pace for such a passage, and as far as possible adapts his ‘reading’ of the music to the technical possibilities. It might well be that a mere two or three ‘awkward’ bars of such music will more or less dictate the pace of a whole movement. 

An interesting case in point is found in the orchestral repertoire in the scherzo from the incidental music to ‘A Midsummer-night’s Dream’ by Mendelssohn. Towards the end there is a long solo passage, in fast semiquavers, for the 1st flute. These the player double-lounges, and his tempo there more or less dictates the speed of the whole scherzo. Earlier there are also quick semiquaver groups for clarinets and oboes, which are not comfortable at the flautist’s speed: but, because of the importance of his solo passage, the comfort of the other players must for once be considered of secondary importance.

There are many such problems arising in brass band music, and only the very immature or conceited conductor is likely to insist that he must always dictate the tempo.

Posted on December 17, 2015 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.

The Right Tempo - 1

Here is a subject of the greatest importance to all charged with the interpretation of music, both soloists and conductors. When the technical demands of a composition have been met - the difficult phrases mastered, the dynamics balanced and blended, the spirit of the music apprehended; when even nuances have been planned and rehearsed (in so far as one can do so), there still remains the problem of pace or tempo, which can finally make or mar a performance. 

    It is not unusual to hear playing which, almost faultless in every other respect, fails to carry one’s judgement because it is either slow and labored, or hurried and ‘nervy.’ Asked his opinion of such performances, the listener can only say - ‘It was very good, but…!’ His judgement is not carried, however much he admires the technique of the band, because the music does not speak at the right pace. 

    We all know how ordinary conversation can be trying under similar circumstances. the too-slow speaker unwisely allows us to be a jump or two ahead of him all the time - we know what he is going to say, but we have to await his time. The too-rapid speaker races on, leaving us with but a jumbled impression of what he wants to express. In both there is a lack of poise, of ‘flow,’ of a proper sense of values. 

    Of course, the ‘gift of the gab’ is not given to everyone. The art of conversation, we are told, is likely to be dying in these days of mechanical entertainment, of evenings of silence spent before the television set. This, if it is true, is a very sad state of affairs; and as to music making, something of the same might conceivably happen. The supposed necessity of ‘timing’ compositions, of ironing out details in order to ‘balance’ before microphones, is likely to tempt conductors to sacrifice the flair and brilliance that often comes on the inspiration of the moment.

Posted on November 10, 2015 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.

Band Training Studies - 7. Intonation

The subtle matter of intonation is largely a psychological one.  Each individual player is responsible, and the mere adjustment of slides will not bring perfection.  The health and temperament of the players affect the problem, and above all, the aural training he has been given.

The ear plays strange tricks with us sometimes.  Some folks possess the ability to pitch perfectly any note you may ask for - a faculty rarely attained by practice, but a natural gift.  A musician I know can sing perfectly in tune, yet when he whistles a melody it is always a perfect fifth above - and he doesn't know it!  Some folk always sing very slightly flat, or sharp - and indeed some players have such an idiosyncrasy also.

There is no mechanical way of overcoming such difficulties in a band.  The only thing to do is to be constantly critical, and as constantly to insist that the players listen to themselves.

Often, when rehearsing a new work, some awkward interval or scalic figure can be made the basis of a short (very short, please!) lesson in ear training.

With an immature band the conductor will have to put up with a lot of bad intonation until the players have learned the notes and rhythm, and can play the piece fairly well together; but as soon as possible he should be at them again about intonation.

Many young and inexperienced conductors get mightily worried about this matter, and their first attempts at tuning a band sometimes cause them acute embarrassment.  They must persevere.  It takes a lot of practice and experience to be able to stand in front of a band and know immediately what faults are apparent, and what to do about them.

In time one invents all sorts of little tricks to make the players think.  'Up and over that high note, don't strain up to it'; 'Down and under that low note'; "Let that D flat drop towards the C natural' - such are the kind of instructions one develops for one's use.

No text book or series of articles can teach foolproof methods in such matters as intonation.  Bandmaster and players must think about it, and constantly purify their listening!

It is not a problem to be left to solve itself.  (It is one I would always avoid if I could!)  But dealing with it brings ample rewards in the way of purer tone, finer clarity of part-playing, and an improved sense of style by all the players.  It is of first importance.

Posted on February 6, 2014 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.

Band Training Studies - 6. Rhythm

All life has rhythm.  Our physical bodies illustrate this: with the pulse of the heart-beat; with our natural reaction to night and day; and with the monthly, yearly, and seven-yearly rhythm to which we are subject.  If we realize the implications of these facts, we can help ourselves considerably in matters of health and happiness by cooperating with these rhythms, or we can harm ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually, by cutting right across these natural laws.  

Music is an expression of life, and there is comparatively little of it which does not call for an appreciation of rhythm - even though it be in a very subtle way.

In training a band - especially if it be young or immature - the conductor should seek to make the players understand something about rhythm, at any rate its elementary form.  They should know where the 'strong, medium, weak' accents appear within the bar; and they should understand also that the conductor's basic baton movement indicate these varying accents, as well as indicating the tempo of the music.

Once this is thoroughly appreciated it will help the bandmaster considerably in his work.  Sight reading will improve, for a player with a strong sense of rhythm, finding himself in difficulties in one bar, will know when to jump to the next, and so keep up with the rest!  Development of this rhythmic sense will also prevent many of those wrong entries one hears so often of immature bands.

Even in slow, sustained music, the rhythm must be felt by the players; it is possible by this means to make even a single sustained chord 'live'...

Rhythm is an important factor in interpretation.  More (or less) accentuation of the basic rhythm will color the music considerably; and then, of course, the accentuation of the subtle 'inner' rhythms of various small groups of notes carries such possibilities still further. 

Studying such matters is a most fascinating part of the conductor's art. 


Posted on September 17, 2013 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.

Band Training Studies - 5. Balance and Blend

The subjects we have already discussed, which come under the general heading of precision, have to do with the more mechanical aspect of ensemble playing.  Even so, it was necessary to urge that each individual performer must be encouraged  to take an intelligent and critical interest in what he was doing; and now, in the consideration of Balance he will need to feel anew his sense of responsibilty to the whole.

Balance and blend in the simplest form is exemplified in the kind of playing required for a hymn tune.  Here the weight of tone required from each player is more or less equal.  Whether the playing be forte or piano, all move together, and no complications arise.  Here the third-part player has equality with the soloists, and he should be encouraged to realise this.  For brass bands, the great pleasure derived from hymn tune playing largely derives from the rich sound given to the harmony by the inner-part players, and the resonant bass.

This simple ensemble work is carried only one step further in ordinary march - or waltz-playing.  It is true that certain melodies or counter-melodies call for a little prominence at times, but on the whole there is little that is involved from the standpoint of expression in average pieces of this type.

In more advanced and intricate music, greater problems arise.  Every part is still of importance, and must never be looked upon in any other light; but sometimes it must be subordinate to another part, only to stand out from the rest of the band in some different passage.

Here we touch upon the matter of interpretation, and it is precisely here that the conductor must be the authority.  Having studied the score, he will know the relative importance of the various parts; and he should be at pains to let the bandsmen know exactly why this part must be subordinate, or why that part is brought into prominence.

Yet even in this, the general ensemble must still be realized.  A soloist may be lording it with a superb melody; but the supporting chords must be played with taste and understanding.

In the most involved music, it may be that the score denotes a kaleidoscope of colour; here every changing effect must be given its momentary prominence - yet remain relative to the whole.  For this kind of playing the team work of the players must be highly evolved.

Thus it will be seen that balance and blend - 'playing together' - means very much more than a kind of musical drill.  It calls for understanding and a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone concerned.

Posted on November 14, 2012 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.

Band Training Studies - 4. Rhythm

Attack-sustain-release; begin-continue-stop; such are the stages of our studies in precision.  Of course, these imply not three entirely separate activities; in the minds of the players they must be closely linked together-'correlated' is, I think, the descriptive word.

Already it has been suggested that any exercises towards this end should have a rhythmic basis.  In these days when 'beat' is the concern of so many young people, it is rather surprising to find many bands untrained in this important matter of measured, rhythmical playing.  Semiquaver (Sixteenth note) passages are invariably accelerated by some players, even against the more regular movements of the rest of the band.  Other individuals indulge in a kind of self-centered (perhaps unconcious) rubato, to the entire ruination of the ensemble.

As recently as the day before this article was written, I listened to bands playing on the march; and the facility with which certain players could 'race the rhythm' in quick passages, while their feet kept strict time, had to be heard to be believed.  Such bad effects were probably unrealised by the bandsmen, for well-trained players would find it difficult to play so badly, even if they tried.

Bandmasters must be severely criticle in this matter if they are to secure a well-balanced ensemble.   they must insist upon correctness of note values and a regular pulse.  Some such elementary method as the rhythmic tapping of the music stand with the baton may sometimes be necessary, even in the best circles!

Each bar of music has its rhythm, which must be understood; but many figures within the bar have this own inner rhythm also, and the conductor should be able to demonstrate these, especially when contrasting duple, triple, or quadruple rhythms are involved.  To ignore such matters is a sure way to being out of the prizes at contests!

The attack, the continuity, the release, must all be felt rhythmically.  Part of the conductor's task is to indicate this regular flow of the music by his baton and hand movements.  What he does is best based upon the generally acknowledged formal style of conducting, so that even if he finds himself before a strange band, the players can follow him clearly.  But there are many little 'tricks' of baton-work he may work out for himself, but these must be developed purely to serve the purposes of rhythm and dynamics, nuance, and the rest; and not merely to bring the conductor plaudits from the less critical portion of his audience!


Posted on October 16, 2012 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.

Band Training Studies - 3. Continuity

To exercises in attack and release there must be added an intelligent understanding of what is to happen in between.  It is simple enough to hold a sustainied note; the tongue is at rest, and the pressure of the breath simply continues the vibration within the instrument.  But this more passive activity must be given careful thought: the tone, whether pianissimo or fortissimo must not sag, or become starved; it must live.  To assist this the bandmaster should always arrange the chords be played to a measured rhythm; asking the players to imagine one or two bars of three-four or four-four time, and suggesting that they try to feel the rhythm even though the sound is sustained.  Exercises in crescendo and diminuendo should also be thus controlled, so that all the time the bandsmen are being subconsciously made aware that music has pulse, and lives.

This continuity can also be well demonstrated in hymn-tune playing - an invaluable exercise, if not indulged in to exess.

But more important still is an appreciation of continuity of idea.  Even in march playing and other rhythmic music, it is to be apparent.  There may be many notes in a bar, and many broken phrases in a section.  The notes will be attacked and released in quick succession; the phrases will be carefully shaped; but through it all continuity of style and tone and idea must go on, and each bandsman must co-operate in this involved team work.  Let the music be precise, but let it also flow and sing.

Posted on October 24, 2011 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.

Band Training Studies - 2. Release

A clear-cut cessation of sound is not so difficult to obtain as is unanimous attack.  The flow of air through the instrument ceases, and the sound ceases also.  It is as simple as that!  Yet this must be thoughtfully done, or some unwanted effect is likely to crop up.  Some players give a final 'kick' to the release; others always cease playing too soon; or, in pianissimo, let the tone and intonation deteriorate.  Such unwanted effects are not purposely done, and indeed the player may well be unaware of them, for they are defects that may have psychological causes.

The player can only hear himself in a certain, limited way; the band trainer is there to stand back from the sound-picture, and to control the effect from his more advantageous standpoint.

Precision in release is more difficult to evoke in pianissimo than in louder passages.  The orchestral pianissimo which can die away so gradually that listeners cannot really tell when it ceases is an effect almost impossible to obtain from a group of brass players - unless it be in the open air, or a very large hall; but it is an effect devoutly to be desired, and well worth striving for.

It requires absolute control of breathing, and the lip and facial muscles; and a highly developed sense of team work among the players.  Teach them to keep all the faculties at attention right until the end of the chord, and indeed for a moment or so afterwards, while the effect carries on as it were in the ensuing silence.

The fortissimo release can be really exciting.  In this case the pressure of breath and tone in 'travelling forward' until the final moment.  The type of release must then be dictated by the style of the music - it might be merely a sudden cessation of sound, or it might be given a final sforzando effect, by a sudden sharp pressure of the breath.

An interesting experiment can be made by getting the players to effect the release by suddenly pushing the tongue between the teeth.  This can give a really precise release, but the method is probably of little practical value.

The conductor must indicate the moment of release very clearly, especially by the use of a preliminary beat, similar to that used to introduce the 'attack'.  Once his young and inexperienced players have learned to watch for this, he will have little difficulty in obtaining the effect he wants.  this preliminary beat will again take its style from the mood and tonal weight of the music.

Posted on October 17, 2011 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.

Band Training Studies - 1. Attack

No Matter how often one hears it, the sound of a band producing a full, well-balanced chord, with unanimity of attack and style, is always a satisfying experience.  Crisp attack 'tunes' has been described by the music critic as one of the brass band's 'particular virtues', and it is well worth special study, for at its best it will not happen merely by chance, but as the outcome of complete understanding between conductor and performers.

First, then, the conductor.  He must know exactly the kind of effect he wished to evoke.  In the privacy of his own study he should endeavour to hear mentally the particular sound produced by a knife-like fortissimo attack; the effect of a pianissimo suddenly materialising out of nothing; or anything in between these extremes.

(It should here be said that all  his work should be thus commenced privately.  At first he may not be able to 'tune in' as it were, but by peresevering he will gain skill in thus anticipating the problems with which he will have to deal in the band room.  At first, too, the reality may be quite different from what he had imagined - but this again will be adjusted by experience.)

Having thus obtained an idea of the kind of attack he wishes to evoke, he must now consider his baton technique.  For the forceful, accented attack he will find that short, 'pointed' movements are required; whilst something a little more flowing may help the bandsmen to realize a piano attack.  In this matter, also, his preliminary beat is important, and the bandsmen should be taught to take their cue from this.  It is conditioned by the speed and style of the music to be played, and all this should be borne in mind by the conductor.  Very long movements are to be avoided.

The bandsman's part is to know exactly what he is doing with his tongue, and breath-control.  In so many cases the men have little idea of what is happening, yet often produce quite good results in spite of themselves - by some kind of mass-hypnotism, perhaps?

The conductor will rarely have time to 'vet' each man personally in this matter; but having managed to obtain the desired effect he might well say to them all, 'now do that again, and take note of what is happening with your tongue and breath.  Remember the feel of it, the sound of it.  That is what I want always when this effect is required.'  He will thus make the players more conscious of their responsibility.

Not only must the first chord be attacked intelligently, but the second and third and fourth, and so on.  Explain this to the players, and then consider that this brings up the matter of 'release' also...

Posted on October 11, 2011 .

Printed with kind permission from The British Bandsman.