One of the skills I struggled to learn when I started out as a choir leader was finding the right tempo for a piece or song.
In one memorable session on my conducting course, I led the assembled group through a movement of the Mozart Requiem. Afterwards, the tutor asked me why I’d chosen that particular (breakneck!) speed. I said I just felt that it was the right tempo. ‘It might be right for you’, she replied, ‘but think about your poor accompanist – he’s playing semi-quavers!’ It wasn’t my finest hour.
Finding the right tempo
I was taught a good trick for finding the tempo of a piece. Another tutor told me that in any piece or song, there will be a single bar that dictates the speed. Your job is to work out which bar.
The critical bar is often one that’s syncopated or sub-divided. It might be in one vocal part or all, or in the accompaniment or orchestra. That’s why your score preparation (by which I mean preparing your repertoire, even if you don’t use a physical score) needs to be thorough – you don’t want a Mozart Moment like mine!
Take Somewhere Over the Rainbow as an example. You could start off singing it much faster than Judy performs it in the movie and it would be fine, until you get to ‘someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the stars are far behind me’. Taken too fast, that could sound a bit ridiculous and you could lose the legato beauty of the song.
Recalling the tempo in rehearsal
So you’ve done your score preparation and you know the tempo you want to use in rehearsal. Recalling the right tempo in the moment is easier said than done.
Personally, I don’t like to be consulting a metronome all the time. It slows down the rehearsal and breaks everyone’s concentration. I also definitely don’t want to do that in performance, so I need to be able to get the right tempo in my head.
My method is to give myself a ‘crib’. It might be the critical bar I mentioned above, or some other part of the piece which, if I sing it in my head, gives me the right tempo immediately. I’ll often write this crib (i.e. the lyrics if there are some; the bar number if not) at the top of my score. When it’s time to start the piece, I wait for the choir to come to silence (vital!), take a moment to think of my crib, and then start.
The important thing is not to allow yourself to be rushed. You don’t want to get a few bars in and realise that you’re either cantering off at a ridiculous pace, or conducting a dirge!
Don’t be a slave to the metronome!
If you’re learning modern music, your score will probably have a metronome mark. That’s fine as an indicator of what the composer intended, but he or she wasn’t leading your choir, so make sure that you think independently as well.
You might also need to consider changing the tempo of a piece depending on where you’re performing it. You could rehearse something in a relatively acoustically ‘dead’ rehearsal space, but if you perform it in a large church with a 3 second echo, the sound might not be what you, or your audience, are looking for.
It always feels like there’s so much to think about when you’re preparing a piece or song for your choir. Tempo doesn’t need to be a source of frustration. Find a method that works for you, be adaptable to your surroundings, and you won’t go far wrong.