Accompanists: tempo setting

In general, it’s the soloist’s responsibility to set the tempo. Your accompanist will expect that, and it’s hard to stay together if each of you waits for a cue that never comes. You want to develop the confidence to lead and trust that the accompanist will follow. A major exception is when the piano has the moving part. For example, if you’re playing whole notes while the piano plays 8th notes, the pianist can’t conform to your tempo; you have to listen and follow her. You have the option to ask the accompanist to lead the whole piece while you follow. That’s especially helpful if you’re inexperienced, and need to develop the skill of keeping a steady tempo.

To choose a tempo, find the most difficult part of the music and determine the tempo you need to play that part reliably and musically. Use this information to set the tempo for that section, and (in context) the tempi used in the whole piece. Don’t worry too much about the stated tempo on a published piece. I’ve found that is often a wildly wrong guess, and that even the person who arranged it doesn’t play it that fast. If the piece was written for another instrument, that instrument may be mechanically and acoustically capable of the faster tempo, while playing it on bells may take more time. This assumes the piece is suitable for bells at all, which it may not be.

Sometimes a soloist wants to stretch the tempo to get through a tough spot. There needs to be a musical reason for that; sometimes a ritard works both musically and mechanically, but you can’t just slow down every difficult passage. Instead, practice playing slowly, a few notes at a time in overlapping sections, and build up speed over many practice sessions. Solidly memorizing a passage also helps, so you don’t hesitate in moving to the next bell.

Be sure to look at the accompaniment before the first rehearsal. Observe how your part fits into the whole, and use that to inform your practice tempo before habits become engrained. For example, if the accompaniment has a lot of big rolled chords, that may limit the final tempo more than the speed you can attain on the solo line.

To communicate your preferred tempo to an accompanist before rehearsal, write in a metronome mark, preferably near the piano part where she’ll see it. Metronome marks in published scores are often inaccurate. Try playing the piece with the metronome ticking, and adjust the reading until you can match the metronome reliably. Rehearsal recordings (if you have one) are also useful for helping your accompanist hear the tempo you’re used to. Avoid practicing too much with a recording, though, as you form the habit of following instead of leading. Use the metronome instead.

During rehearsal, it’s sometimes most efficient to play a passage by yourself so your accompanist can hear how fast you plan to play it that day. Discuss whether that’s just a rehearsal tempo (and you plan to work on speeding it up), or whether that’s the tempo you plan to take in performance.

The most important note in any passage for communicating tempo is the second note you play. The distance between that note and the first one, coupled with the first note’s value, communicates the tempo of the whole passage. Think about the first few measures, hearing the phrase in your head, before you begin.

It’s easy to speed up or slow down unintentionally in performance, especially for an inexperienced soloist. Your heart races when you’re nervous, and the adrenalin flows. That can create trouble when you go into a difficult passage at a speed you can’t sustain. If you tend to do that, ask your accompanist to pull you back before that section, playing the agreed-upon tempo instead of following you over the cliff. An experienced accompanist, playing from the score, is more likely to hit a predetermined tempo than an inexperienced soloist playing from memory.

You can also slow yourself down by subdividing, if you have the presence of mind to do that. Subdividing is an ideal way to clean up rhythm problems, which contribute to miscommunications that affect tempo. If you’re dragging and need to speed up, think in shorter, crisper syllables: “1 a 2 a,” instead of “1 and 2 and.”

If you need to slow down the accompanist, pull back noticeably. Racing to catch up implies you want to go faster, not slower, and she’ll be happy to oblige. Practice resetting the tempo in rehearsal by playing at the tempo you want, instead of stopping and telling the accompanist to speed up or slow down. If necessary, identify spots in each piece, ideally near the beginning, where you can reset the tempo, without drawing attention to it, if the accompanist is going too fast or too slow for you.

For an accelerando, agree on when it starts, how long it lasts, how fast it gets, who’s leading it, and when to settle into the new tempo. In one piece my accompanist and I performed recently, the piano accelerates while the bells are silent, then I come in again with malleted notes at a much faster tempo. We agreed she would finish accelerating a full measure before my entrance so I could anticipate, count to myself, and rejoin the piece at the new tempo.

For other tempo changes (like fermatas and ritards), discuss in rehearsal who is going to lead. If that’s your responsibility, use clear signals. In addition to the signaling techniques discussed in the other articles, you can use the size of your circles (held at a steady speed) to help the accompanist discern your intentions. Isolate these passages and rehearse them until you’re comfortable staying together. Having your accompanist record a rehearsal tape allows you to reinforce the agreed-upon interpretation in practice, since a metronome can’t help you with tempo changes.

When performing with an unfamiliar accompanist, and/or after limited rehearsal time, you can beat time with your hand behind the bell table before you start each piece, as you sing a few measures in your head, to remind the accompanist of the tempo. This reminds me of a useful trick for a conductor to communicate tempo to a bell choir that needs a refresher. Facing the bell choir, tap your left fist just below the collarbone before starting the conducting pattern. The motion will be invisible to audience, and the choir is less likely to misinterpret the gesture as the start of the piece than if you use a small beat pattern with your right hand (which they’re watching for the downbeat).

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,