The tricky thing about tempo is that even though it can be measured in an objective way (60 beats per minute is 60 beats per minutes), it can seem subjective.
“That’s Way Too Fast!”
How many times have any of you been in a band practice when someone says, “That’s way too fast!” or “You played that slower last time”? Until someone assigns an actual metronome setting to go by, it really is subjective. The tempo at which one person feels a song should be performed at is going to almost always be different than what anyone else in the room is going to think.
The Subjective Nature of Tempos
Early on in my life as a band leader, after an advice session with Ric Haddad, I started to assign tempos to all my songs. Funny thing, though, when I ever brought any of those tempos to band practice, they all seemed SO SLOW! Oh my goodness. So I would increase my beats per minute a bit to accommodate my feeling during band practice.
Then I would take the setting back to my personal practice session, and it would feel way too fast, so I would slow it down again.
In the event that any of these songs made it to the stage (yes, I would bring my metronome on stage and click us all in), everything felt like I was swimming through molasses. OMG!
What’s really happening is the level of adrenaline in my body at the moment is seriously affecting how I want to perform a song.
What to do?
Road Test Your Tempos
Over a period of time, I adjusted all my tempos to what felt good in rehearsal and then reconciled myself to how fast if felt in personal practice and how slow it felt in performance. An interesting thing happened. I started to feel way more comfortable on stage.
Maybe it’s because I’m an extreme diva of a singer (all current and past band members must hold their tongues at this moment), but I get used to singing phrases of words at certain speeds, and I get flipped out if the tempo feels a hair off. If the band can stay at the tempo we agreed on when the pressure is on, at long last, I can relax. So many things on stage are DISTRACTING that at least I could take the tempo distraction out of the mix.
Some Helpful Tools
Another extremely helpful tool, if you’re playing covers, is to use a beats per minute app like BPM Tap for Android or Tap That Tempo for iPhone. I like these because they have giant, easy-to-read displays:
BPM Tap for Android
Tap That Tempo for iPhone
They’re easy peasy to use:
- Start playing a recording of the original song you’re working on
- Open the bpm app
- Start tapping the screen in time to the music
- A big number will show that will be changing slightly as you tap because, well, no one I know is a robot and can tap perfect tempo.
- Take the average number and call that your tempo.
Some sheet music will show an actual tempo marking at the beginning of the score like this:
Advice for Bands
My advice to anyone in a band who gets frustrated about tempo: set a hard number to start with and then take input from other band members. Play with it. Road test it.
It many take a few performances to settle in, but after that, you can usually start to play it without the help of the click to count you in.