In some Romantic music it may be appropriate to change tempo slightly when the musical idea changes, even if this is not specified in the score. This is just one of many personal freedoms that is part of Romantic style. However, in a Classical sonata we need to be able to contain the various different musical ideas in a movement more or less within one basic tempo – contrast within a unified tempo is what helps everything hang together.

Quality of Beat

I am no conductor, but when I wave my arms around in a lesson I feel that the energy of the beats varies from one section of the music to another, even though the tempo may stay exactly the same. The beat may have a strong, explosive attack which I show with a snap of the wrist. If this needs to happen at the piano or pianissimo level, I might make the movements quite small and high up. If the beats blend into one another smoothly, I might show this with more circular motions or even a figure of eight. The tempo stays the same but the energy and quality of the beat can change markedly within that tempo. This is often what happens in a Classical sonata first movement – the first subject may be extrovert and the second subject more expressive and intimate. As players respond to the different musical material, they often seem to change tempo without even realising. This is obviously an issue that needs our attention.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R92264,_Herbert_von_Karajan

Herbert von Karajan in 1941 Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R92264 / CC-BY-SA

Our Inner Conductor

Of course we can use the metronome to stabilise the beat as we practise, this is such a tried and tested way of doing things that I am not going to dwell on it for a moment. However, I have often noticed that such metronome practice is not actually that helpful at all in achieving a unified tempo, so there has to be another way to fix the problem of slowing down here, and rushing there. I would like to share a process I use with my students that I have found more effective than the metronome, since the feeling of beat comes from within and not from some external source. Here’s how it works:

  1. Find Your Tempo. This may come from the beginning of the piece, the second theme, some other theme, a little bit in the LH somewhere near the end, etc. It’ll be the part where the music feels just so to you, inherently right (regardless of any metronome marking, even if this is from the composer). Choose a snippet of music from there – a few bars is fine.
  2. First Imagine It. Instead of using your hands to play, conduct while imagining the music in your head. You don’t need to have any conducting skills whatever, just a willingness to move about a bit in the privacy of your practice room. The movements can be small or large, you can stay seated at the piano or you can stand up and walk around. Let your voice join in if it wants to. Do whatever feels right.
  3. Minimise Your Conductor. After you have found your ideal tempo and it is alive in your body, internalise the conductor. You may feel it pulsing somewhere in your stomach, in your torso or in your left big toe. Make sure to feel the energy physically in your body, don’t let it degenerate into cerebral counting.
  4. Play Soundbites. Go straight to the part of your piece where you found your tempo and with your inner conductor (now minimised and internalised) running the show from a quiet corner, play a short soundbite (a bar, a couple of bars, a phrase – not too much).
  5. STOP! As you remove your hands from the keyboard, feel the inner conductor continuing. The pulse is still fully alive in your body even though you are just sitting there and not playing. Like a car engine idling as you wait at the red light, you are ready to go when you decide.
  6. Move On. Focus on another section of the piece, wherever feels right. Call upon your inner conductor to control the tempo in your imagination – the mood and colour may have changed, but the tempo will be the same. Spend a few moments imagining the new section before you play a soundbite from it, just a short snippet (return to Step 2 if you need to).
  7. Soundbite the Entire Piece. If the piece is a classical sonata, you can continue with this process for the whole movement. A bar or two here, a phrase there from the exposition, then the development and the recapitulation. Each time you do this, try and vary where you take the soundbites from. Between each soundbite, return to the idling conductor so when you play you have really felt the tempo and energy of the music in your body, not just in your head.

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As with my other eBooks, Part 3 features numerous video demonstrations, exercises written out in manuscript and practice suggestions.  It also features a number of resources and interactive tools to keep you motivated and to make your practising more effective.

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