The Pit and the Pendulum, Part 1


I’ve emerged from the pit thinking about rhythm and tempo.  I’m there all week with the orchestra putting together Carlisle Floyd’s opera, Susannah.  There’s a lot that can go wrong on stage, and even more with this show as it includes live gunshots!  All in all, it was a good first rehearsal.  The only lingering issues are finding a consensus with rhythm and tempo.

Certainly, these are two things that are very important to my craft as a conductor.  Tempo control, metric organization and rhythmic precision are all something that is a great responsibility for all of us–the conductor, singer, and orchestra.  But behind all my admonishments to “watch the stick,” “play the subdivision correctly,” and  “don’t rush (or drag),” there is a deeper truth to the importance of flow and rhythm in the music.

“Time is like a superglue, keeping our story in order as we navigate the world around us”—Maurizio Benazzo

Composers choose the tempos and rhythmic subdivisions of their music with great care, and we must certainly defer to their indications and the style period when determining how music is to be played.  When we do this, we discover that melodies simply work better at certain tempos.  For vocal music, the words are understood better.  For orchestra, the phrases breathe easier.  For the entire package, the drama is energized better.

Rhythm and tempo are indeed two of the critical elements that hold a composition together.  Unfortunately, we musicians often learn these as dry subjects.  We learn to “play correctly.”  Indeed, we must do this if there is any hope of tight ensemble.  Understanding the correct subdivision and how it fits into the whole is tantamount to understanding a piece of music.  That is only the beginning, though.

Few musicians continue the journey into why the music is written as it is.  Why does a pickup note energize the melody?  Why does a rhythm pervade the piece?  Why does the dotted “8th-16th” rhythm feel differently for one piece over another?  This needs to be asked from the first time a musician approaches a piece.  But also, it should be a question to be asked when the music is not going as smoothly as it should.  Us musicians, we get stuck on “notes.”  (Pitches, tone, melodies and the like).  What we forget is that without the rhythm (which in my opinion includes meter and tempo), the music may bear little resemblance to what the composer intended. And the key to understanding (and fixing) is often found there, in the lifeblood of music—TIME.

So this is why I insist on understanding rhythm and also relaying certain information to the orchestra through gestures and sometimes words.  The way a rhythm is played, the pace at which a tempo flows, and the natural stresses of metric organization all lead towards understanding and transmission of the music within the notes.  In turn, this leads to an informed and effective performance of the music. Now, if we could only get that shotgun blast to go off in time…

Copyright 2012, Robert Baldwin


3 thoughts on “The Pit and the Pendulum, Part 1

  1. Reblogged this on afcbenburt and commented:
    Robert Baldwin, Music Director for the Salt Lake Symphony, Music Director for the Utah Philharmonia, and Director of Orchestral Activities at the University of Utah shares his thoughts on the importance of rhythm, meter, and tempo – an aspect of music often neglected when focusing on notes, pitches, timbre, sound quality, etc.

    Dr. Craig Jessop, director of the American Festival Chorus, stresses this as well. Dr. Jessop uses “count singing” – a method he inherited from studying with Robert Shaw and the Robert Shaw Singers. This is where the notes are sung by singing “One, Two, Tee, Four”. This ensures the musicians keep an “inner pulse” going on inside their head when the time comes to put actual words to the music. It also helps musicians know exactly when notes are moving, beginning and ending of phrases, and note durations. Dr. Jessop swears by this practice.

  2. I think that the “ta-ka-di-mi” syllable system is very effective to help musicians internalize rhythm, meter, and tempo. Making students conduct and count sing is problematic because they are having to consistently remember where to place the subdivision of beat in addition to remembering where they are in an algorithmic beat structure. Students do not necessarily need to count during a musical activity if they are conducting. If they are good at conducting, they already know where they are metrically. I have had very good results with my students in my musicianship courses.

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