Perhaps the first thing we’re aware of in our embryonic state is the steady heart-beat that envelops us in the womb. It accompanies us throughout our lives, responding to various stresses with variations in speed – but it’s with us to the end.
So it’s not surprising that ‘beat’ is a fundamental component of metric rhythm – it is the pulse that underlies the rhythmic and tonal structure erected above it by the song. It’s different from a metronomic beat: I hear my own heart-rhythm as ‘da-dum, da-dum’. It’s capable of going faster as I climb the stairs, and slower as I sink towards sleep at night. So it responds to circumstances, as does the song. But if the steady living beat doesn’t exist, whatever structure is erected above it is built on sand. There is no way it can hold together.
As I travel around the country, working with many different choirs, I find that the lack of comprehension of this fundamental ‘beat’ is a principal weakness of these groups. It’s almost as if the printed page gave us license to do whatever we wish with the words, and the concept of movement, or dance, doesn’t apply unless it’s something as obvious as a march, waltz or polka. And the universal ritardando as we get to the last line of a hymn is an American aberration of the first order. Why do we do it? We wouldn’t think of it in a Mozart sonata or Beethoven symphony. . .
Those of you who have worked with me know that I divide songs into two groups: metric (steady beat) and chant (going with the rhythm of the well-spoken text – that’s another article.) But even the second category has its own tempo and rhythm. Don’t you know people who always speak very quickly? And others who drag out their phrases, or have characteristic pauses in their speech? It’s never just random, nor does it always slow down as it approaches an ending. The underlying ‘beat’ in chant is apt to be farther apart than the metric one – rather like interstellar distances as compared with a yardstick. But it’s there!
Tempo is the beginning, and finding just the right one ensures that the whole work can flow easily. (I often write small choral suites, with movements that vary principally according to tempo – fast, slow, fast, etc. Often I hear performances where all three pieces are done at the same tempo, thus missing a principal organizing factor of the work.) So think of tempo visually as a row of dots on a page, either close together or spread out, according to the speed. Then over that, we apply accents, which gives us our duple or triple meter. Over that come durations: the actual note-values we’re singing. Over that come phrase lengths, where the music ‘breathes’; and sections, and movements and the whole. One of the fundamentals of score-study is marking where the composer indicates a tempo change, or accel. or ritard. The reader gets these fixed in his/her mind at the beginning of study, not the end, and recreates the piece by following the creator’s guidelines (rather like building from an architect’s drawing).
Again, keeping tempo is not a metronomic function. I love the story (apocryphal?) of Beethoven throwing his friend’s invention across the room when he tried to play his own music to its steady beat. The music is living, and doesn’t want to be nailed down. But the pulse is there, holding things together, keeping us from excess in either direction. (Rubato within the measure is fine; constant rubato is rather like sea-sickness.) The places that particularly need a steady tempo are the junctions: where one phrase or section meets another. It’s over these rests that we particularly need a firm hand – and that less-experienced performers may often allow the beat to sag, or stop. And the music sags and stops with it.
Thinking of tempo and beat in dance terms is particularly relevant. Musical tempo is physical tempo: how would a wonderful dancer move to this beat? How does a leap affect the metronomic tempo? Is the movement light and expansive, moving across the floor? Or heavy and accented, down into the floor? The music sets up and follows these hidden patterns, and we ignore them at our peril. (This is just as true of hymn-tunes and folk-songs as it is of suites, symphonies and ballets.)
I’ll close by noting that our instrumentalists are much better-trained in keeping the beat than our singers, probably because they move right into band or orchestra and have to learn ensemble disciplines that depend on steadiness. But we singers need this discipline as much as they need the sensitivity to rubato that dancers and singers have. We’re all responding to that same, primal beat. The middle ground is exhilarating when it’s found. neither a slavish adherence to the page, nor a complete surrender to the affect of the text, iit balances the sensitivity to well-spoken language within the encompassing rhythm. Perhaps we can adapt the Serenity Prayer to our use:
Dear Lord, help me to find the dancing pulse of the song,
help me to recognize the subtle rhythms of speech,
and help me to honor them both!