Fools rush in

I’ve learned from experience to expect the unexpected when I play music in a memory-care setting. Sometimes audience members loudly demand to be taken back to their rooms. Others obediently follow instructions from staff to sit down and “listen to the nice music.” There’s usually a few who participate by singing or clapping, occasionally even dancing. But only once has a resident decided to help count off the music.

It happened a couple of years ago, when I was playing keyboard in an 8-piece band, an all-volunteer group that performed big-band music in nursing and retirement homes. We were “self-directed,” meaning that one of our members—Steve, our saxophone/clarinet player—counted off, at the tempo we’d agreed upon in rehearsals. It was up to us to lock into that beat and stay together when we played. We had no conductor’s baton to guide us.

This particular evening, each time Steve started his count-off with “One,” a resident called out straightaway from the back of the room, “TWO!” Following her count would have had us playing at breakneck speed all night. But in her world, “TWO!” was obviously the response we were looking for, and she wanted to get her answer in quickly, before anyone else had the chance.

Music played at a fast clip does seem to impress audiences, I’ve noticed. They somehow equate speed with advanced skill. Sure, it can require a lot of technical proficiency to play fast. But there’s so much more to playing music than hitting all the notes. Real musicianship—phrasing, expression, interpretation—usually requires that a performer take a bit of time.

A slower rendition can alter the whole character of a song—for the better. Take Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” for example. It’s a song about a song:

Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night
Dreaming of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you…

Carmichael recorded “Stardust” in 1927, at a fast, jazzy tempo. But a few years later, it was a slower arrangement by Victor Young, recorded by Isham Jones and his orchestra, that brought out the soaring beauty of the melody and made the song a hit.

More slow and easy Carmichael compositions followed, like “Georgia on My Mind,” and a couple of lazy-themed songs: “Lazybones” and “Up a Lazy River.”

Similarly, George Gershwin’s melody for “Someone to Watch Over Me” (1926) was originally up-tempo, but he changed it when he realized the song sounded better as a slow romantic ballad.

Sheet music for popular songs typically indicates the speed they should be played. The instruction might be simple, like slowly. Or something a bit more creative: slowly and rhapsodically (“April Love”), or slowly but insistently (“The Man That Got Away”). Middle-of-the-road tempo markings, too, get inventive. I understand the instruction moderately with sentiment that appears on my sheet music for the World War II favorite “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover.” But I’m not exactly sure how to play “Winter Wonderland” moderately with humor.

I’m amused by quirky tempo markings that borrow from the classical music tradition of using Italian terms, like Tempo di Ja-Da for the 1918 tune “Ja-Da,” or Tempo di Rube for “Goofus” from 1930.

But my favorite pseudo-Italian term describes the very slow pace musicians use to tackle a new piece: Tempo di Learno.

Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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This entry was posted in Music history, Piano performance, Songwriters, Volunteering and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fools rush in

  1. Riff Noggin says:

    Couldn’t agree more about tempo. I’ve been attending jazz jams, where the apparent goal is to break the speed barrier. A local “star” trombone player told me outright, “I want to play as many notes as fast as I can.” Boring.

  2. Jessa says:

    Ha! That’s so funny that she participated that way.

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