The wisdom of insecurity

In 1994 I went on a trip to Sweden with the Lothian Regional Orchestra and Jazz Band. Our host, a man with the resoundingly Nordic name of Gerry Morrisey, took us out for a tour in his car and and pointed out a patch of spare ground covered in oil where learner drivers would practise dealing with skids. Immediately I wondered why we don’t do that here. Why defer your first skid until you are either in traffic or in danger?

This flashed through my mind today when I was thinking about the dangers which acceleration* can present in an ensemble situation**. Many people’s first experience of minimal control occurs in a concert. They may have limited experience of:

  • the factors causing it – adrenalin – allowing a tempo in excess of the norm to feel normal
  • acoustical/aural novelties – not sitting next to (as as near to) the people you normally follow
  • how to be part of the remedy*** – increase your volume and slowing down while your section is in command of the most frequent notes i.e. make people wait for you
  • how to notice that another section (or individual) is offering a remedy i.e. being so at home with the own part that you have spare attention for the other parts

So, can you practise these skills? Here is a midi file of a Bach Air with wandering tempo. The tempo changes every bar. For the first minute the changes, while noticeable, are mild. Thereafter, they are more drastic – even humorous. Why not try the following tasks?

  • See if you can keep track of the beat by tapping your finger on your leg (this way you’ll feel it in addition to hearing it).
  • See if you can hear the best part to follow – the one with the most frequent notes
  • Try to play along if you know it (this version is in G as opposed to the original key of D – consider it an extra challenge 🙂

* deceleration is rare – curiously a wandering tempo usually goes up, whereas wandering pitch usually goes down

** this is less of a problem in a solo situation and, if it does occur, is more quickly fixed – the nature of the situation being more like a speedy dictatorship than a time-consuming democracy

*** I’m referring here solely to ensembles without a conductor – otherwise you’d simply follow the beat (easier said than done).