Ideas for developing tempo memory and inner pulse

It’s good, as the Stoics told us, to have tools that are simple to use and of a very limited number – so that we may locate and employ them on a moment’s notice.

– David Mamet, in On Directing Film

I’d like to share some thoughts and exercises to cultivate one’s sense of time and ability to recall tempos in the abstract (i.e. without a musical context). Although the exercises I present here are designed with the conductor in mind, I believe instrumentalists will be able to extend most of these concepts to their practice regiment, as well.

Throughout this post, I will present four exercises that are each intended to develop consistency of internal tempo and the ability to recall tempi based on common melodies concurrently. The approach I take in these exercises is based on the following statements being true (at least for me, personally):

  • It is more reliable to use one melody to recall numerous tempos that are multiples of the same base
  • conducting technique should be practiced dilligently while divorcced from an actual piece, just like practicing instrumental technique
  • One should practice conducting various tempi both with and without singing the corresponding melody in his/her head, because these are different experiences internally, and both are useful
  • A subdivided beat (into eighth notes, for example) and the note value of the subdivision conducted in an un-subdivided pattern (like 4/8 in the same eighth note pulse as the previous example) feel very different and should be practiced adjacent to one another to ensure consistency.
  • practicing consecutive metric modulations while the metronome remains at a steady pulse provides for the best and smoothest practice-to-rehearsal experience, and is deeply stimulating for one’s rhythmic sensibilities.

I would like to note that although I’ve attempted to design and notate these exercises in a somewhat precise manner, my hope is that readers will pull what concepts they find most stimulating from these and incorporate them into their own practice ideologies.

In case you’re curious, here is a list of what melodies I hear in my head to recall various tempi:

30 / 60 / 120: Stars and Stripes Forever – Sousa

36 / 72 / 144: Tchaikovsky Sym. No. 4, mvmt 1

40 / 80 / 160: I Could’ve Danced All Night (although, I use Economy of Wax by Australian composer Nicholas Vines often)

44 / 88: Tom Sawyer by Rush

45 / 90: Scheherezade, mvmt 2 – Rimsky-Korsakov

48 / 96: Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, Ragtime

50 / 100: March from Berlioz’s Faust (or Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, mvmt 2)

52 / 104: Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, mvmt 1, allegro

54 / 108: Kiss by Prince

56 / 112: Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, mvmt 1

58 / 116: Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice

66 / 132: Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess Overture

69 / 138: Stravinsky’s Petroushka, opening

76 / 152: Jennifer Higdon’s Zaka

This list demonstrates what I meant when I suggested that it’s best to use one melody for numerous tempi that are multiples of the same base. Not only does doing this simplify the task of memorizing the speed of these melodies, but it also creates a situation of great inter-connectivity, in which – for example – practicing conducting at 120 also means automatically practicing the 60 and 30 tempi, and vice versa.

Consider the first exercise below. An explanation follows:

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The top line represents what the conductor is beating (i.e. a 4/4 bar of quarter notes means simply beating a normal bar of 4/4). The bottom line is when the metronome is clicking. You’ll notice immediately that the metronome is clicking only on the downbeats. This is how I use the metronome almost exclusively during technique practice now (although I use a metronome clicking all the beats frequently when learning pieces). I find the down-beat only click to be the most under-used practice technique. My using this is a product of my background in percussion; this was a common technique employed while preparing orchestral audition excerpts. I have yet to encounter other conductors who do this, but I’ve found it invaluable. For me, practicing with a downbeat-only click allows for the most natural development of internal time-keeping because it forces the conductor to rely only on a rigorous internal counting mechanism. When practicing with a click on every beat, the process is often a series a constant micro-adjustments caused by noting where one’s beats are occurring relative to the clicks. This is why it is so common to hear someone say “make sure you are exactly with the metronome.” It is too easy to be floating along with a metronome click without being complete congruent, and thus getting only a fraction of the benefit. Needless to say, the standard metronome setting of clicking on all the beats has many obvious and good uses, but my preference is to use this downbeat-only method while practicing basic technique.

The first bar of exercise no. 1 contains only a metronome click on the downbeat and a preparatory gesture that is notated parenthetically. I’ve included this seemingly innocuous opening bar because it enforces the accuracy of one’s internally singing of the tempo-related melody. The conductor must hear the melody immediately after the first click; there is no opportunity to have the crutch of listening to multiple clicks before beginning the melody. This beginning procedure mimics – to some extant – the exactitude with which a conductor must produce these internal melodies in an actual rehearsal situation.

Also note the presence of eighth notes within a subdivided pattern and an un-subdivided pattern. This also leads back to a previous point: beating time subdivided into eighth notes (or any other value) feels much different than beating the same eighth notes in an un-subdivided pattern. To clarify further, I’m referencing the relationship between the subdivided 4/4 and the 4/8 in exercise no. 1. The tendency I’ve noticed in myself and some colleagues is for the subdivided 4/4 to be slightly too slow, and the 4/8 to be slightly too fast. Practicing these together (within the context of basic quarter-note patterns) will lead to greater unity between subdivided and un-subdivided conducting.

The conductor is asked to conduct both with and without hearing the melody in his/hr head in this exercise. I am not going to expound on why in great detail here, as I think that could be a whole other post unto itself, but I will write that I’ve found it useful to be able to do both of these in rehearsal and performance situations, and the ability to consciously switch between the two is paramount to me. Some readers will likely wonder why using these tempo-related melodies is necessary at all, considering that the conductor is meant to simply hear the piece s/he is conducting at the correct tempo, made possible by pain-staking preparation. This is absolutely true! But, much of the music that I and my new music-oriented colleagues conduct is often too abstract to suggest pulse. An even more fundamental reason to bother with these melodies is that conductors knowing tempos is one of the most basic parts of our “chops.” It’s akin to a violinist being highly proficient at scales: s/he might not actually play a scale in a given piece, but the ability to play scales makes the work in question easier nonetheless.

I’m not compelled to address what I understand to be the most basic concept covered in this exercise: maintaining tempo though differing subdivisions, dynamics, and general beating styles. The difficulty of general tempo maintenance is well-known and must be practiced at length.

Here is Exercise no. 2, which bears many similarities to no. 1, with a focus on metric modulation:

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This exercise employs some additional notational devices as compared to no. 1. I believe they are intuitive, but allow me to point out that there is sometimes a third rhythm floating above the conductor’s line; this represents what the conductor should subdivide in his/her internal counting to prepare the upcoming modulation. There are also the modulation indications themselves, which are easily recognizable and marked in green highlighter here.

The principle idea in exercise no. 2 is to practice metric modulations under a common metronomic pulse. Like no. 1. the click begins on only the downbeats, but is then forced into others places in bars by the metric modulations. This should illuminate the need for a line dedicated only to the metronome. I find that this method of practicing works only when I’m aware of where the metronome clicks will sound.

Aside from the usual practice benefits, I like that one is able to practice several tempi and modulations consecutively here, and I also enjoy the stimulus that comes with the metronome click shifting places within bars.

i should note that the notion of singing melodies and switching to only counting internally is not addressed in specifics, as it is in exercise no.1. I’ve left this open-ended only because it is not the thrust of this exercise, as it is in no. 1 (and no. 4). Even so, great care should be taken to feel the internal pulse, thereby fitting precisely with the metronome. This care should be informed by the procedures detailed in no. 1, including hearing the appropriate melody internally.

Exercise no. 3 is an elaboration of no. 2. No additional comments are necessary:

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Exercise no. 4 asks the conductor to execute only preparatory gestures and their respective downbeats. There should be no motion when the conductor’s line has rests. In other words, during the 4/4 portion of this exercise, one should be delivering an ictus only with the metronome clicks.

This exercise goes back to the primary goals of no. 1: to practice consistency of inner pulse and accuracy of melody-based tempo memory concurrently. As such, it also asks the conductor to begin by hearing the melody internally, switching to only hearing the counting of the pulse once comfortable.

For me, this exercise addresses internal pulse in the most complete way possible, because it obfuscates the conductor’s ability to rely on the regular “physical cadence” of consistent conducting motion to inform his/her inner tempo. To clarify this point: if the conductor was asked only to deliver preparatory beats of all the same duration, s/he would begin to intuit the tempo by virtue of the fact that the baton is moving with regularity. Needless to say, so-called “muscle memory” plays a major part in conducting technique, including tempo acquisition and maintenance. However, pure internal pulse is the backbone, and this exercise is designed to strengthen exclusively this.

Here is no. 4:

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I hope that you are able to take something away from these ideas for your own journey toward a personal and meaningful technique, informed by your artistic sensibilities and musical intuition.

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