Musical Time and Expression Part 2: How to Teach Tempo, Pacing, and Timing

Experiencing Musical Time

We experience musical time in a couple of ways. Two of the most common ways are as the performer or as the observer. As performers we have the ability to take the audience on a journey with us. 

Most people have opinions about musical tempo, pacing, and timing. Think about your favorite song or piece of music. Now imagine it at half speed. How does it make you feel? Now imagine it twice as fast. How does the acceleration make you feel? 

Without realizing it, we have ingrained ideas and strong opinions about musical timing. Many times, it is connected to our first hearing or experience with a particular piece of music or specific performance. 

If we have pre-programmed thoughts on musical time, how do we approach bringing our own unique perspective to musical time and interpretation?

How to Help Students

How do we help students break out of the mold of “I heard it this way and this is what it shall be?”

There is not one way. However, there are some tools we can use to help students (and ourselves) make intelligent, tasteful, unique, and appropriate choices.

Teaching Musical Time

Here’s how I approach teaching tempo and musical timing:

Have students research/look up the tempo markings on their own.

Have the students write the meaning of the word in their music.

It used to surprise me that students did not know they needed to look up musical terms. Then I realized part of my job is to teach them to do this step!

Teach the student general ranges (metronome ranges) of tempo markings. 

Ask students to ask this question: Did the composer indicate this marking or was it added later by an editor? 

From here we discuss composer intention and the differences between composer markings and editorial markings. 

To avoid headaches, make sure your students are using good reputable editions.

Encourage the student to listen to different performances by well known professional musicians.

I have them compare the recordings and come up with what they like and they do not like. We then discuss number composer intent and editorial markings again.

Discuss good taste, performance practice, practicality, and musical style

This can be tricky. Depending on the level of the student they may not have an extensive background in music history or performance practice. This is a great opportunity to discuss these issues.

Have the student put the piece in a box–meaning strictly in time–with a metronome, no fluctuations. 

At the point the student will start to see and feel where changing the timing or the pacing of a particular passage may be warranted. In Bach, this is extremely obvious and uncomfortable. 

Then the student can go back without the metronome and push and pull where it feels right or makes sense. This is a conversation students and I have frequently. 

Stand back and let the student make choices.

Some teachers have a tendency to micromanage. While I believe there are definitely times the teacher needs to step in and say, no you must do it this way. Letting a student come up with his/her own ideas and then teaching them how and why their idea works or doesn’t work teaches the lesson better and inspires students to be creative, inquisitive, and responsible for their own musical journey.

Now, if a student comes up with a crazy idea, like playing a presto movement at a QN=35, then you must step in and fix it. However, if you teach students the history, the purpose, and meaning behind the expressive and tempo markings, you set them up to be more independent thinkers who will make stylistically intelligent choices. 

There is Always More…

There is so much more to discuss about the nuance of pacing and timing, but these are the initial ways I approach teaching tempo and fluctuations with students.