I am fond of telling my instrumental ensembles — quoting from Bruce Adolphe’s What To Listen For in the World — that “a good tempo is a discovery.” Well, I discovered something recently, and it was not good tempos that I discovered.
It borders on “keeping a record of wrongs,” I guess, but since it was with a view toward helping some of the wrongs to turn toward the right, may I be exonerated, please? Here’s my sin: one Sunday morning, I used my smartphone’s metronome app during church to tap out the slow tempos being used so I could report them later. Here’s what I found, in sum: the range of tempos was from 40 beats per minute (lentissimo, slower than a funeral march) to 90 beats per minute (andante, barely moderato). This window or range of tempos was way out of kilter. It should have been from about 60 to about 132 or 140. The musical dilettante or musical illiterate may not comprehend the affective damage done by a tempo that is 40% too slow, but when these offending lethargies are perpetrated, everyone suffers—certainly not just the musicians in the church gathering.
I want to share the details, with apologies to an old friend who was the leader on this soporific morning and who might perchance end up seeing this post. It’s really not his fault—it’s the fault of the size (think Behemoth or Leviathan) and nature (tradition-based) of the congregation he was in front of! Below are the titles of the songs, followed by a) the actual tempos tapped out on my metronome, and then b) a tempo I would recommend.
- Tell Me the Story of Jesus: was 48-52, should be 120
- Come, All Ye Faithful: was 80, should be 104
- Silent Night: 8th note was 66, should be 88
- Little Town of Bethlehem: was 84, should be 100
- Away in a Manger: was 69-84, should be 92 (this one wasn’t far off the mark at times)
- To Us a Child of Hope Is Born: was 72, should be 96)
- O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: was 68, should be 104)
- Jesus, Name Above All Names: was 40, should be 60)
- Why Did My Savior Come To Earth: was 60, should be 90
- My Lord Has Garments So Wondrous Fine: quarter note was 80, should be 100
- Hark! the Herald Angels Sing: was 90, should be 116
- One Day: dotted half was 52, should be 76
- I Will Sing the Wondrous Story: was 66, should be 88
- Joy to the World: was 69, should be 96
Tempo is, to a great extent, a subjective matter; to be sure, not all who were present that morning will have felt as though they were sleep-singing. Yet I submit that pretty much everyone could have experienced more of the messages of those songs if the tempos had not crawled. We can all learn from others’ perspectives, and I add mine on tempo in church singing here: there are some guidelines and “windows of acceptability” that demand the attention of leaders.
(To be continued)