Home | Biography | Español | Listen | Clips | Advice | Notes | Colleagues | Events
"The fantastic colours you created on the St Mary's organ will stay with me for ever."
Advice for Other Musicians
Every pupil of mine will hear, at some point or other, two stories. I have repeated them so many times that I can't remember whether or not they really happened quite as I tell them, but they seem instructive anyway...
Every year at 7 in the morning on Ascension Day, the Choir at St Mary's Church, Warwick, sings a short service at the top of the church tower. At exactly the same time the choir from St Nicholas' Church sings from a tower of Warwick Castle. In 1988 and 1989 I conducted St Nicholas' Choir as part of this ceremony. (Nowadays St Mary's Girls' Choir also sings from another tower in the town, but that choir wasn't formed until just after my time.) The idea was not to synchronise performances - you couldn't really hear the other choir anyway - and the groups didn't even plan to sing the same music.
However, in my second year both choirs happened to include the hymn Hail the day that sees him rise. Our performances were recorded for local television, and the resulting news item alternated clips from the St Mary's performance of the hymn with clips from my St Nicholas' version.
I conducted two beats per bar, whilst my friend at St Mary's beat twice as often, so in four. What struck me, as the news item swapped from one version to the other, was the marked change in effect apparently caused by the different numbers of beats. My friend's version was quite march-like, whilst mine had more of a lilt to it, even though the speeds of the performances were comparable. The point isn't that one rendition was better than the other: they were just different very noticeably so.
This story shows how fundamentally a listener can be affected by a performer feeling a piece in crotchets, minims or whatever. Fewer, slower beats tend to create a sense of flow; a greater number of faster beats gives an impression of strictness or urgency. Sometimes you can transform a performance, simply by feeling the beats differently.
Then there's the story of my French teacher.
One of my French teachers at school did all sorts of things, apart from teaching French. One week he gave out pages of English sentences for us to translate into French and told us that this was our week's work. Meanwhile he would spend each lesson organising some trip or other to Africa. We were just about to start work, when he added that any corrections we made would be marked as wrong: so if we made a mistake and then put it right, we should be penalised.
You can imagine that we started our translations incredibly slowly, trying to get every detail right first time. The surprising thing was that, by the end of the week, we were writing almost as fast as if we were copying out the English versions. It seemed as if we had simply lost the habit of making mistakes, and so nothing held us back. I reckon that practising music can be similar: if you begin so slowly that you don't make any mistakes, then all that remains is to speed up - there are no other obstacles to overcome. Often when we practise, we are too ambitious and can end up training ourselves to play a passage wrongly, just because we haven't the patience to play slowly enough.
Just be careful of two things: making no mistakes includes using a sensible and consistent fingering - an inadequate fingering might work when you play slowly, but not when you speed up. The second warning is really the point at which the story falls down: we may well use different muscles to play the same passage at different speeds. So practising slowly doesn't always train us in an entirely appropriate way. Obviously you need to bear this in mind, but I'd say that the basic point of the story is still valid.