3.4 Slowing Down & Speeding Up

In most cases, it’s a lot easier to get an ensemble to do a rallentando than an accelerando and there are at least a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, ask any reasonably accomplished musician to play something “more musically” and they will usually play it slower! When we talk about rubato the first thing that comes to mind is taking more time, not less. Therefore it doesn’t take much encouragement from the conductor to make it happen. On the other hand, getting faster is so often associated with rushing (one of the things we are taught never to do as musicians) and potentially playing before anyone else. As the old saying goes, the two worst crimes in music are coming in early and being flat!

Here are a few general principles to apply:

  • As you slow down, use more space so that there is a perception of more time being taken as more distance is travelled. As you speed up, get smaller so that you can travel through space in less time.
  • To slow down (or to prevent the ensemble rushing) put more angles and corners into the beat, possibly even stopping between the beats. To speed up (or to prevent the ensemble dragging) use more flowing, circular, continuous gestures. Think of a ball rolling down a hill gathering speed easily as opposed to a cube. Do not beat harder or nothing will happen.
  • Think of the slowing down happening on the strong beats, so emphasise beats one and three in a 4/4. The strength of the downbeat applies the brakes to the music. Think of the speeding up happening on the weak beats – beats two and four in a 4/4 – and give as little emphasis to the strong beats as you can. The upbeat propels the music forward into the next measure.
  • If the slowing down is so extreme that you need to change the value of your beat, think of the time and space. For example, when you change the beat from half notes to quarter notes you are doing twice as many beats as you were. So aim for the quarter notes to be about half the size of your half notes. The opposite is true when speeding up and going from quarter notes to half notes. This sense of proportion is very helpful for the musicians.
  • Usually, problems will be caused by starting to slow down too soon, and not starting to speed up early enough.
  • As you begin to conduct high level musicians, you will find that their desire to slow down at the end of a beautiful phrase is so strong that you may find yourself thinking of an accelerando in order to prevent it grinding to a halt.
  • When you have a tempo after slowing down, it is incredibly easy to not quite get back to the same speed. A good way to avoid this is to think of “a tempo + 5%”.

The Elgar excerpt shows a fairly pronounced slowing down which requires the conductor to change from beating quarter notes to eighth notes. Notice how he doesn’t change the beat pattern until after the allargando has started, and that in the measure either side of the change the beat is a little less pronounced. This allows the musicians to navigate the change of beat calmly. In the last measure of the allargando, look at how the fourth beat stops at the bottom momentarily in order that the upbeat can communicate the new tempo of the quarter note in the following measure.

As we’ve already mentioned speeding up is usually more challenging than slowing down. The Grieg is an example of a long slow accelerando. Observe how the conductor has to start getting faster well before the musicians start to react, how as the speed increases the beats get smaller, and how at the moment of changing from quarter notes to half notes the gesture is larger to maintain the
proportions of time and space.

Grieg – ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1

A final point: it is pretty much a fundamental law of the Universe that youth orchestras rush and professional orchestras drag. Young players deal with nerves and uncertainty by hurrying to the next note whereas seasoned old pros sit back and make sure they are not early. During your studies it is much more likely that you will conduct youth ensembles so be wary of falling into the trap of developing a technique designed to prevent the group rushing – if and when you make the transition to conducting professionals this will cause you problems.

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