Andrew Naylor

Thoughts on Tempo

I can be quite an impatient person. Not in the angry sense, rather I prefer to get useless interludes (such as walking somewhere) out of the way as quickly as possible - as a child I earned the nickname “Running Boy” - even now I find myself running to my car most evenings. Fortunately for my driving license I enjoy driving and tend to stay around the speed limit.

The modern technological world doesn’t help my impatience. Why would I buy a CD and wait for it to arrive when I can just buy it on iTunes? In fact, why wait for iTunes to download it when I can, more-often-than-not, just search on Spotify and listen immediately.

I began playing the Piano at the age of 7, having weekly lessons with Mrs. Baker. I learnt the theory aspects very quickly but actually playing pieces was more of a challenge. I used to hate practising. I was frustrated that I couldn’t just bypass all the uninteresting pieces and start playing cool stuff. Eventually - to the dismay of an older self - I quit. I kept the piano though and it went unplayed for years. In fact, it wasn’t until it was put in storage while living in rented acommodation a few years ago that I started to miss it.

I started disappearing into the garage to play. I didn’t know any pieces aside from a few short riffs lurking in my muscle memory, I just wanted to play something. Anything. I started finding sheet music I wanted to play, determined that I would struggle through it. When I moved house again I made sure the piano stayed close by. I began to learn some fairly technical pieces. Nothing particularly advanced, and nothing particularly well, but the key thing was that I enjoyed them.

But my impatience was interfering. It didn’t matter which piece I was trying to learn, I would play things at a certain tempo, if not as fast as possible, and with speed comes volume. Some of the pieces I learnt warranted a certain vibrancy. Others however sounded wrong, I genuinely struggled to slow them down and play them more softly. Around two years ago I decided I would learn Moonlight Sonata. I often played in bursts, practising for perhaps an hour one day and not returning to it for weeks. I eventually started making progress to the point where I can now play it all the way through. But I still play too fast.

When I was younger and started riding a bike I would cycle everywhere flat-out. I always remember my Dad said I should see how slow I can go - that’s where the real talent lies. This seemed crazy until I tried it. Cycling fast smooths out the process, good balance is much less important. Cycle slowly however and fine, precise balance becomes critical, every movement matters.

I realised this evening how this translates to playing the piano. When playing Moonlight Sonata I have been playing at a fairly fixed tempo, to a learned rhythm. When wanting to stress myself I have played it as fast as I possibly can, with gusto, in some misguided effort to get better. This was completely wrong. I sat down this evening and played it much slower, slower than Beethoven intended. It was so hard. In places where I was trying to play exclusively from memory I got things completely wrong. I played all the way through but I felt like I hardly knew it.

In some desperate effort to reassure myself I started from the beginning and played it at my tempo. I played it even faster, I noticed how many mistakes I was making, but it didn’t matter. At this speed I could carry on without losing my flow because I wasn’t really enjoying the music, I was already thinking about the next slew of notes. By learning it to a rhythm I had masked from my brain the notes I was actually playing, my fingers just played them. You might call it muscle memory. But slowing things down disrupted my rhythm. I discovered places where I need to practise more, where my fingers know the movements but my brain doesn’t know the notes.

The thing is, there is a speed limit to how fast I can play piano. Concert pianists can play much faster but they’re still limited by the electrical impulses in their muscles, the rise and fall of the hammers. But there’s no real limit to how slow you can play, provided you play with the minimal force required to strike the strings. Who says you need to finish the piece before you die? Or even before the heat death of the universe.

I took pause for a moment, then I took it from the top. I played it as slowly as I had attempted previously, focussing on how it sounded, the keys I was playing. I think it was the most beautiful piece of music I have ever played. I could absorb the timbre of each and every note, it was marvellous.

Music stirs emotion. My music choices drive my emotions and vice versa. Playing Moonlight Sonata this evening was the first time music has moved me to tears. There’s an underlying beauty that was lost in my ambition to play it as fast as possible, to get it over with, as if getting through the piece and getting on with something else was some kind of achievement to be proud of.

I began to wonder how many opportunities have passed me by to appreciate things around me. I can think of at least one instance recently where my need to explain things quickly to move onto the next thing meant that I didn’t relax and couldn’t fully appreciate the good company I was in. There is usually more than enough time, there’s no need to be in such a hurry, even if my mind is racing. Especially when my mind is racing. It’s all too easy to miss some opportunities, the little things. The things which matter. Life isn’t an elevator pitch, it doesn’t need everything explained in 90 seconds.

When you take a slower approach to something you tend to notice the details. Things which would get otherwise lost in the furore because they appear and disappear too quickly to worry about.

Sometimes slowing things down is harder than speeding up. It’s in these cases that it’s likely worth the effort, to savour the moment, to relax and appreciate it fully. We should remember to enjoy the journey, because ultimately, what is there at the end?