Tempo and Temperature

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hothorpeWell, we in the UK have been enjoying a proper bit of summer for the first time in several years. I know that it is traditional in this country to start muttering and wishing for a change after four days of any one kind of weather, but I am not in a hurry for this to stop in the wake of the washout that was summer 2012 and the chilly winds we were shivering in right through May this year.

But with temperatures consistently up into the higher 20s, I am noticing a similarly consistent struggle in ensembles to maintain a tempo. On first sight, this looks obvious: everyone moves a bit slower in the heat to avoid working up a sweat, so of course music slows down too. And this is not always a problem. A short piece at a more relaxed tempo than usual might be more relaxing to listen to, though a long piece sung too slowly starts to become a bit too much of a slog.

But it's not just a matter of slowing down. It's also a matter of losing that sense of corporate commitment to a tempo that ensembles develop. And that of course does not spell good news for the overall sense of ensemble. People may succeed in still singing at about the same time (especially if they are a directed ensemble), but it starts to sound more like a conscious effort rather than that mutual inhabitance of a song that creates a single piece of music out of multiple people.

What seems to be happening is that people are retreating more into themselves in the heat. They are living more in their own world, and extending themselves less into the shared psychological space of ensemble musicianship. My guess is that this can, at least in part, be explained by Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Cognitive and aesthetic needs are significantly more sophisticated than basic physical needs; indeed, even the need for social contact and a sense of belonging is secondary to our physical needs.

Hence people's attention shunts inwards towards managing personal comfort when they are placed in an environment that is outside their usual zone of operation. I noticed this in a very specific form when Magenta was singing for a wedding at the weekend. At the moment pictured, it was very warm, but a little cloudy haze was moderating the heat. For the last song and half of our set, the sun came out in full strength, and I was aware as the heat suddenly rose of equally suddenly finding it harder to concentrate. (I was glad our next set was performed in the shade.)

Singing in the cold in theory would put parallel strains on people's concentration, but it has not drawn the tempo-temperature issue to my attention in the same way. I suspect this is partly because the singers I work with regularly encounter cold weather more reliably than hot and so are better at coping with it. It is also easier to mitigate. There is no hot-weather equivalent to thermal undies.

But as I said I am not in a hurry for this weather to stop, and I am seeing this hot spell as an opportunity to work on rehearsal techniques that help singers transcend their involuntary responses to temperature. We can't do anything about the fact that physical needs will always hijack great big chunks of our attention, but we can develop our technique so that we can control musical elements at will on those occasions when our autopilot is on the blink.

In addition to tempo issues, in my rehearsal on Monday I also found that the pitching was adversely affected by the heat. My choir of (mainly) more mature singers found it diificult to maintain the pitch in our songs, perhaps due to reduced energy levels. I had to use more encouragement than usual to ensure that we didn't go flat, and even that didn't work all of the time. I just hope they are feeling more energetic in the concert on Saturday!

Yes, that does sound very normal, I can hear loads of other directors nodding along with you there.

And at one level, if we know it's the heat causing the tonal centre to sag, we know not to worry as much as if it just dropped for no apparent reason. But at another, we really don't want people to practise dropping in pitch, otherwise that's what they'll get good at...

The extra dose of adrenaline for the concert will probably help you out on Saturday, though. Have a good one!

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