In my rehearsal techniques class I compare conducting to driving a vehicle. In a car, going faster merely takes more pressure on the gas pedal, and when the desired speed has been reached, all we have to do is hit cruise control. Conducting is not like that at all. There is no pedal that will bring an ensemble to the desired tempo and keep them there. I make this comparison so conducting students grasp how much of a problem maintaining a steady tempo can be. This is especially true during a performance – or for the sightreading portion of contests. If you cannot talk to students after starting the piece, and they rush or drag, you have to find ways to get them to come back to the correct tempo.
It seems that students playing ballads tend to rush. This is especially true anytime there are filled-in noteheads, whether the notes are quarters or thirty-seconds; too much black on the page makes students want to speed up. When working with a band, if a ballad is on the program my initial prediction is that it will probably rush, and I adjust my conducting accordingly.
Conversely, more technical music is likely to drag. This is especially true when the ensemble is playing tutti. When you have more people playing, the band tends to drag, especially the more homogenous they are. Young bands especially struggle with pieces like this, most likely because there are more notes on the page. They may still be leaning to read music and become overwhelmed trying to keep up. As people learn to read books they move from going word-to-word to looking at whole sentences, and musicians can learn to do the same thing. While a young student might see Bb, C, D, Eb, and F as separate notes, a more experienced player will see the first five notes of a Bb major scale. If students are dragging a passage, point out such chunks as they appear in the music. Although chunking is commonly used to break down a passage, it can work equally well for getting one up to the ideal tempo while teaching some basic music theory at the same time.
There are pitfalls to watch for when rehearsing a piece for the first time. If the work is slow, expect the band to rush it, and conduct accordingly. If there are many tutti passages, there will be so much weight to the piece that the first tendency will be to drag.
If an ensemble rushes, conduct more tenuto. This shows weight in your conducting. When I teach conducting classes, I tell students to pretend they are in a swimming pool and think about how it would look to conduct legato, staccato, or marcato in water. To conduct legato you would obviously try to add friction, and the way to do that in water is to turn the hand on its side to feel the resistance of the water as you move. If the band is rushing, use more horizontal conducting – not necessarily for the style, but more for left-to-right motion and getting a larger area of the focal plane involved. If students are watching, they will pull the tempo back.
Continuing with the swimming pool analogy, to show marcato or staccato, make the hand vertical and move down in a hammering motion. There is much less friction in this motion than there is in moving horizontally. If students drag, conduct short spurts in a staccato style, and consider using a one-beat-per-measure pattern for each beat. As an example, in 44, all four beats of the measure would be downbeats. Showing this as staccato is not necessarily for style but to convey a clear beat at the tempo you desire.
If I find that the tempo is starting to splinter a little bit, my first resort is often to give small downbeats. Especially if the band is dragging, giving less information helps students get on top of the beat. Moving straight up and down with less overall motion than usual shows that you want students to get more on top of the beat. Although such techniques usually convey style, they work well for tempo, too.
Train students to watch the baton if they are not already doing so. If the band is dragging, conduct with the tip of the baton. This indicates a lighter, staccato style and draws attention to the tip of the baton. When students rush, bring the palm out a little bit so the baton is facing almost straight up while still conducting the pattern. This is poor conducting technique, but when you are in the sightreading room at contests or giving a concert and need to rein students in without talking to them, the best gesture is the one that gets the results you want. The more students can see the palm of your hand, the better the chances that you get their attention and they get the hint about tempo.
One technique that works well is to refer to tempo as a football. The bright side of the beat is the part of the ball that would reach you first if it were thrown to you, and the dark side of the beat, is the opposite end. If a band is rushing, I make this analogy and the ask students to try and play on the dark side of the beat. Sometimes just a simple visualization of light versus dark or in the center works well.
Another option is to use color. This seems to resonate better with some students. If flutes are rushing, I might stop and say, “Flutes, you were playing this like the color yellow. Can you change it to a darker orange?” This seems to work because people equate a darker tempo or darker color with more weight. I use colors more frequently to talk about style, but tempo can be described as a color spectrum as well.
Sometimes the solution is as simple as asking students to do the opposite of what they are doing, but without pushing my tempo. It is counterintuitive, but it seems to work sometimes. If the band is rushing something, I ask students to play on the darker side of the beat. They will pull the tempo back themselves.
Adding more weight to the sound will slow down rushing players. Although many directors use a snare drummer for rehearsing tempos, when an ensemble rushes, the bass drum is the better choice. Have someone play quarter or even half notes on a concert bass drum. Typically that lower tessitura will produce a slower sounding wave through the band, and students prone to rushing will be more likely to match. Even though the tempo is the same, the bass drum is so big that often the band will slow down from sticking with that instrument. Save the snare drum for when students are dragging. Its brighter sound works well for getting students to pick up speed.
Rather than having one percussionist help keep tempo, get many students involved. If the woodwinds are rushing, I may use the brass and percussion students to act as a vocal metronome. Having a large number of students say one and two and three and four and will be almost as effective as the bass drummer; an increasing number of voices adds more weight to the pulse. For dragging players, have students say ti on both beats and offbeats. The crispness of ti, especially when compared to one and two and, is akin to playing staccato on the snare drum. The value in having students use these syllables is that they learn to internalize the beat. The pressure of keeping a consistent pulse for their colleagues makes them realize how much tempo matters.
Another way to get multiple students involved in helping the tempo is with hand clapping and thigh patting. If a section is dragging, I have the students around them clap, which is a crisp sound similar to a snare drum. For rushing players, have nearby students tap their thighs. This works to curtail rushing in part because the distance students raise their hands to tap their thighs is often greater than the distance move their hands when clapping. In addition, the clothes students wear work to dampen the sound, forcing players to listen a bit closer, which leads to pulling the tempo back naturally.
Consider purchasing a metronome with multiple voice options. I have a Dr. Beat with four different options. I rarely use the first one, but the second and third voices are quite crisp and work well if the ensemble is dragging. The fourth option is a human voice. It has an odd electronic sound to it, and younger students laugh the first time they hear it, but it works as well for bands that rush as having students say one and two and does.
Alternating between using percussion, having students count, and using a metronome will help keep students on tempo and develop a strong internal pulse. A band with a strong internal pulse and the ability to subdivide will rush or drag less often than a band without these traits. The way to get to the heart of the problem is to build a culture in which students have a metronome in their heads at all times but are still able to be as flexible with tempos as the conductor would like.