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Honest Answers

Dean Snavely | September 2017

    While observing an honor band rehearsal several years ago, a student politely raised his hand and asked the conductor a seemingly simple question: “what is the difference between rallentando and ritardando?” As the director began his reply, I realized that  in spite of a lifetime of musical training and advanced degrees in music I could not readily answer that question. The honor band conductor, a nationally esteemed musician with decades of scores beneath his baton paused for a second, and then with full confidence said, “it means to slow down more than we would in a ritardando.” I wondered whether that truly answered the child’s question.
    Are we lying to our students, or are some musical terms redundant because of historical variance? Do we put our own spin on them for teaching and understanding? My definition for rallentando is “slowing and broadening,” but I do not remember where I learned that. I can assume it was planted in my memory by one of my secondary band directors or a music terminology test.
    Maybe Grainger had it right. “Get slower lots” leaves little to the imagination, but thousands of works of musical art have terminology that students need us to explain. Concerning the difference between rallentando and ritardando, rallentando is literally, “slowing down,” from the Italian gerund of rallentare, which means “to slow down.” Ritardando is literally, “becoming gradually slower,” from the Italian gerund of ritardare, which means “be late, be delayed.” We quickly see that by definition alone, questions about the difference are difficult to answer confidently. A quick internet search reveals dozens of inquiries, and a very wide swath of answers from “there is no difference” to specific reasons why “gradually slowing” and “gradually slowing” are so different from each other. 
    Legendary Texas teacher and clinician Paula Crider answered my question on the difference between rallentando and ritardando simply: “The answer lies in the context of the music.” She is, in every way, correct. However, this leads to another question: Where do we go for consistent answers to the questions our students have about the terms in their music? 
    If we are to be true to our students, it is important to look through every piece we pass out through the eyes of our most challenging students, considering how they will approach a passage at their level of understanding and what will the musical terms on the page mean to them (if anything). Even a cursory glance through the score should be accompanied by jotting down terms, symbols, and figures that can be shared with the ensemble before reading the tune. This way we have the answers to questions before they are asked.
    A pre-reading checklist allows the director to identify all terms in a work quickly and highlight any theoretical knowledge that may be confusing to students. When completing such a checklist, it is easy to identify similar terms that may need to be clarified for the students. On my checklist, the terms section is separated into tempo, dynamics, articulation, and other. I also have a section at the bottom to jot down road map terms, such as repeats, D.S., and coda. I write them all down, even if I believe students know them. When distributing the music for a read-through, I quickly run down my checklist with the students, checking for understanding of all the terms and symbols. In our program we use cues like “nod if you understand,” “touch measure 16,” and “show me what that sounds like.” If students have specific questions, this short time of clarification is an ideal opportunity to answer them.
    With a small amount of preparation, we can save time in rehearsal by answering students’ questions before they are asked. Tools like the pre-reading checklist can help us arm students with knowledge and relieve us from being tempted to make up answers we do not know.