Why perfect tempo is so elusive.

Musicians and vocalists like to make a big deal out of perfect pitch. I think perfect tempo might be just as rare. Maybe more so.

Back in the late-80’s (yes, there were worship bands back then – I was in one) there were no in-ear monitors or click tracks. We were all on our own, with those massive floor wedge monitors.
(I remember them often sounding horrible and painfully shrill, but I digress.)

One of our drummers, I think his name was Lane, was noticeably more solid and stable at keeping time than the rest of our drummers. One day we asked him why. He said, “Awhile back, I noticed my internal clock fluctuated a lot. So, I got a metronome, and put in 1,000 hours with it.”

Yeah, that should do it.

Here’s another story from back then. In the early 90’s, I had a drummer on my worship team that was in high school at the time. Typical of young players, he had lots of flash and lots of busy fills, but his tempo was all over the map. For his high school graduation, I got him a metronome and told him the story of Lane. I wrapped it up by saying, “Curtis, you’re a good drummer. But you need to find the pocket. That’s how to become a great drummer.” Well, he did. And he’s now a pro drummer living in Los Angeles.

Why is it that our internal clocks are so unstable? Here’s my theory. I’m currently working on a recording project right now, and I’m definitely in hyper-critical mode. Sometimes the tempo feels just right, and sometimes it feels way too slow. But then I notice that it feels just right (or maybe even a little fast) as I listen right after I wake up in the morning. And it feels really slow as I listen to it while jogging.

My theory? One word. Heartbeat. Our sense of tempo is tied to our heart rate. Makes sense. Music is often called the language of the heart. Maybe that’s not just emotional, but also biological. Now think about the wider implications for a band and singers. With everyone’s varying degrees of fatigue, anxiousness, stress, etc., it’s a wonder we can ever get into the same space-time continuum, musically speaking. And it’s likely one of the main reasons we tend to rush the tempo as a song intensifies.

Which brings us back to the click track.

Since I play keyboards, I have my share of responsibility for introductions and signature riffs in a song. There are times in rehearsal when the click starts, and it seems miles away from my internal clock. So how do I adjust? I have to break it down as simple as possible. I set the riff aside, I find the downbeat, and I play whole notes until my internal clock finally syncs up with the click. It may take a while, but gradually it happens. My panic subsides, and I can just relax, grab the riff again, and go with the flow.

How symbolic of our spiritual life with the Lord. Our internal sensors can often be all over the map. It’s apparently so pervasive that Proverbs says it twice: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” Yes, the exact same verse – in Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25. Now think about Lane’s metronome. And the 1,000 hours. That may be the perfect analogy of why time in the Word keeps our hearts in sync, spiritually.

Let me finish with a line from “Come Thou Fount,” one of my favorite hymns…

“Tune my heart to sing Thy praise.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Well, I have suffered arrhythmia for years and my tempo variations show it! I have never had a good sense of timing. My wife tells me that I have one speed, and that’s fast! Perhaps stress is one factor forcing me to speed up, while self-control brings me back to slower tempo, resulting in a yo-yo-like experience for the congregation tempo-wise. Another factor is confidence and practice–lack of practice shows in not nailing the hard parts, or hitting all the notes but at only half speed. Tempo bogs down where there has not been enough practice to make perfect (tempo as well as pitch!). Thanks for the reminder of staying on the beat.

    • Hey Joel – thanks for your post(s) – appreciated! If you and your wife can handle it, try sleeping with a metronome under your pillow – this will help the time work its way into your subconscious – seriously, it works! God Bless;)

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