Tempo is, one way and another, at the heart of most of the anxieties in this advent calendar. Playing for ballet is like driving on a busy motorway in torrential rain: there is no such thing as the right speed in isolation, only in relation to other drivers and events, and getting it wrong is fatal.
Outside of dance, musicians mostly just don’t get this, and I was the same when I started. I couldn’t understand why dancers and teachers didn’t care how expressively or technically brilliant I’d just played, all they cared about was tempo. They’d tell you when it was wrong, and say nothing when it was right, something which I and other novices used to gripe about, fantasizing about a world where we could be free to express ourselves and be appreciated for it.
Nowadays, I feel totally different. Nothing brings me greater professional satisfaction than getting through an entire pirouette exercise without any tempo adjustments from the teacher. If a ballerina says “that tempo for the manège was perfect” you go home with a big glow in your heart. When – at the beginning of an exercise – you have to adjust the tempo, and then you get that smile and a nod from the teacher when it’s right – that’s job satisfaction.
That’s why playing for Le Corsaire last year was terrifying and gratifying at the same time. It’s one darned difficult solo after another, the tempos change every 16 bars, and you’ve got about five casts, each of them slightly different in their approach and speed. It was almost never entirely right, and you have to face that look when they stop that says “it’s not entirely your fault I didn’t manage that diagonal, but I could kill you for the 20% that was.” But getting it right at all is exhilarating.
I said that musicians mostly don’t get this. Some do. Bach’s obituary, for example, said that he “was a really accurate band leader. When it came to tempo, which he usually laid down at a very brisk pace, he was 100% reliable” (cited on page 7 in an article by Philip Tagg, that’s well worth reading). I once saw Eartha Kitt singing live at The Fridge in Brixton. She was like a snapping attack dog to the band at the beginning of Old Fashioned Millionaire, insisting on exactly the tempo and feel she wanted (at that thousandth of a metronome mark that combines genteel, filthy and seductive) before they’d got to the end of the first bar of the intro. In that moment, I realised tempo is everything in her songs: beyond the voice, the music, the arrangement, it’s her subtle and precise sense of tempo that creates the magic. It’s probably no coincidence that Eartha Kitt was a dancer too (here’s a picture of her and James Dean in Katherine Dunham’s dance class).
Some ballet teachers have this hyperacute sense of tempo and how to get it from others. From the outside or to a beginner, it can come across as severe or controlling, but in fact, it’s great to work with someone like that. You know that you’ll always get the right tempo, because someone will be on your case until you do: the anxiety comes when no-one in the room really knows what it is that they want, or what to try next.