It’s Alice Parker Week: In addition to being a living legend as a composer and arranger, Alice is a beautifully polished author. Her writings exhibit the same clarity and parsimony of her music. I’ve selected some quotes from her books as meditations for this week.
I am convinced that voices and instruments sound at different rates of speed. A good tempo for organ is rarely the best one for voices. A slow tempo that allows voices to flower can sound boring on an organ–that’s the reason for the fast notes in keyboard parts. And voices easily can sing faster than many accompanists can manage. Unfortunately, it is possible for an organ or piano to mirror exactly what is on the page, with no style or flow. Most accompanists offer more than that, but too few are possessed of the genius that stimulates singing, gives effective cues to the voices, supports and encourages without overpowering. The effective accompanist must be composer, conductor, arranger, orchestrator, and singer all at once.
From Melodious Accord: Good Singing In Church (GIA), page 66
Do you take into account the sounding speeds of instruments as you write? As you conduct?
It’s one of the reasons I work hard to avoid playback from my notation software: it gives you a mistaken impressions of your work, in particular of correct tempi.
My most valued mentor was a virtuosic pianist as well as a conductor; he was notorious for taking pieces about 8-10 clicks faster than you expected. While part of that is probably his high-energy personality, I wonder whether it was also his comfort with the correct sounding-speed of the piano. He naturally heard things at piano tempi, not vocal tempi.
Understanding the differences, and letting the voices lead in choral music, will make the music far more effective.