If you’re a singer fronting a band you have to count them in. You set the tempo for each number; pulling the musicians together to conduct the ebb and flow of the songs and the set. It’s one of the most important things you do, because if you don’t capture the right tempo, the right mood and attack, your rehearsed interpretations will not hit their mark.
There are many parallels: the captain of a yacht plays with the angle of his boat to ride or resist the speed of the wind; dancers glide through a waltz, kick through a cha-cha, and sass through a tango but without the right tempo it won’t be convincing.
Rhythm is just as present in sport: rugby and tennis players change tempo to throw their opponents off guard, and when they find the opening they’ve been looking for, they hammer a beat relentlessly to get the ball over the line.
Lovers also mix up the tempo of play. Well, I hope they do!
As to the music, when the tempo is perfect and a band is really hooked into one-another... musicians borrow from billiards to say it was “in the pocket” – meaning not only that they brought the track home but that it was comfortable, the music flowed how and where it should have.
So often in life the harmony of tempo and place is what we’re looking for. Yet so often it’s just a wee bit off, like a distorted radio station – or worse – a singer or violin slightly out of tune. When things are flowing at the tempo in which they are organically meant to be (and that is different for everyone in a million different circumstances) there is usually a greater sense of peace, of being at home, or perhaps being on holiday. Indeed it’s in those sweet moments of good alignment that we may not even notice tempos changing around us because, whatever the speed, we’re flowing in a comfortable groove.
Yet alignment and perfect tempo setting is harder to achieve in our modern world than it used to be. Life is so often fast whether or not it’s reasonable or desired. We text and expect an immediate response. We email and presume it’s been read. We rarely ponder over a ‘real letter’, sending thoughts that have been carefully considered and matured. We tease and procrastinate about where we’re going and what we’re doing, often leaving social engagements until the last minute so as to keep our options open. Yet I remember a time when you said “I’ll meet you at Piccadilly Circus at 7pm Saturday week...” and that’s where you went because you’d promised that you would. You didn’t have a mobile phone to change arrangements.
One could argue that the world now has ‘fast’ as a default, and that is no better or worse than an old world where perhaps it was too often stuck on ‘slow’. Perhaps.
But for many reasons it makes me wonder about our ability to know which ‘play’ is the right one for the moment. When is a ‘fast play’ or a ‘fast decision’ advisable? When is the ‘long play’ likely to reveal a better result? And if our big-city, global-world tempos are stuck on ‘fast’, with sub-titles screaming “I want it now”, are we losing our ability as a society (or a workplace, a family, a group of friends) to even notice when we’re getting it wrong?
Thoughts about tempo have come to me after attending an exceptionally good wedding last weekend in a country hotel in Surrey. A dear friend was marching up the aisle (or rather, waiting for his bride to do so) and as their engagement was short many of us were still a little surprised to find ourselves gathered for such an occasion. Their engagement, if you like, was a fox-trot... their wedding celebration, by contrast, a slow and luxuriating rumba.
We arrived at the hotel between 10 and 11am, and by 11.30 corks began to pop. The ceremony started at 12 (ish) followed by a splendidly languid period of champagne and conversation, music and photographs, both inside a comfortable room and outside on the luscious green lawn of a converted stately manor. There was no rush or bustle, tension or over-fussing, we all sank into the joy of the day, renewing friendships and quickly making new ones. At 14.30 we meandered down a corridor to greet the bride and groom at the doorway to their beautifully decorated reception room. People introduced themselves, friends of friends mingled, families smiled. There wasn’t a hint of anything other than sanguine waltz and leisure.
Then my inner tempo changed. I met someone. I met someone to whom I was inexplicably but immediately drawn. And it was mutual. Our inner sound track, whatever it had been before, switched to swing... hell, a quick-step... and that was before we got near the dance floor.
Of course we were cooler than that in our outward appearance, in our polite conversation, but within minutes we were (secretly) delighted to find ourselves seated on adjacent tables. Some days you just get lucky!
But back to the wedding: the ‘breakfast’ and speeches were chirpy yet serene, packed with good stories, great food and wine, and without any sense ‘time was getting away’. Only at 5.30pm did we take an interval of sorts, to return to our rooms to rest a little and get changed for the evening festivities. At 6.30pm it all started again – tables and chairs had been pushed aside, a large dance floor uncovered, and a row of DJs sat in a line preparing to work their magic. This room of guests were all lovers of jive – because the groom has run his own dance company for many years – and so it is gross understatement to say the “bridal waltz” was spectacular... for it was a jive/tango like no “first dance” I’ve ever seen (well, outside Strictly!). We oohed and aahed, and caught their wonderful energy like a thrown gauntlet. The dance floor filled. The style continued, the DJs worked magic, and underpinning our mood was a sultry, passionate beat, a collective delight that our friends had found one-another and taken ‘the big step’, and a hunger to not let the night escape before we had sampled all the good things life has to offer. Weddings will do that to you.
Of course our celebration of life was massively helped by the fact that the wonderful hotel didn’t close the bar. They stopped the music at an agreed time, but they left us to party as long and as wildly as we liked. It was brilliant hospitality. And only when 80% had gone to bed did the final 20% make their way up to various hotel rooms to laugh and carry-on and no doubt annoy their neighbours. There was one major party room you could write a play about. But there were others too, many rooms, many couples, where the tangos and delicious rumbas went on through the wee hours of the morning... where giggles and delight clung to our tired bodies until the sun tipped over the horizon and we could twinkle our toes not a second longer. The band, in the end, has to stop.
When we met again the following morning, there was a full set of sunglasses and far less conversation. We nodded and grinned at each other, but were hardly able to speak until we’d topped up our reserves with a good English Breakfast. Then we moved (rather gingerly it must be said) to another town, another country pub, and did our best to keep the celebration going.
I wouldn’t have missed that weekend for the world. It was a most memorable wedding - for which we can thank the bride and groom for their immaculate choreography, their superior sense of tone and tempo, style and comfort, and their uncanny ability to conduct festivities for their friends even as they retired to the Honeymoon Suite.
Sweet indeed. And much to muse upon.