Learn to set the accurate starting tempo of piano songs by exploring its upper and lower limits, singing it mentally and understanding its emotional content.
The phrase from Canon in D shown in Image 1 below makes for a fine exercise for beginner piano students. The reason is the melody in the right hand is made up of low density of notes. Fortunately, they too are all crotchets.
It is a rare gem to stumble upon a classical piece suitable for a beginner and Canon in D is not one of them, however this particular phrase fits the bill. So, I am taking advantage of the opportunity to use it as an example to describe my failure in setting the correct tempo when I initially set out to play it.
Apparent from the score itself, it is to be played in 120 crotchet beats a minute. Due to my own unfamiliarity with the emotional content of the composition, my execution did not project the song’s mood and intent accurately. A complex problem to solve because it is not a mechanical one. So, for now let us focus on what we can do to get as close to the ideal as possible by improving what we can with the mechanics.
One element of the mechanics that I could control was the speed at which I played the phrase. This of course refers to the tempo, but to arrive at the correct tempo I thought it be wise to explore the possibilities.
My exploration began at the slowest possible speed with the notes in the melody played by the right hand. Once I had the rhythm in the melody grasped firmly, I repeated the process with notes in the accompaniment played by the left hand.
After the rhythm in the accompaniment played with the left sounded decent enough, I began to play the phrase with both hands together. If only it was a matter of putting the sounds made by the right hand next to the sounds made by the left hand together, the task would have been accomplished. However, playing with both hands together is an altogether distinct process.
Therefore, like when I set out to practice with one hand at a time, I started by exploring the phrase with both hands at the slowest possible speed. As my coordination between the right and the left hand improved, I began to experiment with a faster speed.
The purpose was to gain a sense of the extreme limits in the phrase’s tempo – its slowest and fastest. The benefit being that I became aware of my operational environment, as a result was able to adjust my speed of play to reach its optimum tempo according to the composition’s requirement.
To judge at what speed does a phrase’s optimum tempo lies, I also compared it with other sections of the song nearby.
Playing the piano is a physical activity, so it is natural to think that all work is done on the piano when you are playing. However, with humans all activities begin in the mind. To trivialize or ignore the mental aspect do not do oneself any favor. Utilizing the power of the mind, I sang to myself mentally the tempo to the phrase I was about to play as preparation. I had a sound in my head playing at what I considered to be the most accurate tempo of the phrase.
As a result, when my fingers touched the keys of the piano, they were able to move as I desired them to. Thus creating the proper rhythmic mood. The practices described above allowed me to get closer to establishing an accurate starting tempo when performing a song on the piano.