Why is it so hard to keep a steady tempo?

Why do even some of the world’s greatest pianists tend to rush the tempo when they get excited? Why do some very expressive musicians play with an unsteady beat?

Of course in many types of music, especially classical, it’s quite acceptable and effective to push here, and pull there. Even while playing dance music, the tempo might imperceptibly speed up or slow down without being noticed. After all, we are human beings, not metronomes. We want to aim for a flow that is steady, but not mechanical.

While I was in college, I used to become frustrated at not being able to keep a steady tempo for any length of time. It seemed like every fast jazz tune I played ended up slowing down to the same moderate tempo. To work on this, I remember taking long walks around campus, trying to keep a steady pace. I also got a job accompanying dance classes on the piano. When I asked my composition teacher, Hale Smith, for advice, he just smiled with a twinkle in his eye and said, ‘Listen!”. At the time, I didn’t realize just how right he was. By the time I graduated, I could keep a steady beat pretty well, but my sense of time still wasn’t as ‘organic’ or ‘ingrained’ as with some of the more experienced musicians I came into contact with.

As a professional, I did well for a while, but then developed the habit of rushing from accompanying some vocalists who had a questionable sense of phrasing. I sounded good while keeping the beat together behind them, but the rushing became obvious when I played solo or in instrumental groups.

At this point, I began to reflect on the whole question of tempo, and specifically where a steady tempo might come from. Certainly we can try really hard to play steadily, and that can do the trick. But I began to suspect that there might be something else to it. After all, if you throw a ball, for example, the ball moves through the air in a manner that obeys the laws of physics. It will move at a certain speed that is then influenced by the air resistance, etc.

So I tried to experiment with my approach. I would play along with a recording and just ‘go with the flow’. Not try so hard, but simply ride the rhythm as played by the recorded musicians. This seemed to work well, and my overall playing also relaxed a little. I also played with some of the world’s best drummers around this time. I played a dance gig (on New Year’s Eve, no less!) with the legendary jazz drummer Charlie Persip. His drums were set up right next to the piano and we really hit it off and had a great time. I also remember playing keyboards for the Broadway show, Smokey Joe’s Cafe. The drummer, Brian Brake, played the groove in a way that I can’t even begin to describe! After a while, I began to feel the beat a little differently.

I’m still deeply interested in this topic. For me, it’s become like holding a raft and jumping into a river, then simply floating downstream. We don’t CREATE the tempo, it’s already there. We just have to listen for it, and then go along for the ride.

Let me know what you think! Does anybody else have any thoughts or experiences they’d like to share?

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2 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to keep a steady tempo?”

  1. Tempo is something I usually don’t have to struggle with – mainly because I don’t care! I’ve always felt that music naturally ebbs and flows. But when I’m playing with other musicians, then tempo issues will drive me nuts. If I pay more attention to not slowing down or not speeding up, generally that is all it takes. I was taught one time about playing on different parts of the beat by a percussion professor while I was studying djembe. I was blown away by the realization that you have several milliseconds of time to “play” with when it comes to driving a beat or sliding it back. Now I sometimes get to play with a bass player who consistently plays on the back part of the beat and it’s like wading through mud! I’ve found that if we communicate before and after the song and we both focus on our efforts to play together in time that it has made a difference. Funny, I like a driving beat when I’m playing, but I love back-phrasing when I’m singing…

    • Well, having worked with you, Kelly, I can say that you have a natural musical rhythm that you probably acquired at a very early age, so it’s always felt natural to you. I wasn’t so lucky, but my kids are, so maybe it somehow all comes full circle! When I listen to current jazz recordings, I can usually tell if the musicians are a ‘working band’ or not by the meshing of their musical rhythms. It’s just like you described: everyone plays on a different part of the beat, at least at times. Even established players might not groove together the first few times they rehearse or perform. If you want a chuckle, listen to the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman. I think even their drummer, Charlie Watts, has singled out this intro as an example of everyone entering at their own tempo! It’s still a classic, though. You see it even more in the old concert footage of the Stones.


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