Composer, blogger, Dial M commenter, and patriot Galen Brown (of Sequenza 21 fame) contributed one of the best musical parodies ever last summer — his great Dvorak "My Humps" remix. (Sadly, it appears to have been taken down.) He has another one up, inspired by Alanis Morrissette's moody cover of the same maddening song (which I wrote about here). It's a tragic, This Mortal Coil-style version of "I Kissed A Girl (And I Liked It)". The sex ed site Sex, etc. writes "Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard Katy Perry’s hit single “I Kissed a Girl,” a song about girls kissing girls and sexual experimentation." As a matter of fact, I have been living under a rock! So this song was a new one on me, which means I heard Galen's version first. And I thought, hey, that's a haunting and heartfelt song! Poor Galen, he looks so sad!
Original song here. What we learn here is
adolescent exuberance – 20 bpm = adolescent depression
Which is an interesting discovery. It gets me thinking about tempo. One of my teachers, Michel Block, made an essential observation about practicing. He said that most people practice slow, but almost everyone does it wrong. They assume that it's the same piece, only slower. But it sounds different, right? Only people tune out the difference, though, which means they're tuning out what they play, not really listening, which means they're not playing musically. Slow practice becomes a purely technical exercise, moving the fingers slowly to master the movements necessary to perform difficult passages at full tempo. But the problem with that is it assumes that technique and expression are different things — that one could practice "just technique" and insert musical expression later. Block was one of the first teachers I had who had a radically non-dualistic way of looking at things. He was maybe the first person who got me seriously questioning the dualisms I had always assumed — technique/musicianship, form/content, style/substance, surface/depth. Through example more than precept (which is to say, in his ravishing lyrical style of playing) he demonstrated the "substance of style" that I have prated about on several occasions.
The upshot of this is that when you play something slower than you usually play it (when you turn a merry rondo into a stately adagio, for example) you need to find the proper expression for it at its new tempo. It's a new piece at its new tempo, so do justice to it — play it as if it was written at that tempo. Inhabit the imaginative space of the piece as it has become; find out what happens to the music when you slow it down. You sometimes make surprising discoveries. And, mysteriously, you play better when you play it back up to speed. There's some kind of Zen-and-the-art-of-archery thing going on, though, because to hit that target — to play better up to speed — you have to forget about the goal and focus on the musical challenge of playing slow, which is to say, you have to stop thinking that you're "playing slow." Whatever tempo you're playing is the right tempo.