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The Tempo Issue

   In my experiences I have observed those fixated on slight variables of tempo, particularly when playing covers of someone else's music tend to also be those who are inexperienced in performance.  I also notice factors like their own sense of pitch, phrasing or intonation are incoincidentally undeveloped but those same people.

   A person who learns music by copying a song from a cd does not necessarily understand that tempo is possibly the most flexible of factors. The proof is in the pudding (mmmm pudding) - just listen to a handful of live versions of any tune by any band and you will often hear a tempo different than the studio version.  It is usually faster.  It is not rocket science. Live performance involves an exchange of energy and enthusiasm from the crowd and often results in a more excited performance.  Who goes to a concert to see a band play casually?  Okay aside from Grateful Dead?  A live performance should not have the vibe of being on a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (anti-depressant).

   At some point some went on to assume the responsibility of tempo falls solely on the drummer. This to me results in a "back seat driver" incessantly barking at the person behind the wheel in deference to the fact that they themselves can't drive.  News flash: it is everybody's responsibility for not only tempo but timing.  How many times have you had the guitar player begin the tune only for the drummer to be told "it's too fast"? There you go.

   There actually is a such thing as better tempos than others but two things matter over all other factors: (1) can the singer get out their words comfortably (assuming they know the words...ahem!) and (2) can people dance to the tempo? 

   I remember being in a band where the guitarist would start 'American Idiot' by Green Day way too fast.  So fast that I could not play the 8th note hi-hat so I "down-shifted" to quarter notes (because I can!).  He would look at me with pleading eyes to slow down.  I did not slow down at first because I wanted to make the point "who took it too fast?"  However, I was also prepared - for those years of learning the coordinations allowed me to immediately recalibrate and downshift to playing quarter-note hi-hat.  To those who call that "Berklee stuff" I shrug and say "suck it".  Same people who don't know how to change keys.  This is what it means to be a musician and what delinieates one from a mere weekend warrior who wants to pretend to be relevant in front of drunk people.

   So how do you handle it when people leverage their tempo issues to you, the drummer?  (1) You can "yes" them to oblivion, however you're allowing a precedent to develop and just kicking the can down the road. (2) Probably the best thing to do is ask them to mark the tempo. This is fun because more often than not they don't own a metronome and wouldn't have the first clue about using one.  That would be your fault too. (3) You could ignore them but will have as much effectiveness as #1. (4) You could just explain that they will need to consider practicing at alternate tempos - however, this can cause uproar as a non-practicing musician is not likely to alter their approach.  But you can back this up by presenting various live versions of a song. (5) Find better musicians. This one can be a drag but honestly is probably the most effective route. Seriously.

   Having said all of that. The musical scenario is not always the same as a cover gig.  For example, if a songwriter pays you to play their music and they want a tune at a specific tempo - it is then ethically your obligation to give them that tempo.  End of story.  At the end of the day, if a person, whatever their skill level, is thoughtful about it and has a modicum of honesty and curiosity...all this can easily be a non-issue.  You can never have enough people like that.

   Thoughts? Comments? Criticisms? I'm open to read your thoughts!