Great storytellers are masters of time and tempo. What is this mysterious thing called “time?” Does it flow at the same speed for everyone? If we encounter a life-threatening situation, time is a stream of cold honey. If we’re nervous or excited, time races. Look at nothing but a sea horizon for a week and time stops. If the past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet, does time even exist?
University music school offered my first opportunity to drill deep into the meaning of time. My “Fundamentals of Swing” instructor, Vince Maggio, was a brilliant pianist who had known, studied with, and played alongside many of the great New York jazz pioneers of the 1960s. He’d assign a swing tune or a ballad or a bossa nova to a random selection of rhythm section players from the class—bass, drums, piano, and guitar. We’d find a guest soloist—a trumpet or saxophone player—rehearse, and perform in class the following week.
“Does anyone know why the soloist is blowing so many notes?” Mr. Maggio would ask. He’d give us a moment to think before answering his own question. “The bass player is dragging; he’s not in sync with the drummer.”
We freshman would nod and act like we’d heard the problem.
“When the rhythm section disagrees on the time, what happens to the soloist?”
A few seconds would pass before someone would volunteer an answer. “He gets nervous?”
“Yes!” said Mr. Maggio. “He’s trying to improvise a melody but to him, it’s like the stage is wobbling around. He’s not feeling ‘the groove,’ so he just blows a stream of notes in the right key. The notes are correct…” He’d pause to raise an index finger and a silver eyebrow. “…but they don’t swing!”
I never regretted my decision not to become a professional musician, but I still love playing. Rare is the day when I don’t pick up an instrument to practice and enjoy making music.
My partner in playing seriously-but-not-professionally for the better part of a decade has been a bass player named Matt. Matt and I get together most every weekend to work on arrangements, learn new tunes, explore new styles, and share our love of music.
For a while, we were joined by an accomplished jazz violinist named Chuck. After a few rehearsals, he made a declaration: “I enjoy playing with you guys, but … your time is—how can I be diplomatic?—all over the place!”
Matt and I looked at each other.
Chuck produced a metronome from his pocket—a tempo-timer for musicians that’s loud enough to be heard over the music. He turned it on and counted: Click One Click Two Click One-two-three-four.
We started playing. By the end of the first few phrases, we had lost the beat.
This was our moment of reckoning. After all those decades of loving and performing music, we didn’t have this most basic of musical skills together. We knew intellectually about the importance of time and tempo, but we weren’t feeling the time. The sting was made harsher by the fact that our music teachers—the ones we had respected back in school—had admonished us to “always practice with a metronome.”
Thus began a new phase in our musical lives. Not only would we work out our ears and our fingers, we worked on our time, often setting the metronome to agonizingly slow tempos and starting over when we got out of synch with the clock.
It wasn’t long before we noticed some curious things about this new “sense” of time we were developing:
- When we paid attention to the time, our internal clocks would “warm up.” After a half-hour of practice with the metronome, our ability to “lock in” improved—at least for that session.
- It wasn’t long before we developed an ability to sense whether we were ahead or behind the beat and make corrections in real time. Sometimes we’d rush the tempo for a few bars, but we learned to “find our way home” without having to start over. One of us would shoot a quick “pay attention to the time” glance at the other and we’d fix the problem.
- The “time muscle” gets stronger if you exercise it. Not only did we learn to stay in-time, we learned to pull on the time, rushing or dragging slightly and strategically to change the tension in the music, to play “straight” or “swing hard.” A whole world of musical possibility revealed itself to us that came from a place entirely outside what notes and chords we played.
Matt and I continue to play, and we continue to work on our time. Plus, I’ve found useful ways to think like a musician in my speaking and presentation work.
Whether you’re a saxophonist or a speaker, if you’re nervous, you rush. What happens when you’re trying to explain something and you don’t feel like you’re being understood? You speed up and you ramble: “No … no …it’s like … hmmm … think of it this way….” Resist the impulse to “run down the hill.” Take a breath. Think about what you want to say next and how you’ll say it. Audiences would rather see you stop and think than listen to you stammer while you collect your thoughts.
If you’re involved in a meeting or discussion and the conversation becomes heated, the conversation will speed up. Be “the voice of reason.” Respond in a slow and measured style to serve as a grounding force for everyone in the room.
Rising tempos are the “lit fuse” for oncoming explosions of temper. Most people only lose their temper in an effort to get you to lose yours—a “suicide mission.” When involved in a confrontation or argument, let your counterpart do the accelerating and volume-raising. When people find that their ranting won’t upset your steady tempo, they’ll find it unrewarding to argue with you. When accelerating doesn’t work, they’ll slow down. They don’t want to fly off the handle while you smile patiently and calmly wait for them to return to rational discourse. Master time and tempo to get the upper hand in almost any confrontation.
When playing music, there are times to play a loud-fast-and-high solo and there are other times when your job is to support someone else’s musical statement. Among my favorite musical situations is when Matt and I get to back up a singer or soloist. We lock into the time and tempo and play together as if we were a single instrument—like flying three feet off the ground. The same is true when people engage in discussion. Speak when it’s your turn, but embrace the less glamorous role of supporting others when it’s their turn. Listen intently, make eye contact with the speaker, and help provide an environment where they’re not fending off interrupters so they can think about what they want to say.
Time and tempo are critical. Whether you’re playing music, conducting a job interview, or running a meeting, the secret to “playing smooth” at any tempo is to relax. If the tempo is too fast, play fewer notes instead of struggling to keep up. With practice, you’ll become aware of when you start to rush. Find the beat and keep the “music” steady. You’ll be amazed at the calm and confidence you’ll project by setting the “groove” and keeping time.