A tale of two upbeats

A tale of two upbeats, a tale of two orchestras

A lot can be communicated non-verbally in rehearsal.

Once upon a time, at the first rehearsal for a concerto…..


Subject: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro Woods

Thank you for your upbeat.

It has been brought to our attention that the tempo of your upbeat is significantly faster than previous performances of this work given by the Philharmonia Metropolitania. Requests for tempo outside the standard deviation of plus or minus 6 beats-per-minute from past approved tempi must be submitted for review by the tempo request committee.

We are concerned that perhaps this quicker tempo was suggested in error. Could you please confirm your intentions by rebounding sharply to the second beat of the first bar? Your request for tempo has been passed along to the tempo committee for prompt consideration. Meanwhile, you may notice a slight delay in the placement of the downbeat of the first bar.

Warm regards

Philharmona Metropolitania

Cc All our friends on Facebook


Subject: Re: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro

Thank you for the prompt confirmation of your request for tempo. Your tempo remains under review, as it is sixteen beats per minute faster than our recording of the work under maestro Dieter von Schlepp, which won a Gramophone award in 1978.

Thank you for conducting the Philharmonia Metropolitania


Subject: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro

We are sorry to inform you that your request for tempo has been respectfully declined. The correct speed for this movement is half-note=144.

In order to make clear the correct tempo, we have taken the prophylactic measure of accenting every beat.

Thank you for your request for tempo. We are sorry we cannot provide you with your requested speed, but the tempo request committee must consider the artistic reputation of the orchestra, the speed at which we can play the piece without having to practice our parts and the tiring effects of playing at excessive speed.


Subject: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro

We have noted the resubmission of your request for tempo. The members of the committee feel that as a matter of professional courtesy we ought to inform you that the Philharmonia Metropolitania generally do not ever start a work over again after only four bars. Additionally, please be assured that there is no reason for you make a verbal plea such as the one you just made (“can we just try that once more a little faster?”). Please be assured that the Philharmonia Metropolitania process over six thousand requests for tempo every season, and we feel the members of the committee are eminently well-qualified to vet those requests accurately and appropriately for the benefit of the audience and the comfort of our players.

Since this is your first concert with us, we have, as a courtesy, accepted your re-submission as a formal “appeal of tempo.” Tempo appeals are usually considered only at second rehearsals and only when presented alongside compelling evidence that a peer-group orchestra has previously accepted the requested tempo under the leadership of an established maestro. In any case, we have decided to postpone consideration of your appeal until we have played the entire movement through so that you can hear what the work sounds like at the correct tempo. Again, so that you are able to clearly hear the correct tempo, we will continue to accent every beat.

Thank you again for your upbeat


Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Dear Maestro

Thank you for allowing our run through of this movement to proceed at the correct tempo thus far. We are hopeful that you can now see the reasoning behind the committee’s decision.

As a matter of urgency, we feel we must point out to you that the soloist, Mr Morty Purina, has begun his unaccompanied statement of the Rondo theme at half-note=160. We are aware that you met with him earlier today and are very concerned that perhaps you have asked him to play too fast, and that perhaps he was not listening attentively while we played the theme at the correct tempo.

Would you be so kind as to catch his eye and make an attempt to communicate to him that he is playing in an inappropriate tempo?

With warm gratitude

Tempo management committee


Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo


We were deeply disappointed to receive your most recent upbeat at the end of the soloist’s 16 bar solo statement of the Rondo theme, which you have once again given in your original tempo of half-note=160.  We recognize this tempo was probably requested in error rather than malice, and we understand bad habits can be hard to break, especially among conductors of limited expertise.

Some members of the orchestra have suggested that perhaps you are not aware that we did correctly receive read your original request for tempo. To clarify to you that we are aware of the speed you wish to conduct the work, a minority of string players are now playing at half-note= 176. We hope this will give you a sense of how bad music sounds when played 16 beats-per-minute too fast.

Meanwhile, the accenting of beats will be strengthened by %20 so that you can more clearly hear the correct tempo.


Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Mr Woods

Thank you for your cutoff. We do feel we should point out to you that it is extremely rare for the Philharmonia Metropolitania to stop even once, let alone twice, in a play-through of a standard repertoire work.

It was interesting if slightly concerning to learn from the soloist that your initial tempo of half-note=160 was requested originally by him, Mr Purina, based on information in a personal letter from the composer requesting a speed of half-note=160 as heard on the composer’s own recording of the work. It is possible that Mr Purina has not worked extensively with orchestras of the stature of the Philharmonia Metropolitania- we would ask that your remind him that mentioning a direct personal connection or correspondence with the composer constitutes a violation of the “no name-dropping” policy outlined in paragraph 34231 of the CBA. Also, while these points may be of interest in an abstract, theoretical sense, they are of primarily musicological and scholarly interest, and not really relevant to the rehearsal process. They are rightly the territory of academia, where we feel Mr Purina is probably more at home.

The committee feel it is important to point out to both you and Mr Purina that the composer of this work, being a pianist, could not have anticipated the technical challenges of playing this material on a violin or wind instrument. To accurately render the orchestral passagework at this speed, over 68% of the orchestra will have to practice their parts more than five minutes, and many will find playing at this speed tiring.

Nonetheless, in the interests of completing the rehearsal without further delay, we have decided to proceed with the requested tempo in spite of our grave concerns about its appropriateness. We would respectfully like to direct your attention and that of Mr Purina to our Gramphone Award-winning recording of this work with maestro Dieter von Schlepp. We hope that you and Mr Purina can appreciate how exhausting it is to continue to accent every beat at this extreme speed.


Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Request for tempo

Thank you for proceeding to the end of the movement without further interruption.

The current orchestral service now has 40 minutes remaining. The members of the player welfare committee wish to point out to you and Mr Purina that this tempo is more tiring than the standard tempo of half-note=144. Also, according to standard rehearsal procedure, tempo deviation requests that are granted are generally rewarded with a two-to-one minute-to-bpm ratio of reduced rehearsal duration. With that in mind, in order to remain eligible for re-engagement, we strongly suggest that you release the orchestra at least 32 minutes early in exchange for the 16 beat-per-minute increase in tempo. Rather than interrupt your remaining rehearsal time to notify you verbally of this expectation, selected members of the orchestra will now begin looking longingly at the clock.

Thank you for conducting the Philharmonia Metropolitania



Same piece, different orchestra, six months earlier…..


Subject: Request for tempo

Morning, Ken. Half-note=160. Got it


Subject: PS

Good pianist!


Subject: PPS

Can’t believe we finished 90 minutes early. Thanks for being so efficient, Ken.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “A tale of two upbeats”

  1. Frederik

    Haha – I guess we have all been there 🙂

    In those situation the score is our best friend.

  2. Pingback: When Performance Practice is seen as Property | Before the Downbeat

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