The Art of Leading and Following

After taking a month off from blogging, I would like to devote this month’s post to the topic of musical collaboration. Many of us spend a great deal of time performing in musical ensembles of various sizes. Regardless of stylistic genre, being a good ensemble member requires a certain basic set of skills. All of these skills essentially fit into one of three categories: 1) following, 2) leading, and 3) knowing who should follow and who should lead throughout a given piece of music.

For example, we might first imagine how groups of musicians are able to all play in time together. If multiple individuals within the group each attempt to set their own tempo, the result is usually a cacophony. It is unlikely that they will all pick the exact same tempo, and various players within the ensemble will probably end up following each of the individuals. For this sake, it is essential that each ensemble only have one timekeeper at any point in time. In jazz and rock settings, this responsibility almost always falls upon the drummer or rhythm section. In a large ensemble it is often (but not always) the conductor. In a chamber ensemble this job is continually delegated to different players depending on the musical context.

In other words, there are always two very different temporal roles which occur simultaneously: timekeeper and time-follower. A good timekeeper leads the ensemble essentially by ignoring what everyone might be doing and instead always maintaining a predictable tempo. A predictable tempo is not necessarily the same thing as a steady tempo. A steady tempo never varies in speed at all. While a steady tempo might often be a positive goal in music, there are many times when music should deviate from this constancy (ritardandi, accelerandi, rubato, fermatas, cesuras, etc.). However, a predictable tempo is one where the tempo is often steady, and all tempo fluctuations are anticipated and resolved consistently. In other words, it is the job of the timekeeper to be excessively clear with all tempi and tempo changes; a leader should be easy to follow.

Everyone else in the ensemble who is not the timekeeper should strive to be a good time-follower. Time-followers constantly compare their own time with that of the timekeeper, making adjustments as necessary to avoid getting ahead or falling behind. Time-followers are also careful to avoid placing their rhythms too far ahead or behind the beat as established by the time-keeper. The best time-followers can play in such close synchronization with the timekeeper that it can be almost impossible for a listener to tell the one role from the other. Time-followers should avoid trying to follow over time-followers. Since time-followers are constantly adjusting their tempo, following them can easily lead to a noticeable tempo lag depending on the size of the ensemble.

It is also important to know who can best serve the role of time-keeper at any moment throughout a piece of music. Ultimately tempo itself is somewhat flexible, so this creates a variety of challenges. For the instance of a pianist accompanying a single soloist, the roll of timekeeper and time-follower is often traded back and forth. In some instances the piano will set a tempo and the soloist will fit their melody around the accompaniment. In other instances the soloist will wish to manipulate the time and the pianist must follow them as closely as possible.

At the other extreme are the largest of ensembles, which usually require a conductor. However, the conductor may not always be the best choice for timekeeper. For example, a section of a piece with a strong bass ostinato and a complex rhythmic texture above it might be served best by allowing one bass voice instrument to be the timekeeper. The other bass voice instruments will follow their timekeeper and in turn so will the rest of the ensemble. By delegating the timekeeping responsibilities, the conductor can focus more on manipulating the balance and overall texture as demanded by the music.

This leader/follower model can be applied to other musical elements as well. Ensemble intonation can usually be improved by having a pitch-keeper and many pitch-followers. It usually works best to let the lowest instrument set the pitch, due the the nature of tuning harmonics above a common fundamental. For music with strong harmonic writing, ensemble intonation should serve to reinforce the fundamental frequency, which may or may not be in the bass voice. For music with strong linear writing, ensemble intonation should match repetitions of unison pitches and the size of various melodic intervals.

A good pitch-leader merely establishes the pitch center of each chord and ignores everything else that they hear. Good pitch followers constantly make small adjustments to their intonation to match the pitch-leader. This role of pitch-leader should probably change continuously throughout the piece, depending on what the music demands. Fixed pitch instruments, such as the piano or xylophone, will always assume the role of pitch leader since they cannot adjust mid-performance.

Likewise there can be articulation-leaders and articulation-followers, tone-leaders and tone-followers, dynamic-leaders and dynamic-followers, and etc. The key is that there should always be a leader for any given musical element and never more than that. It often seems that the skill of following is emphasized in educational environments at the complete expense of the skill of leading. An ensemble without leaders cannot function. Followers will follow followers who are in term following other followers who are following someone else, who was also in turn following them back. Nothing gets established. Tempo, pitch and all other musical elements are established inadvertently. When rhythmic textures fall apart they are not easily lead back together. It is a recipe for disaster.

Ensembles need strong leaders, just not too many of them. They also need lots of strong followers. Everyone should strive to be highly skilled at leading, following, and knowing when to be each one.

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