The Speed of a Sleigh Ride

Although audiences seem to love it, many performers question why I like to conduct Leroy Anderson’s holiday piece “Sleigh Ride” so darn quickly.

Here’s why:

Audiences love it.

Well, actually, there’s more to it than that.

Horse-drawn sleigh rides walk or canter - they struggle at a trot.
Horse-drawn sleigh rides walk or canter – they struggle at a trot.

Usually, when I get to select my own holiday music programs, I often use Sleigh Ride as an encore piece. After all, we all want our audiences to leave a concert full of upbeat energy, wanting more, talking to each other about the wonderful time they just had, and telling others to attend next time.

But I’ve also done my research.

I have yet to meet a performer in an ensemble I work with who has actually been on a horse-drawn sleigh ride. I haven’t, either. Horses, yes. Horse-drawn carriages in both cities and the countryside, yes. But not in a sleigh. On snow.

Turns out Leroy Anderson never rode on a horse-drawn sleigh, either.

So, basically, very few performers actually know what it’s like and at what speed these sleighs travel.

The closest musical tribute to a horse-drawn sleigh is actually the song One Horse Open Sleigh by James Pierpont for his brother’s Thanksgiving church service. The song never really became popular until 1890, when the teenagers of the time were looking for more sleigh songs (the equivalent of the 20th century’s fast car/ pretty girl sort of pop song) for their Christmas parties. By that time Pierpont’s publishers had changed the name to Jingle Bells.

Now, most of us know the first couple of verses of the song, but we don’t know the remaining three verses. The last verse includes the lines:

Just get a bobtailed bay
Two-forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you’ll take the lead.

Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, 2010, accessed November 2020

That line “Two-forty as his speed” indicates that the horse is covering one mile in two minutes and forty seconds. Converting that into miles per hour, we get 22.5mph, a “horse speed” of 0.595.

(By the way, Anderson wrote Sleigh Ride as an instrumental in 1948. Mitchell Parish added his own lyrics to the tune a couple of years later, by which time horse-drawn sleighs were no longer in common use.)

According to Goose Wing Ranch, horses have four “gaits” or types of speed – I’m sure they are all familiar terms: walk, trot, canter, and gallop.

  • A horse’s walk averages 4mph*
  • Trots average about 8mph
  • Canters about 14mph, and
  • Gallops average 28mph
  • (Race horses go much faster)

(*a human’s average walking speed is 3.27 mph.)

Clearly, then, Pierpont refers to his horse-drawn sleigh at a canter.

Next, I found various ways to convert a horse’s speed into beats per minute, but eventually settled on Dr. Lesley Young’s “Ask the Experts” Q&A on Equinity Intelligent Training for guidance.

Now, as we all know, music – being the language of emotions – is very much dependent on “tempo”, the Italian term for speed. As a general universal rule, musicians use “beats per minute” as a standard measure for speed (Yes, this stems from heartbeats per minute. It’s why the speed of music can affect us physically as well, when we let it). So, how many “beats per minute” does Dr. Young expect to see at a canter?

  • Gallop: 185 – 240 bpm
  • Canter: 120 – 185 bpm
  • Trot: 70 – 120 bpm
  • Walk: 50 – 70 bpm

So… if we are to gain the fullest benefits of Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, shouldn’t we try to match the real-life experience of a horse-drawn sleigh with the effect that music has on us?

The publisher’s (not the composer’s) recommended tempo of 108 beats per minute is way too leisurely a pace for any poor horse to cope with while pulling a sleigh. Indeed, they are likely to puff-out and come to a grinding halt if we limit them to trotting!

Therefore, I am quite happy squeezing as much juice out of live music by connecting it to real life through its true pace. That means, for Sleigh Ride, at least, ignoring performers’ comfort zones and traditional expectations, and taking it at a more realistic pace of 120-185 bpm.

At least it’s not a gallop:

Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.

British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

You certainly asked!

THANK YOU to all who participated in the 3rd Annual #AskAConductor Day on Twitter earlier this week. Remarkable stuff! Some friendships were rekindled, some new ones made, and I’m hoping that those who like live music (orchestras, choirs, musicals, opera, film, etc.) are now more aware of what conductors actually do, how they do it, and why.

After all, that’s the purpose of giving you a global opportunity to ask a conductor whatever you want!

If you missed it, glean the incredible list of original tweets from the transcript linked below and make sure you join my mailing list so you get to hear about next year’s event ahead of time.

But grab a last-minute chance now – add your question in the comments below and I’ll put it to ‘the crew’ and have a go at answering it myself. We don’t want you non-Tweeters to be left behind, so ask away!

Here are some 2012 #AskAConductor stats:

  • 1028 total tweets between December 11 & December 13 (Eastern Time)
  • 860 original tweets, 68 Retweets
  • 56 participants
  • Most questions from gabriela_hb in El Salvador
  • Top 3 tweeting conductors (excl. me):

Be sure to join in the fun next year!

Click here to download the full transcript (131KB. Need Adobe?)