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!

Seeking Leadership Stories

leadership01As a Conductor I am often held responsible not just for the instant moment-by-moment success of live music-making, but also the entire image, direction and resourcefulness of the whole organization. Every action and decision a leader makes directly influences outcomes and sales. (Click it to tweet it!)

As you know, that basically sums up the outcome of every leader’s work.

Leadership studies

So over the years I have studied and explored a great many leadership and management concepts and skills, including those espoused by Tom Peters, Michael Hyatt, Marie Forleo, Dave Ramsey, Richard Branson, John C. Maxwell, Michael E. Gerber, J. W. Marriott Jr., Charles Forte, Earl Nightingale, and a WHOLE host more (usually through biographies). In addition, since my teen years I have closely watched other leaders at work – conductors, business owners and corporate management – to learn what works well as well as what doesn’t seem to work well.

It’s been a fascinating journey. However, one thing I’ve noticed is how much Conducting orchestras, choirs and musicals not only incorporates almost every leadership skill out there, but very clearly and succinctly brings them altogether in one easily-observable package.

Really?

Yes, really.

So I’ve summarized what I’ve learnt, observed and tested (meaning: tried out in live environments) and written them down from a conductor’s point of view in a cute little book. I think you’ll find it interesting. However, I’d like to marry these leadership concepts to non-musical examples that many others can identify with.

What’s your story?

Do you have a leadership story to share?

Do you have a leadership story to share?

If you are or have been a leader in any industry in any organization, I’d love to hear from you: Corporations, Small-Business, Community Groups, Governments, Sports, Church, School, Fundraising events, or wherever you have been responsible for leading others to achieve a mutual goal.

Check out the seven scenarios listed and if you have a story to share for any of them, add it to the comments (remember to log in FIRST, before writing your story!)

Thanks for your time and willingness to share your expertise and experiences. If you have any questions, please do send me an email

  1. You give the ‘Go!’ A launch, pep talk or somehow getting your team off to a great start

  2. You take note of how things are progressing and offer a little encouragement here, a little adjustment there…

  3. You can’t help but smile at what your team is accomplishing! You show your team how pleased you are with their efforts.

  4. Was there a time you or your boss didn’t trust the team to start on their own? Did you have to control how they began? Did such behavior prevent the most effective launch possible? How have you been a different leader since then?

  5. Was there a time you or your boss didn’t trust the team to do their work? Did you control every move they made? Did such behavior demotivate people? How have you been a different leader since then?

  6. Was there a time you or your boss were completely hands off and didn’t really know what the team were doing? Did such behavior prevent progress and/or quality outcomes? How have you been a different leader since then?

  7. Did you ever actively encourage your team to grow and become better than you (at what they do)? Did your team benefit from expanded skills, new approaches and advanced learning? How did that affect the team’s productivity?

THANK YOU 🙂

 (Log in below to add your story)

When to say no

Last night I performed at an awards ceremony. It was a great show directed by a great showman Peter Stark (the former American ballet dancer, not the English conductor).

One of the musical highlights for me was conducting a special arrangement of “Kashmir” made famous by Led Zeppelin, and more recently by the electric string quartet “Escala“. Our arrangement was for full orchestra, rock band, vocal soloist and two choirs – love it.

 

 

But also on the programme was a peppy little number I wrote myself – the last movement of my Marimba Concerto 1. I led a performance of the whole piece earlier this week with Glenda Lopez as the soloist, so back when it was suggested we use a shortened version for the awards ceremony, I was thrilled to have it played twice in the same week!

As time went by my paranoia for the little details (or maybe it’s OCD… who knows?) got the better of me and I inquired as to whether or not anyone had checked with Glenda to see if she was also available to perform the second concert. Good job, too – she wasn’t.

A frantic search began to find a marimba soloist. At one point it was suggested “Stephen – you’re a percussionist! Why don’t you play it?!” To me, that’s kind of like asking the cookware frontman George Foreman to box again. Or Nadia Comaneci to balance on the beams again – I’m not convinced she’d achieve another perfect “10” at any modern Olympics.

So the search continued.

But it was proving difficult to find someone – even the local music schools and universities had finished and the majority of marimba students were heading home or off to summer camps before the awards ceremony. So yes, you know where this story is going…

I gave in and said “OK. I’ll do it.”

Unfortunately, during last night’s performance I made some mistakes whilst playing my own composition (not being able to warm-up and driving for several hours not long before probably didn’t help, either). The vast majority of the audience probably didn’t notice: they even cheered during the applause. And almost no-one in that audience had heard the piece before so they were probably not able to determine what was a mistake and what wasn’t. Perhaps the novelty factor of the marimba overshadowed the musical dodginess of the performance?

But the musicians in the audience & orchestra, my peers and several local community experts… Maybe they were being nice in complimenting me afterwards, but it’s not a contemporary piece: it’s a fun, peppy, tonal, predictable little melody, so I’m sure those “in the know” noticed. I’m just pleased I’ve learned how to ‘perform’ well and not let little errors get in the way of the audience’ enjoyment.

(Here’s a computer rendition of what the shortened last movement should sound like)

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Marimba-Concerto-1_mvt3short.mp3″ width=”300″ height=”30″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player” autoplay=”false”]

 

I felt and still feel awful that a has-been percussionist couldn’t give an outstanding performance, whether or not anyone agrees.

Conclusion?

I should have said “no.”

I should not have agreed to play the piece, and worked harder to help find a suitable soloist. Or even changed the repertoire. With either of these two solutions the audience would have been treated to an amazing performance and I would have shined doing what I do best – encouraging other musicians to give THEIR best (i.e. Conducting).

Am I alone?

Do you sometimes make judgments to help out whilst knowing deep inside it’s not the best solution?

Has there been a time you SHOULD have said “no” to doing something?

Please do share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, where the best action and learning always happens, and then share this post using the buttons below: the more people we have commenting the more we can learn from each other.

 

People Matter.

What are you working on?

One of the impressive train sets at Northlandz in NJ

Do you have a hobby or skill that you pursue outside of your day job?

Some people build model train sets, others go ice skating. Some folk coach Little League baseball, and others knit.

What’s your hobby?

(Tell me in the comments below).

It’s interesting that over the past 10 days or so something has come to light in my world prompted by several emails following my “Keeping up appearances” post last week. That something is a project. No, a Project. Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s a “Major Project.”

Much of the encouragement and advice you’ve shared in comments, tweets and emails has been very uplifting and very wise. Perhaps the most common public perspective was how incredible it can be to have a mentor or two, and that’s what Tuesday’s post was all about. But several emails fairly unsubtley told me to get my act together, cease and desist the doubt and negativity, and get back to what SPB does best.

Those emails from a handful of well-respected people, plus two from people I’ve never met in person, were intimate and direct. They were and will remain private, but the common thread between them all served the same purpose and mentioned the same solution.

What I was like, once.

I think the purpose of those emails was not so much to get me believing in myself again, but to remind me of who I was – jog my memory of what I was like – lift me above the dark thicket and thorny brush to survey the vast pine forest I’ve been wandering in (musically) for several years, and combine that with all that I’ve learned in recent times. In other words, transition from a floundering find-your-footing thirty-year-old to a mature expert forty-something (My older sister would probably translate that as “Grow up!“) OK, a little deep, perhaps, but isn’t that something we all hanker for once-in-a-while? Maybe that’s been my problem: I’ve been dealing with surface stuff for so long now that I’ve not taken care of the inner, deep things. Whatever your stance on that, I choose to acknowledge that we all have deep, personal issues to learn about, and I’m not going to brush them under the carpet or hide from them anymore (like the British are particularly renowned for!)

However, getting back to the real Me was only the first commonality mentioned in those emails. The second was this: a Major Project.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Before you sigh, roll your eyes up and shake your head at yet another SPB attempt at something, we’re not talking about the trite little videos I’ve been publishing over the past few years. No, we’re talking something different – something more in line with “me” – a project that will blow me (and hopefully you) away. This project will be something I can focus my energies on and produce a result that is actually outstandingly SPB-like, not a mediocre copy of what has (or appeared to have) worked for others.

People matter: I love chatting to audiences after a concert.

People matter.

It is clear my music career needs attention. No more fluff. No more scrounging around looking for something to do. Being a conductor is TOUGH because whatever you want to do, you need a bunch of people to do it with. Conducting 1 or 4 people is just dumb, yet finding players to form an orchestra is either nigh impossible outside the higher education environment or it costs a small fortune (believe me: my wife and parents know!) (It can be done, though – remember George Marriner Maull and his creation of the remarkable Discovery Orchestra in my last post?) And composing usually requires an ensemble who will play your music. Good luck with that! Well, I have been blessed: I am VERY fortunate to have many colleagues in the music world who have more confidence in me than I do myself, and they’ve taken on my music and performed it – most recently Jane Rondin of the Zephyrs Wind Quintet in New Jersey, and Alexandra Vago of the Blue Pointe String Quartet in Cleveland, Ohio.

You also matter. Thank you for taking this journey with me.

So I need a project. A big project. Something that will blow me away. Something I can do without relying on other people, and something that does not require me to put my hand out and ask for money. I need a music-related project in which I can find fulfillment.

Funnily enough, the disappointment that sparked this recent series of posts may provide just the right catalyst for that project.

Give me a few more days to figure out some nuances, and I’ll tell you what the disappointment was, and what it and you have spurred me to do.

Shall we say, Friday next week? It’s a date – look out for my next email then.

Your turn:

To help us all focus on what we do well in life, what is your hobby or Major Project right now? And how did you get into it? Write a comment below, and then share this post with your circles of influence – they will want to read what you write!

Ask A Conductor?

Two years ago two of my dear Tweeps @mcmvanbree and @laceyh started an awesome day of musical questioning. Including myself, Lorin Maazel, Sasha Makila, Vladimir Ashkenazy (through the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Twitter account) and a whole host of others, the general public got to ask us Conductors from all over the world… whatever they wanted!

It was challenging and exciting at the same time, yet experts such as Mike Seal and Kenneth Woods provided much insightful entertainment and I look forward to their participation again this year, too.

This year’s event will be on Wednesday, December 12 YOUR LOCAL TIME. That means, the ‘day’ could last up to 48 counted hours!

Anyway, click on this link to see details, including the specific link and hashtag to use when asking your questions:

Ask A Conductor Day 2012

Then spread the word, line up your questions, forward this page, and post, post, post the event everywhere. This really is your annual opportunity to drill us baton-wavers and ask some great or simple questions!

DO IT.

 

 

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Have stick, will travel

For several years the busiest conductor on the planet was Valery Gergiev. His conducting style is unique (to say the least) but he gets players rallied together to produce fantastic live performances.

Interestingly, he often doesn’t even use a stick (speaking vernacularly. The posh term is ‘baton’ but that’s one of those ‘tomahto, tomayto’ transatlantic words).

Hey – tweet this one:
UK/US translator: Tomahto, Tomaydo = BATTon, buhTONN via @STEphen_P_Brown

There’s one video out there of him conducting with a toothpick! He has three cell phones and keeps a suitcase of clothing in five cities in the world – at least if his flight is delayed he doesn’t have to wait around for his luggage.

Find out what it’s like to be a truly international conductor:

If you could travel the world doing what you love most, what would it be?