What’s important enough to take at a ballad tempo?


Over the years I’ve heard many amazing jazz musicians say that the measure of a real musician is how they can play a ballad. These are people that can play fluently at 300 beats per minute. All of this is reassuring to me – since I love ballads and the idea of playing at 300 beats per minute makes my hands seize up!

What is ballad tempo? A very slow ballad is 50 beats per minute ranging up to 90 beats per minute for a medium slow song. Above that and we’re out of ballad land.  The average human heart at rest beats 60 to 90 beats per minute. So, when we’re resting you’re in ballad tempo. Of course the more athletic you are, the lower this number goes. 40 beats per minute is often found. Lance Armstrong has a resting heart rate of 32 beats per minute! That’s a big muscle moving blood very, very efficiently.

You can live strong too by taking the most important part of your work and your life at ballad tempo. Like a great athlete, you’ll do it more efficiently. And you’ll be at rest during it so you can emerge from the work refreshed. And you’ll increase your enjoyment. My enjoyment of an ‘unpleasant’ activity such as a household chore or anything repetitive is directly related to how brave I am about doing it slowly. If I speed up to try to get it over with, I lose the enjoyment. If I slow down there’s a chance at enjoyment. You can notice this when you try going slightly slower than the fastest cars on the highway. There’s a relaxation there waiting to be enjoyed.

Rumi said, “Patience with the small details makes perfect a large work, like the universe.” Ballad tempo is about patience. It’s no fun to play with a drummer that isn’t comfortable at that tempo and wants to speed it up. But it’s a pure delight to play with one that can live inside that slow tempo.

You can’t do everything at a ballad tempo. Outer life often dictates the tempo. But you can pick your battles and make the more important work (and friends and family) be played at a ballad tempo. That’s the measure of a real musician – a musician of life.

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