Originally published by Michael J. Glasgow, Area 3 Newsletter Editor, in the Bell-O-GramMichael J. Glasgow

We don’t generally think of “tension” as a word with a positive connotation. We describe difficult situations as “tense.” We talk about physical stress by describing “tense muscles,” or saying someone’s body “tensed up.” There was tension in the air may be a phrase used to convey how awful and uncomfortable a meeting or rehearsal was.

However, as a conductor, I’ve come more and more to appreciate what I refer to as “healthy tension.” I believe that effective music – music which really connects to people’s hearts and souls – is a constant exchange of the building and releasing of tension. Less-negative words
may be “expectation” or “anticipation,” but the effect is the same. When we play with musical expression, we bring our listeners to a place where they are, on some level, “uncomfortable” because they yearn to get to the satisfying resolution. (Test this by playing a simple one-octave scale in perfect quarter notes. It’s fine, it’s correct, it’s accurate…but it’s not music, it’s just notes. Now, add a rallentando to the scale as it ascends. Put a lengthy fermata on the penultimate note. The longer that fermata is, the more satisfying it is when you finally play the final note in the scale.)

A former piano instructor said to me, “you’re rushing that fermata because you want to move on. Hold it until you’re just a little bit uncomfortable – and then hold it just a little bit longer.”

She was right. I explain to my ringers at home, as well as at nearly every festival I conduct, that we often don’t play in a way that sets up musical tension because we yearn to get to the resolution just as much as anyone else. But because we conductors and performers are in charge of how long that tension lasts, we need to be willing and able to put our own desires aside in order to keep from depriving our listeners of a fulfilling musical experience. Plus, if we embrace the tension, we’ll find more satisfaction in the resolution as well.

Don’t “lock and load” when you play. Look for musically appropriate ways you can truly draw your listeners in by holding at bay the “arrival points” in a piece of music. Create tension, just make sure it’s the right kind.