Can Kids Slow Down?

Can Kids Slow Down?

A few months ago, Belinda Reynolds wrote a Toolbox article for us on composing music for young players. The response was so great that we decided to let Belinda take it a step further by providing her with a forum to address issues that arise when writing music for non-professionals. You can read and respond to her thoughts here every Monday.


Last week I met up with Benjamin Simon, music director of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra. He is a real champion for new music both through his commissioning and performance of new works. At some point during our conversation, I asked him what makes a piece for young people “bomb.” To my surprise he replied: “Slow music (in general)…[It] is always a challenge—not only is counting more difficult but attentions wander.” Slow music? Of all the things we discussed, this comment really stood out for me.

Later, while pondering this, I received an email from a conductor friend and I decided to pick his ear about this “slow” thing. He replied, “Ben has a point…the technique required to sustain long sounds and slow music beautifully is not usually in their hands.”

As I was typing his comment my student Monica came in from copying scores for me. She plays in two youth orchestras and so I decided to pick her brain. “Which is harder to play Monica? Slow or fast music?” “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It just has to be interesting to the kids.”

So, what is it with “slow”? Two professionals who have tons of experience with young players say slow music is out, but each has given me different reasons. Then, you get the student saying tempo does not affect the difficulty if she is engaged in the music. So, is a slow tempo a problem? Or, does the way we present the material make it a problem? Is it technical? Developmental? Cultural?

Maybe I am an idealist, but in my experience the way a piece is introduced to a student greatly affects the way that musician learns the music. Then again, I think about much of the music I have written for young players, and, to be frank, most of it is faster than a walking pace. Is it because I like the “wow” factor, too? How about you?

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

4 thoughts on “Can Kids Slow Down?

  1. rfk

    I have read this and your previous article with great interest. First off, really nice job. Secondly, it’s great to see a discussion of working with kids on NewMusicBox. I think the whole issue of composing for kids has to be taken within the greater context of purpose and presentation. Is it for early primary grade students? Upper primary? Middle or high school? Are the kids performing or part of the music? Are the kids involved in the composition or is it connected to a text or other subject/topic they may be working on? Will there be activities in advance or after the performance–is it part of a continuum of learning? Will the composer get to work with the kids? Is the performance taking place in a concert hall or by an ensemble in the classroom. There are just so many variables, that I would have to say that very often slow music may work better than fast, depending on the overall program and the range of issues that I just mentioned. I also believe that slow music, just like longer works, or more complex works, often succeeds when the kids are prepared to hear, to receive the work, via a thoughtful and age and grade appropriate introduction. Considering all this, I guess it’s not any different for kids than for adults!!

    Richard Kessler

  2. danielgilliam

    I am working on a commission for youth voices and mini-orchestra, so this post is particularly useful.

    Not to get too technical, but what if the voices are moving slowly (say half notes or whole notes at around 70 bpm) but the piano or orchestra is playing rapid sixteenth notes or triplets? Seems that the “fast” music in the orchestra might encourage more attention from the choir.

    Also, I’ve noticed in a few college-level orchestra pieces that long, sustained chords in the strings is ineffective. Any thoughts here?

  3. dalgas

    Quick, now…
    Taking a look at “kid’s” music of whatever type: how many really slow (and I mean slow, not simply moderate) pieces or songs do they (did you) learn then, as opposed to quick? When has it ever been any different?

  4. mjleach

    Slow music for kids
    Perhaps instead of slowness, it’s sustained notes that create the difficulty, which seem slow. I know that pieces of mine that look simple are actually more difficult to perform than busy scores, due to intonation problems that arise, and counting, because the pulse isn’t always as obvious. So maybe everyone is actually correct – slowness not neccessarily meaning slow meter, but the perception of slowness due to long distances between notes irrespective of meter.


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