What is a Fermata in Music?
A fermata is a musical symbol asking us to hold a note longer than usual.
We can think of the fermata in many ways. We can stretch the length of a note. We can see it as a “pause” button. We can feel it as “airtime”, as if launching from a ski ramp.
Whenever we affect the timing of our music, there are a few “best practices” we can observe. More on this below.
To ensure we leave ourselves the most options, and give ourselves the best chances of playing beautifully, we can…..
First, Learn the Music Without the Fermata
Anytime we have “rubato”, or the stretching and compressing of time, we first learn the notes and rhythm in a steady tempo (steady beat).
Whatever we practice the most will begin to sound “right” to us. If we slow down at the hard parts of our music, we’ll start to think that it sounds best that way. It doesn’t – we’re just get used to it.
So to protect against this, we learn it straight first, then add the fermata later. This is good practice anytime the music slows down or speeds up.
Physics: Music and the Natural World
The world around us has rules that we often take for granted. We think of them as simple reality, and don’t give them a second thought. Until something breaks them.
For instance, if we saw an elephant move like a hummingbird or jump like a flea, we’d question reality. Big things move slowly (or look like they do), compared to small things.
Likewise, objects speed up and slow down in a predictable way. This why we can sense immediately if a car is going too fast to stop at a stopsign. And historically, big trucks don’t take off from a stop as fast as sports cars do.
We innately understand momentum. This is the physics of our everyday lives.
Music speaks to us when it abides by the laws we’re comfortable with. When it doesn’t, we find it jarring and unnatural.
When music slows down, it ideally does so in a way that makes innate sense to us. If it slows down or speeds up too fast, or at an uneven pace, we notice it. Even if we can’t say what’s wrong, we sense that something’s “off”.
So when we play fermatas, it’s best to stay within the time framework we know best. And that means……
Slow Down Into Fermatas
We thrive on patterns. Our minds love patterns because we can predict them and then ignore them (leaving our attention free to notice something else).
Rhythm is a pattern. And when we hear a piece of music, we immediately search for “the beat”. We notice when something affects that beat. Our foot-tapping is off, and we feel lost and awkward.
Unless we know it’s coming. Then we love it.
Fear and Disney
To be in an earthquake is scary – he ground shifting under our feet, buildings falling around us. We fear for our lives.
Yet Disney’s earthquake rides are among their most popular. Why is an earthquake suddenly fun? Because we know it’s coming and we know we’re safe.
In our music, we need to let people know that we’re preparing to play with time. Otherwise they feel like we’ve yanked the rug out from beneath them.
Fermata = Ritard, then Fermata
Whenever we see as fermata, we can plan on slowing down for the last few notes before it. How much we slow down (or “ritard”) depends on how long the fermata will be.
Longer fermatas need bigger ritards.
Subdivide to Keep Track of Time
Ideally, we keep track of time throughout the fermata. Instead of stopping time completely, we slow it down at a predictable rate.
This way, the entrance point after the fermata makes sense and feels inevitable.
We do this by continuing to count. We count through our initial slow-down and continue counting until we “land” on the other side.
More than Thinking
Whenever we slow down or speed up, we can use our visceral senses as well as our intellect. We place the notes most accurately this way.
Slowing down, the length of time between each note should grow proportionally longer. The distance between each note should expand at a predictable rate.
And our brains aren’t good at figuring this out. It’s too precise, and happens too fast. If we think our way through it, the music will likely sound wooden or overly affected (i.e. “schmaltzy”).
Our legs know how much force to use to jump two feet versus four feet. And if we need to jump ten feet, we know we’re in trouble.
We can use this same muscular intelligence to help place each note when we stretch time.
One of the tools we can use to help with this is……
Use Visual Imagery to Place Each Note
Sometimes, using imagery can help to make our fermatas sound more organic.
We can use the mental image of Superman stopping a train. Or we can imagine a roller coaster slowing and pausing at a high point in the track before making it over the hump and accelerating down the other side.
We can visualize a ski or skateboard jump, Super Mario Brothers, or running out of gas coasting up a hill.
With any mental image, we can connect with the implied momentum of the action. We can use this to guide our placement of each note in time, as well as relative volume of the notes.
Visualization works best when we “embody” the action or scene. Again, the goal is to have a physical experience of the momentum (not just make a picture).
How to Handle Multiple Fermatas
Sometimes, composers give us more than one fermata in a row.
When this happens, we can think of the section containing all the fermatas as one big fermata. Each fermata is in proportion to the others. They all share the same context, and make sense together.
We can use our mental imagery to sculpt the larger rhythm. For instance, we could imagine a stone skipping on a still pond.
Or we could visualize jumping from of a series of cliffs or buildings, with each bound greater than the last.
The important thing is that the section makes sense to the listener. She needs to understand the larger movement of time and rhythm governing the placement of each note.
There are many ways to get it right, and many ways to mess it up.
How to Move On After a Fermata
Once we’ve played our fermata note, and time suspends, we need to start time back up again. We need to play the next note after the fermata in exactly the right place, at the right volume, and maintain the musical momentum.
This can happen in many ways. Ideally, we’ve been counting and subdividing through the fermata. And we’ve used our visceral (body) intelligence to slow down and speed up the time.
Using our imagery, we can imagine the landing of the big jump, or the bottom of the roller-coaster hill.
We can start speeding back up either with the first few notes after the fermata, or before (during the fermata).
Either way, the goal is an organic continuation of the music that came earlier. The piece didn’t stop, it just “launched into the air” for a moment.
How to End a Piece with a Fermata
When a tune ends with a fermata, all the rules above still apply.
Yet, it’s important for our listeners to know when the piece is officially over. If the last note fades away into silence, the exact end point is unclear. That is, unless we communicate it physically.
If we decide to let the last note fade to complete silence, it’s often best to “freeze” our bodies and be still. This way, we can cue the official end by relaxing, looking up, etc.
Another way to end the piece is to treat the last note as a normal long note. We can continue to count and slow down the pulse as it rings. Then we can stop the vibrating strings at a logical (based on counting) point.
This way, we maintain the effect of the floating, fading note, but also give listeners a definite end point.
Again here, freezing all bodily movement helps communicate the music’s not over yet.
Experiment, Record, Evaluate
To get the timing of our fermatas so that we best demonstrate the composer’s ideas, we can experiment.
We can sing and conduct (or wave our hands around in rhythm). We can try it several different ways.
If we record the different options, we can listen back and see which one works best.
Fermatas are an important landmark in the music. So it’s worth taking the time to figure out a plan for each occurrence.