The art of interpreation by Russell Gray

The art of interpretation

In this article I want to discuss some of the thinking I do while I develop my interpretation of a piece of music. When I study a score, my overall objective and responsibility is to be as faithful to the composers’ wishes as possible.

In order to achieve this I have to be prepared to do some research into the background of the piece. I will look for clues left by the composer and also any other relevant background information I might be able to find. Recordings are helpful (if there are any), biographical material of the composer can be useful. Political and historical events surrounding the time of composition can also be used as information to help arrive at my final take on the music.

Considering the key signature is important as this can portray the deeper characteristics of the music. C major, for example, might suggest innocent happiness while A minor could sound mournful or melancholy. G major could suggest honesty, deliberate, stoic, serious, whist D Major can be triumphant, jubilant, victorious or celebratory.

Finding the correct tempo is vital of course. Every piece of music has one. Even if it is ‘A Piacere’ (At pleasure or Ad Lib), it will convey a sense of tempo or rhythmic pulse as the performer changes note. The music will still move the listener at an emotional level. As the conductor I must be able to find the right tempo not only in my study room and at rehearsals, but crucially when I am on the podium at a concert or competition when the pressure is high. Here is a list of basic tempos and corresponding metronome markings.

Largo = 40-60bpm

Adagio = 60-76bpm


Andante Moderato

Andante = 76-108bpm


Moderato = 108-120bpm


Allegro Moderato

Allegro = 120-168



Presto = 168-200

If the tempo chosen is more than 10 beats a minute either side of the composers choice, the music will take on another character and I could be accused of not being true to the composers’ wishes.

Metronome markings on a score didn’t appear before 1817 when Beethoven first used beats per minute (BPM) for his symphonies. Anything before that was indicated in words usually German or Italian.

Before Beethoven, tempo is rather left up to how you interpret it. Mozart had many ways of describing his tempo requirements that often didn’t only relate to the speed but also the character of the music. There are many ways of interpreting Allegro for example. Mozart had more than 12. Also one could consider how fast is fast to an 18th Century gentleman? Perhaps a charging horse, a cannon ball, or a bullet. Our 21st Century perception of speed is dramatically different. The international space station travels at over 27,500 kilometers an hour.

Mahler really was very specific about his intentions by writing full sentences of instruction to the conductor. A good example from his first Symphony is “Von hier an in sehr allmaehlicher aber stetiger Tempo Steigerung bis zum Zeichen“ -From here on in a very gradual but steady pace increase to the sign.

Contemporary composers use a mix of both and we can be more confident in their intentions through their very clear precise markings. However, if I have a premier performance before me, I find it is worth remembering that the composer will probably not have heard the final version of the piece, so some guesswork on my part and close collaboration with the composer ( if permitted),is necessary in realizing the most authentic performance.

In my professional life, I always endeavor to faithfully represent what I believe the composer originally intended. It is always for the listener to decide how close I came.

Russell Gray

Russell Gray is one of the most respected and successful conductors and cornet player in the banding world, he has released six solo recordings, all receiving high critical acclaim. Along with that dedicates he much of his time to working with young musicians.

Related Products


Neo Series, Bb Cornet

Color Variation Available Other Colors Available