|Image from a phenakistoscope by Eadweard Muybridge|
from Wikimedia Commons
I want to start by telling you that personally, I like you a lot. You're a great time signature - simple yet elegant. 2/4 and 4/4, they're ok but they're just too square for me sometimes. Then there are those tricky little meters - you know, the ones with odd numbers on top, or big numbers on the bottom - 7/8, 5/8, 7/16, 15/4, 59/48. Those can be entertaining, intriguing, and wonderful exercise for a musician's mind, but sometimes they can be, well, a little much. When I'm in the mood for something else, you're there with such grace at times, or with a flair that makes me dream of twirling on the dance floor in the arms of my dear husband. So thank you for that.
It has come to my attention, however, that you are sorely neglected and abused and I wanted to take a moment to express my sadness and sympathy to you. I first discovered the dreadful state of your neglect this past summer as I was working with a group of talented high-school singers that had gathered for a month of intense study. In the middle of a string of individual rehearsals I realized that I was getting weary of having to correct the singers' rhythm and of constantly adjusting the accompaniment when it dawned on me that the majority of the time the problems occurred when the song was in 3/4. As I continued rehearsing it then became clear that it wasn't just sometimes that problems occurred, it was every single time - no exaggeration. That same night we had a student recital that was a mixture of both vocal and instrumental music. As I was waiting for the program to start I leaned over to one of the voice teachers and told him about my odd findings. At first he looked slightly dubious but I said in a hushed whisper as the lights were dimming, "Just listen."
That night, every single piece in 3/4 had major rhythmic instability. Beats were being added or omitted everywhere, I suppose in an attempt to make your wonderfully unsymmetrical meter more symmetrical. Vocal...instrumental...it didn't matter. It sounded a bit like the kids were trying to fit square pegs into round holes. And ever since that night, things haven't changed. I'm sorry, 3/4, you just seem to bamboozle a lot of folks, especially the younger ones. When I got to thinking about why this might be, it's really no wonder. After all, how much popular music (rock, pop, rap, etc...) is in 3/4? Especially music that's being written and performed by bands today? Hmmm...not a whole lot, if any! 6/8, yes. That pops up from time to time but 6/8 isn't 3/4. To me, 6/8 is the same as 2/4 - symmetrical but with a little lilt.
But in spite of all this bad news, I want you to know that I'm on a mission - a mission to preserve who you are. And I'm getting others on board to help me. They say that knowing is half the battle and now we know. We just need to figure out how to help people understand you and to feel you. Here are some thoughts I've had and some things I'm already trying:
We can help musicians to hear and understand what makes you so wonderful. I often take a piece that's giving a student problems and purposefully alter it so that it becomes a piece in 2/4 or 4/4. I then ask the student how doing that affects how the piece sounds and feels. More often than not their face cringes or they shake their heads in disapproval at the newly arranged version. It's a good way to get them to find some determination to fix the problem.
We can teach them how to waltz. I'm showing my age here, but I admit that I've known how to waltz since I was a little girl because I had to go to dancing school when I was in elementary school. But I'm pretty sure that most kids today don't even know what a waltz is, much less know how to do it themselves. So with every student that I encounter that's having trouble feeling the meter, I teach them how to do the steps and we dance the waltz together, eventually singing the music along with our dancing. I make sure that on each downbeat the leg we are on bends a bit so that we can really feel the weight of your downbeat. And yes, I often feel silly and awkward doing this and yes, they feel even more silly and awkward, but I do think it's worth it.
We can show them how to conduct in three. This can be tricky for students too and takes some practice but it's another great way to help students see and feel what you're all about - that you're not symmetrical and that there's really only one beat that is assisted by gravity.
With some examples, we can encourage them to play fast enough (as an exercise) to allow them to feel two measures together in 6/8, with the first measure being the first beat and the second measure being the second beat. I have found that doing this sometimes helps students as an intermediate step since it gives them the symmetry they often desire. When they can do this without any hesitation and with ease, I gradually slow up the tempo until the music is back in 3.
We can make sure that they are truly understanding every rhythm within each measure. This is actually something I stress with students regardless of meter but I think it's worth mentioning here since I think it's really important. Most students spend a majority of their time guessing how rhythms go even though rhythms have a clear mathematical solution. Another mission of mine is to prove to young musicians that it is worth the time it takes to figure out a rhythm because with true comprehension and internalization comes the freedom to fully express musicality.
We can be merciless in our expectation that everyone can learn to love 3/4 and to be able to play this wonderful music with ease and comfort. Need I say more?So in summary, 3/4, I just wanted you to know that someone out there is thinking about you and that many of us appreciate all that you do for the classical music world. You may not be as popular in other genres, but you have a place.
You have a friend in me. After all, what would this world be like without "Amazing Grace," "The Blue Danube Waltz," and "Bist du bei mir?"
Hang in there, 3/4. We're working on it.
If anyone else has any other suggestions about helping students with 3/4, please do share them here! I'm obviously on a mission and could use all the ideas I can get! And if you know of any "cool" music in 3/4 that is not classical I'd love to know that too and I'll add it to a playlist I'm going to get up on youtube soon. Thanks!