My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Baking cakes - conquering rhythm

Have you ever tried to put together a cake without a recipe?  I have.  It wasn't pretty.  

And now my six-year old daughter has also been initiated into the "I'm going to just wing it" school of baking with just about the same result.  She was off to a great start - flour, sugar (of course!), fruit flavored water (creative!), milk, and I believe some mushed up strawberries but that was about it.  No baking soda, no baking powder.  When she was convinced that she was done the cake went into the oven and we waited, and waited, and waited.  After about 5 hours of intense cake watching, my daughter decided it was as done as it was going to be and we pulled it out of it's misery.  What we had was not a spongy, texturally decadent confection, it was a gooey, slimy, jiggly, shapeless, and pretty tasteless mass of creativity.  But it was while trying to swallow a bite of my daughter's "cake" that I was struck with an analogy to music making.  

Music without accurate rhythm or a steady pulse is like a cake without a recipe.  

Crazy?  Perhaps, but hang in there with me and I'll try to explain myself...

I play with a lot of musicians thanks to my profession as a piano collaborator and it has been surprising to me how often I encounter folks that don't really know what they're doing when it comes to rhythm.  Sometimes it's just a few places here and there where I suspect they are completely guessing at what it's supposed to be, but other times it is quite apparent that the musician simply doesn't understand the mathematics that are behind the rhythm.  It's almost as if they think that rhythm isn't something concrete but that like musicality, it can vary from person to person, or that it's negotiable.  Now please understand that I'm not saying there isn't room for a little give and take, that rhythm can't be played with for expressive purposes.  I'm not saying that it all.  What I'm saying is that in order to play a piece of music in a way that will capture the audience and get those feet tapping, rhythm must be understood.  It's like baking a cake.  Just as you need so much baking soda, salt, and baking powder per every cup of flour, you need 6 eighth note pulses in a 6/8 measure...not 8, not 7 and-a-half.  And if we don't follow the recipes, whether it be musical or culinary, what we end up with is  a mess that most likely won't appeal to anybody.  

I realize I'm being a little more confrontational than I usually am but it's because I think this is really, really important.  And yes, I know rhythm can be hard.  Yes, it takes time and discipline to sit down and figure out what those dots and bars mean.  Yes, it sometimes takes clapping, walking or dancing to the music in order to internalize it and yes, it can be a pain, I realize.  But rhythm can be conquered, I promise.  And when the lightbulb clicks and suddenly rhythm is part of a young musician's life, wow, is it an awesome experience!  Their ooey gooey musical mess suddenly puffs up with air and becomes...

© daniaphoto -

So let's pull out those cookbooks, measuring spoons, and conversion tables, and let's bake us some cakes...

And eat them too, of course!

Note:  If anyone has any suggestions of ways that people can work on rhythm - websites, books, methods, etc...please feel free to share them here in the comments section!  Many thanks.  

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reading words, reading music...observations from a musical mom

Painting by Gustav Adolph Hennig,
image at Wikimedia
I have to say that motherhood continually brings me new insights into some of the more everyday aspects of life.  I never realized how much effort goes into going to the bathroom in the bathroom, for instance.  Or how much coordination, balance, and taste it takes to dress oneself in the morning.  Watching my daughter go through all of these learning processes has both frustrated and amazed me and when I look back on it all, it makes me marvel at our capacity for learning and adapting. 

The last biggie in our household has been watching our daughter learn how to read on her own.  I am an avid reader and have been for as long as I can remember so I have been very intent on soaking in the whole process.  And since I also happen to be a bit passionate about folks learning how to sightread music I've come up with a list of similarities between the worlds of music and words in print form that I've observed lately.  Why bother, you might ask?  Because I feel very strongly that too many people treat the act of reading music as something completely different from the act of reading words on a page.  Hand someone a book and ask them to read a bit of it to you and very rarely will he or she respond negatively.  But ask someone to sightread a piece of music?  Yikes!  For many that is a complete nightmare and is enough to send them back to the days when he or she was just learning to read in school and was asked to read in front of the entire class.  

So here are some of my casual observations. 

- As a fluent reader,  I read and recognize whole words and sometimes even strings of words.  I definitely do not read letter by letter.  Lately, as I've been reading to my daughter, I've tried reading the other way and it simply does not work.  My brain cannot make sense of a storyline, I can't predict what's going to happen next, I cannot decide what voice to use in dialogues because I am literally living letter by letter.   The same is true with music, especially piano music that requires one to read both horizontally and vertically at the same time.  When I read music, I am taking in and processing groups of notes all at once.  A series of ascending notes?  An ascending scale, not C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.  A group of tightly-knit fast notes?  An ornamentation all around one note, not E-F-E-D-E-F-G-F-E.  I make a game of trying to find patterns in everything I'm reading in order to simplify the process of reading music, whether it's the first time I've ever seen it or the 100th time.  If I don't, I no longer am making music, I'm simply playing notes.  I-T-W-O-U-L-D-B-E-L-I-K-E-T-H-I-S-S-E-N-T-E-N-C-E-!

- Sitting side-by-side with my daughter as she's trying to read books on her own has been a very interesting experience for me.  Not too long ago we were sitting on the couch with her eagerly reading to me.  She was reading along and not surprisingly, she read a word that wasn't actually on the page.  Trying to be a good "teacher" I interrupted her flow of words and proceeded to "correct" her.  Wow.  Her reaction was eye-opening.  Her face crumpled, her eyes went blank, and painfully for me, the book closed.  Trying to explain myself I said, "What?  You read it incorrectly.  I was just correcting you."  Even before I finished saying that last sentence, I felt myself crumpling inside.  What I realized afterwards is that my dear daughter was already skimming.  She was already learning to read, not letter by letter, but by recognizing and guessing what was coming next.  And is this a bad thing?  What do I do when I sightread music?  Do I stop when I misread something (if I'm even aware that I'm misreading it)?  Do I correct myself?  No, I don't because playing every note perfectly is not why I sightread music.  So the moral of this little episode with my daughter is that from now on I want to stop before I correct.  Perhaps there will be times when it's important for me to point out something she missed but I'd rather take a risk and let her learn the art of sightreading herself.  

- Sightreading words and music in a more macroscopic way enables me to learn an author's or composer's language more quickly which then makes reading easier and easier.  In general, once I see patterns and trends in their language I can then predict more of what is going to happen in the next phrase, the next sentence, the next measure.  If I'm reading letter by letter, note by note, getting into the head of the creator is virtually impossible - I have to continue to read in a microscopic way.  But reading in patterns, I can guess that in Beethoven, I'm going to get lots of repeated motives; in Debussy I'm going to get lots of whole tone scales; in Mendelssohn I'm going to get lots of arpeggiated figurations that fit comfortably in my hand; in Bartok there's a lot of mirror-image playing.  Knowing all this makes reading music so much easier just as it's gotten easier for my daughter to pick up a fairy tale and give it a go simply because she knows that it's going to start with "Once upon a time" and end with "they lived happily ever after."  

- Once I have an idea of an author's or composer's language, I can then appreciate his or her touches of genius when they occur because more often than not, these magical spots are that way because they defy my expectations.  When I'm sightreading either books or music, I am constantly predicting what I think is going to happen next.  With some of the lesser-known composers, composers that didn't necessarily rock their world and turn them upside down, what I predict usually comes true.  But with others, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Schubert, for example, it's those times when they completely pull the rug out from under me that makes me realize what makes a piece of music so incredibly effective and  which spots have the potential to make the audience sit on the edge of their seats with their jaws hanging down in between their knees.  Those spots are what makes good music, good music.  Same is true with reading books to my daughter.  The more predictable stories, well, they're not nearly as fun to tell.  There aren't as many spots that I look forward to reading.  But with the good ones?  Those are the ones where I know that if I just drop my voice to a whisper, add a little dramatic silence before the final sentence of a chapter, I'll have my daughter begging for more.  And it's those parts in the story that I would never have thought of writing in that way myself.  It's what makes good stories, good stories.  

So in conclusion, here's what I have to say.  

Reading, whether it be words on a page or music, has the potential to rock anyone's world but only if we see the marks on the page for what they are.  Not individual scratches, but words, sentences...language!  I'm not one for absolute perfection, especially when it comes to enjoying literature or enjoying music - I don't think perfection in reproduction is the point.  The point lies behind the ink, beyond the notes and if we want young people to enjoy reading and to enjoy just sightreading music for fun, I think it's important that we think carefully about how we teach these precious skills.   

Happy reading, everyone!  And I encourage you all to share with me your own experiences of reading both music and words.  I'm putting a lot of thought into the art of sightreading and would appreciate any feedback or thoughts.  

Many thanks!