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, May 14, 2012

Ditch the small beats!

Image from Wikimedia Commons
I can't tell you how many times I tell this to the young musicians I work with -  
"Ditch the small beats!"
When we start learning a piece it is important for us to figure out the rhythm.  As many of you who read my blog know, I am a big advocate for careful, thoughtful analysis of music that we're learning and that includes understanding the math behind all of the rhythms in any given piece.  (In my post, "Baking cakes - conquering rhythm" I compared it to getting all the right measurements when baking a cake.)  But after doing this detailed work, I believe we run the risk of becoming hyper-aware of the subdivisions that run throughout - "One-e-and-a Two-e-and-a Three-e-and-a-Four-e-and-a..." might be embedded in our head when we're performing or even worse, but something I see on a regular basis, "da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da." That might be fine at first, and by "at first" I mean until our brain understands the rhythm,  but after that I believe it's crucial for technical and musical reasons to move past those subdivisions into feeling the main beats (quarter notes in 4/4), half measures (half notes in 4/4), or whole measures (whole notes in 4/4.)  In other words, for a piece that's in 4/4, I feel the music not in 16 but rather in 4, 2, or even better in some cases, in 1.  When I don't do this, here is what I typically experience and why feeling the bigger beats helps the situation:

  • Lack of phrasing and musicality:  I have a difficult time feeling the natural phrasing and flow of the music because I am so focused on e-a-c-h--a-n-d--e-v-e-r-y--n-o-t-e.  I like to call this the "seeing the trees for the forest" syndrome versus "seeing the forest for the trees."  Feeling the bigger beats helps me to feel and hear how groups of notes belong to one another.  It's like stepping back from one of Seurat's examples of a pointillism and seeing the whole picture rather than just the dots that make up the whole.
  • Troubles with ensemble: If I'm playing with someone else it is more difficult to get our parts to line up since we're working at such a microscopic level.  Perhaps it seems counterintuitive, but for some reason if all the players agree on a larger beat to feel as a group, it becomes much easier for all the notes in between to fall into place.
  • No sense of rhythmic flexibility:  When I think the smaller subdivisions, the rhythms are just rhythms - they don't have any musical or expressive motivation behind them.  Now I may get some criticism for this, but I believe that many of us take rhythms too literally.  As I said earlier I do think it's important to mathematically understand what a rhythmic notation represents.  However, I also believe that in most pieces of music, we can and possibly should leave some room for flexibility for the sake of musicality.  For instance, I might choose to linger just a fraction of a hair longer on an eighth note before diving into sixteenths.  Or I might play with a triplet figure just slightly, especially if it's among a lot of duple rhythms, to emphasize the different character that triplet figures tend to have.  When we think in the smaller subdivisions, having this flexibility is impossible.  
  • No sense of where I am in the measure:  If I'm counting "One-e-and-a Two-e-and-a Three-e-and-a-Four-e-and-a..." at least I am somewhat aware of which beats are where in the measure and how the music lines up with the stronger beats but when I'm counting "da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da" I generally don't have any sense of gravity - of where to touch the ground in the music to give that natural cyclical feeling that meter can give.  When I think the bigger beats I tend to feel more like a conductor with their choreographed conducting patterns.  I have a better idea of where I am at any given point and that feels infinitely better than feeling lost in a forest of equally important (or unimportant) beats.   
  • No ease of playing:  When I'm playing a fast, technically challenging piece, thinking the smaller beats feels somewhat akin to wearing weights on my legs when going out for a run - you can only run so fast with those things on!  Switching gears and feeling the bigger beats enables me to play much faster, more easily which can really be a lot of fun and endorphin inducing - I definitely can't complain about that.  I think the reason why this works has to do with all of my previous points put together - it takes me out of the microscopic world that I often find myself in when I'm in the practice room analyzing everything to death, and plops me in the middle of lovely forest of musical phrases.  
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Not all the students I work with get this concept but when they do it's pretty amazing!  Recently I was rehearsing with a hard-working, conscientious saxophone major that was getting ready for an important jury.  On his program was a very challenging work, Ibert's Concertino da Camera.  The rhythm throughout is incredible, even a bit jazzy at times.  But much of it is fast, especially when he's playing.  In rehearsals we were having a terrible time getting our parts to fit comfortably - he kept rushing and cutting off ties all over the place which put both of us on edge.  At one point I looked at his foot and saw that he was energetically tapping out quarter notes so I immediately stopped and suggested that we start again but feeling only one beat per measure rather than two.  He gave it a go and I will never forget his reaction.  We got through a really difficult passage with no problem and he was so shocked he had to stop.  He looked at me, a bit perplexed but excited nevertheless, and said, "Wait - I can play it!"  This guy had been practicing the piece endlessly, slaving away at all the tiny details, practicing with the metronome (set to the subdivisions) but to no avail - he couldn't find a way to just fly with it.  All it took in the end was one simply adjustment and he was good to go!  

So next time you find yourself struggling with any of the challenges I listed above, remember - 

Ditch the small beats! 

And trust me, even though it might feel different at first and take some getting used to, the view from outside the forest is really much better.  Who wants to see a bunch of tree trunks anyway?



6 comments:

  1. It's funny but I find that many people don't focus enough on the small beats and their sense of rhythm is almost non-existent. They go by what they've heard before on the radio or just play from one big beat to the next, without understanding the in-betweens.

    I agree wholeheartedly that an approach that uses ALL the possibilities is essential for an informed and musical performance.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Anonymous. You are so right - that many people just guess when it comes to rhythm. I'm always telling the folks that do this that it really is just simple math and that it is worth it to take the time to figure it out before attempting anything.

      All the best,
      Erica

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  2. This has me thinking of teaching my cousin rhythm. I began trying to explain the concepts (how to do the simple math himself) in as many ways as I could think to but none of it seemed to stick and finally when he was still just guesstimating I caved and we began working with the smallest subdivisions. I thought it might be too tedious and lose his interest but he clicked with this approach and could tell when he was on the mark or not.

    It feels like different learning styles. I'm good at top down, understanding concepts easily and then having to go through the particulars applying the concept, and for him it might be easier to experience the particulars and then come to an understanding of the concepts. At least, that's what I'm hoping will happen!

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  3. Robert,
    It sounds like you're just who we need to help start a rhythm revolution! I'm determined to help folks with figuring out rhythm since it seems so many are really intimidated by the whole subject. I avoided the more tedious approach that you describe for a long time and went instead for guesstimating but once I started collaborating with others more and getting paid to do so I realized that wouldn't fly anymore. And now that I'm working with a lot of students I'm trying to figure out how I can help them . Like you mentioned, I think it does depend on the person and their particular learning styles but it is so worth it to figure all that out. I think people would enjoy music so much more if they could get into the groove of music whether it's classical, jazz, blues, country...rhythm is so essential, isn't it?

    Thanks for reading and for commenting!

    All the best,
    Erica

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  4. Absolutely! My piano teacher used to say he could tell when I was about to mess up a performance when I would stop moving along with the music. There's nothing quite like a solid groove that makes you want to dance along with the music!

    This reminds me, I knew a clarinetist whose teacher told her NOT to move with the music, that any unnecessary motion was basically wasted energy. Personally I think it would take more energy to repress the desire to move with the music. On the other hand one of the most energetic, fun bands I've ever seen told us that they used to just stand on the stage and play their music but over time developed into a lot more dancing to make a better show for the audience and encourage people to dance. That's a different style than classical of course, but I think they make a good point that if the performer is seen being literally moved by the music that communicates to the audience.

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    1. Oh my goodness, yes, Robert! It's so true that most people stop moving when they've lost touch with the pulse. And those moments usually signal another problem, whether it be a question of notes, fingering, insecurity about pitch, whatever...

      And don't get me started about the whole not-moving thing. I just don't get that!! I certainly couldn't maintain that for very long. But to each their own, I suppose.

      Erica

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