|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." For me this is akin to the adage, "Can't see the forest through the trees." Thinking in so much detail 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 trust the detailed work and 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 of the forest from more of a distance is really much more satisfying.
Last but not least, here's a video describing my process and hopefully demonstrating what a different it can make to try this: