On Rhythm: Classical v Romantic

Have you considered there might be a different way of playing rhythmically depending on the style period? I’m not talking about rhythmic conventions (such as double dotting, rhythmic assimilation, etc.), but how we organise the relationships between long and short notes, where we might take time, and where to do so would disturb the music. Leon Fleisher explains this beautifully using the famous theme from the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. He plays it in two ways – one Romantic (the way this piece should of course be done), and the other Classical (to illustrate his point). This sort of rhythmic articulation and shaping is a million miles away from the tyranny of the metronomic beat. As I have discussed before, too much metronome practice will tend to kill natural rhythm – but as I eavesdrop in institutional practice room corridors I am struck by how many pianists are using it as the backbone of their daily practice. While there are some effective ways of using this tool, coinciding each beat of the music to a metronome click is a very good way of filling in practice time without necessarily achieving anything helpful at all. We’ve all experienced how occasional, focussed metronome practice can help stabilise a wayward pulse by drawing attention to those places where we might be rushing or dawdling, but we have to be very careful about this or we risk ending up flattening out the natural ebb and flow of the music until we sound like a robot. Consider the opening of Schubert’s first Moment Musical in C, op 94 no 1. Marked Moderato, this looks like it should be played pretty much in time, right? I sampled 5 random elite recordings from YouTube, and found that […]

On Rhythm: Some Resources

A number of pianists report having issues with rhythm. To help solve the problem we need to be able to set a steady pulse and to internalise this as we play, pushing and pulling according to the natural ebb and flow that virtually all music requires. This is vastly different from playing metronomically, since no performance of anything is going to conform to an unbending metronomic beat, and while a certain amount of metronome practice can be beneficial if you know what you’re doing, too much of it ends up being detrimental. When I was a student at the Royal College of Music, we used Paul Hindemith’s Elementary Training for Musicians as a text book for handling complex rhythms against a steady pulse. Some of the exercises are pretty gruelling, and would challenge anyone. In this exercise, you are required to play the notes with one hand, but a tone higher than written, while tapping the rhythm below the stave on your knee (and then play again in two other stipulated keys). Yes, really… Hindemith requires what he calls “coordinated action” in the exercises. This might involve speaking the given rhythm while conducting with one hand, or perhaps tapping it with the left hand while conducting with the right, tapping it with the foot while conducting, and so on – a literal embodiment of rhythm. Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer There is no doubt that practising the rigorous exercises in Hindemith’s book will prove beneficial for the more advanced player, but let’s start somewhere simpler. I can highly recommend a little book by Robert Starer, entitled Rhythmic Training. It’s been around for years, and is excellent if you follow the directions. The author states in […]

By |October 18th, 2018|Rhythm|3 Comments

On Rhythm: How to Develop a Steady Pulse  

I decided to put together an occasional series on rhythm, in response to readers who say they experience rhythmical issues when they play. There are many factors that may contribute to this problem, and I am going to cover one point at a time. Welcome to the first post in this series, on the importance of setting and maintaining a steady beat. I can’t think of many activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a pulse, therefore establishing and maintaining the pulse should be the first priority in all we do. This demands special attention during our practice when we are stopping and restarting. At the elementary level it’s the job of the teacher to set the pulse in lessons by counting out aloud energetically one or two bars before every scale, before every piece, and before every time a passage is repeated. After a while, the pupil is invited to set their own pulse by counting out aloud before they play. Laborious? A bit, but well worth the effort. In this way the process becomes internalised, and happens as second nature. Clapping to the Metronome How good are you at maintaining a steady beat? In this metronome experiment, continue to clap the beats when the metronome suddenly drops out. Can you maintain the pulse? Find out here… And now for another exercise. Set a metronome to whatever speed you like, and clap so that your claps drown out the sound of the metronome. If you hear the metronome, the chances are that your clap is a bit before or after the beat. Clapping is just one way of responding to the pulse, but notice how in this Dalcroze Eurhythmics class […]

Flexibility in Pulse

I heard Chopin’s beautiful Waltz in A minor in a class the other day. The basic feeling, tempo, balance between the hands and the pedalling were extremely good, and there were some lovely sounds. But I was struck by how straightjacketed the performance felt to me from a rhythmical perspective. When I asked if he had been using a metronome, he told me he had been practising on a digital piano with a waltz backing track. Doing this regularly had completely ironed out any sense of natural phrasing and timing, and the sort of gentle ebb-and-flow rubato this piece needs to bring it to life in performance. When I was a boy, fascinated with music and how it all worked, I once tried to synchronise the new metronome I was given for Christmas with an LP recording – just to check whether whoever was playing was doing so in time, since this was stressed as being very important by my teacher. I had a few LP vinyl records at that stage, but no matter which recording I used I was unable to get the metronome to line up with the beats from the record for more than a bar or so. Naturally I assumed it was my metronome that was faulty, and thought of asking for it to be fixed, or swapped for one that worked properly. I didn’t know at the time that no artistic performance of any piece of music could be bound to a fixed beat, rigidly applied. You’re probably thinking – sure, Romantic period music would obviously make no sense when played against a metronome but anything Baroque would synch up, wouldn’t it? Certainly so strict-looking a page of semiquavers as […]

Solving a Rhythmical Problem

It should be obvious that playing in time and playing rhythmically are two rather different things. It is possible to play in time according to a fixed beat but still be unrhythmical, and – in my book – the only way to be truly rhythmical is to feel rhythm in the body. Rhythmical mistakes can often be fixed by counting a steady beat out loud and clapping or tapping the rhythm of the passage in question. You could do it the other way around if you prefer, and clap or snap a steady beat while you vocalise the rhythmic pattern on the page using words or syllables; it is important to really bring the rhythm to life physically (using more of you than just your fingers) before trying it again on the piano. Bach Prelude in C Minor Students often come adrift in the Adagio bar (bar 34) of Bach’s Prelude in C minor (WTC Book 1), not because the rhythm is especially difficult to feel but because it is confusing to the eye. All those beams, it can be hard to discern where the subdivisions of the beats fall! A simple way of solving this is to grab a piece of manuscript paper and rewrite the passage in note values that are twice as long (quavers become crotchets, etc.). Clap the pulse underneath the stave and vocalise the rhythm using “ta” syllables (or whatever you like). If this still looks a bit foreign, double the note values yet again. The following example is a useful crib to mastering the rhythmical patterns and need only be done two or three times before it has served its purpose. Remember – this bar is cadenza-like and needs to sound free (as though improvised). In […]

The Metronome: Friend or Foe?

Solving a problem at the piano may have nothing whatever to do with technique in the mechanical sense. To attempt to solve it by analysing physical movements, hand and arm positions and so on may well miss the point – entirely. Some weeks ago, a student came for a lesson on Mendelssohn’s Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, op. 14. He asked for some help on a passage he was struggling with – he just could not get it to sound and feel good no matter how much he practised it. It was the spot with the tenor melody, where the RH has the shimmering arpeggio patterns up and down above it: We had to start somewhere, so I asked him to back up a little to where the music slips into G major for this brief lyrical interlude (marked con anima, which to me means “with soul; with feeling”). After he played, it was clear that he had worked hard on the RH arpeggios (these were bang in time and were working well), but he had not focussed much attention on the single most important element of this passage, the melodic line itself. This is the Mona Lisa of this particular picture – everything else is subservient to the shaping, breathing and projection of this line and to find out how it works it first has to be sung. I’m no singer but I don’t mind having a go; I won’t make students sing during a piano lesson unless they are completely up for it, but I will suggest they go home and do so. Singing a melodic line expressively and to the best of our ability allows us to discover the high and low points of intensity, the forward and backward directions […]