Several of you have contacted me about doing a post on the subject of practising in dotted rhythms, that process where we deliberately and willfully go against the composer’s express wish for a passage  to be played evenly by changing the rhythmic notation for our own devious ends. This is a tradition that has been passed down from teacher to student for eons. It can work well when used carefully, but it is not a panacea for all technical problems.

Pianists will claim that by taking a passage written in a constant stream of fast, regular notes and playing it several times, each time using a different rhythmic pattern, they have much more control over the passage mechanically.  This seems to strengthen the fingers, apparently (what does that actually mean?), or  it is to do with regrouping the passage – the brain sees the patterns slightly differently with each rhythmical variation and when you return to the original, it is easier to play faster, evenly, more accurately and effortlessly. Quite possibly so, if this has been done well. Are there any negative side effects to this? Absolutely, even if this has been done well!

Rather like the ablution ritual of an hour of Hanon exercises, practising using a bunch of different rhythms gives a formulaic, mechanical structure to a practice session that allows both mind and ear a significant tea break while filling in time very nicely. There is a sense of achievement possible here, it can be real halo polish. If you have done an hour of Hanon and then practised your passages in dotted rhythms, you are bound to have practised well! But I often question what, if anything, has been achieved, or if results might be achievable in other ways  – ways that better engage our critical faculties and leave stronger, more permanent results. Oh, I forgot! Add to that list wearing out the batteries on the metronome by starting the piece at crotchet equals 60 then playing it over again at crotchet equals 62 and so on, until several “productive” hours have elapsed…

Here is a list of possible rhythmical variants based on divisions of four. I could have gone on, but I spared you:

Don’t get me wrong. These can work! My general feeling is go ahead and use them all for scales and for anything in your pieces where you want toccata-like effects, or where you want to iron out or dull your ear to all the subtleties of timing and inflection that make music beautiful and personal.

A dotted rhythm is playing both slowly and fast in the same passage. If you then do the reverse of the rhythm, you are now playing slowly what you have previously played fast, and so on. The drawback is that there is quite an explosion of energy during the fast part of this process, and unless this is dispelled we are in danger of becoming tight. Here is a different way with rhythms which preserves all the usefulness of the process, and which helps to eliminate some of the negative effects.

Instead of thinking of it as a notated rhythm, we can think of a long note (with or without a pause) followed by one, two, three or more grace notes played very fast and very light. If we have several fast notes, we can allow a crescendo so that they lead to the next long note. On that long note, actively command a release of effort (I prefer this term to “relax”, since if we really are relaxed, our arm would fall off the keyboard, but you know what I mean).

Thus:

  • Play the main note forte and pause on it
  • Immediately release effort – think of a light switch going off
  • Consciously command the muscles in your hand/arm/wherever to loosen and return to a state of  balance
  • Close up the hand
  • Revel in the sensation of feeling physically free!
  • Prepare mentally for the next burst of energy.

The pauses need to be long enough for all this to take place, but as we get better and quicker at all this, the pauses will become shorter and eventually disappear. I also prefer to use two different touches, a marcato accent for the main note (which acts as a pillar), and pianissimo leggierissimo for the fast one(s).

The building up of speed and accuracy can also be achieved much more skilfully by carrying this a step further. Build in stopping places by placing your long notes at distances ever further apart, eventually eliminating them altogether. The patterns in the music will not always readily conform to the strictures of a rhythm and it can feel artificial to force this. The stopping notes might not be equidistant.

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