metronome

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 […]

Practising Polyrhythms

Following a question on a Facebook page about coping with polyrhythms, I decided to republish this post from 2012. I hope it helps! I want to suggest some ways of solving a polyrhythm where one hand is playing in divisions of four while the other in divisions of three. I am going to leave out 2 against 3, as this is relatively straightforward – as long as the second note of the duplet comes precisely between the second and third note of the triplet, then bingo! I’ve decided to go with a common example that trips people up, the 4 against 3 in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (last beat of the second bar): Fitting together the two hands slowly here relies first of all on knowing precisely where each note goes in one hand in relation to the other. In a 4 against 3 group, the only place where the hands coincide is the first note of the group. To work the placements out mathematically, on a piece of graph paper draw two lines and divide the top one in 4 and the lower one in 3. You will see that the second LH triplet comes between the second and third demisemiquaver of the RH but not half way (it actually comes a third of the way between). The third LH triplet comes just before the last demisemiquaver. Do this first by tapping your hands on your knees, using the words “What Atrocious Weather” or “Pass the Goddamn Butter” to help. If you repeat this enough times, you’ll get better and better at it, and you can transfer the activity from patella to keyboard. The main thing is to feel the rhythm in […]

Making Friends with Fiddly Fiorature

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a few requests for advice on how to handle the flurries of little notes we find in the music of Chopin. I am republishing a post I wrote back in 2013 – I hope it helps! When you’ve been teaching the piano for as long as I have, there are certain problems that are universal. It might be a particular spot in a particular piece that will always need to be brought up, or it might be a concept – such as how to manage the fioratura in the music of Chopin. Before we go any further, let me explain what this term means. Taken from “fior”, which means “flower” in Italian, fioratura refers to the flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. Chopin was a diehard fan of the bel canto tradition, and we find its influence throughout his music. Some of these passages look extremely scary, for example the coda of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne: The first thing to realise here is that Chopin did not intend the notation of his fiorature to be mathematically precise. The whole point is for them to sound free, improvisatory and personal. In my lessons with Ann Schein on Chopin’s Second Concerto, I was instructed to start the fiorature fast and take time at the end of the groups. Since Ann was one of only two students of Artur Rubinstein – no slouch when it came to the interpretation of Chopin – this has always been good enough for me. Because the notation is free, I feel we should retain a sense of freedom and even whimsy about how we play our fiorature, being unconstrained by the mathematics […]

Our Inner Conductor

In some Romantic music it may be appropriate to change tempo slightly when the musical idea changes, even if this is not specified in the score. This is just one of many personal freedoms that is part of Romantic style. However, in a Classical sonata we need to be able to contain the various different musical ideas in a movement more or less within one basic tempo – contrast within a unified tempo is what helps everything hang together. Quality of Beat I am no conductor, but when I wave my arms around in a lesson I feel that the energy of the beats varies from one section of the music to another, even though the tempo may stay exactly the same. The beat may have a strong, explosive attack which I show with a snap of the wrist. If this needs to happen at the piano or pianissimo level, I might make the movements quite small and high up. If the beats blend into one another smoothly, I might show this with more circular motions or even a figure of eight. The tempo stays the same but the energy and quality of the beat can change markedly within that tempo. This is often what happens in a Classical sonata first movement – the first subject may be extrovert and the second subject more expressive and intimate. As players respond to the different musical material, they often seem to change tempo without even realising. This is obviously an issue that needs our attention. Our Inner Conductor Of course we can use the metronome to stabilise the beat as we practise, this is such a tried and tested way of doing things that I am not going to dwell […]

A Beautiful Process for Scales

I was back at Steinway Hall in London recently, recording a new series of video demonstrations for Pianist Magazine. The first is on scales and arpeggios, and now that it has come out I am able add it at the end of this post. In this video, I demonstrate how the wrist, thumb and forearm accommodate the shifts in position in a scale or an arpeggio, using examples from the repertoire. So often I see players drop the arm down onto the thumb, forgetting that the arm needs to glide behind the hand smoothly. Apart from lumps and bumps, this will often cause a derailment. I wish there had been time to demonstrate a beautiful process my friend and colleague, the late and much missed Nehama Patkin used to do with scales for her intermediate students. Fortunately, I can give it to you here. This is useful hands separately as well as together, and it is actually very good to do it with the metronome. This is my take on what Nehama did (she suggested playing the scale as fast as possible as the final part, even if it comes out scrappily): Play the scale one octave ascending and descending, very slowly and firmly with a full, rich tone – let’s say we play each note as a crotchet, MM = 60 (or wherever suits you). Raise each finger slightly before grasping each key firmly, making sure to switch off effort at the bottom of each key. This will be at a level of forte. Next, without stopping, play two octaves in quavers. Keep the same pulse from the one-octave scale (the scale will now be twice as fast). Physically, instead of planting each finger into […]

By |September 27th, 2013|Practising|18 Comments

The Other End of the Telescope

A respected colleague teaching at the College level used to challenge his new students in their first lesson with him by getting them to play almost impossibly slowly with the metronome. He would find the fastest note value in their piece, which was to be equal to one click of the metronome set to 60. Let’s say the fastest note value was a semiquaver (sixteenth note), this means a crotchet (quarter note) would have to be held for four seconds, and a minim (half note) for eight seconds! I’m not sure if this ploy was to stress the value of extremely slow practice speeds or whether it was an act of deliberate cruelty, but I’m sure the experience was a challenging and none-too-pleasant one for the student. Slow practice helps us to see every atom and molecule that make up the big picture. It is like looking at a painting close up – we zoom in on one area of the canvas and see every brush stroke, every little nuance. In doing so we inevitably lose sight of the bigger gestures and thus the sweep, direction and overall meaning of the music. But since we know we can simply increase our speed to our ideal tempo after a bout of slow practice we are happy to submit ourselves to this discipline, knowing it is good for brain and finger. I have written much about the various different types of slow practice we can use and I think it is fairly safe to say that all of us use a certain amount of slow practice in our work at the piano, especially for fast pieces. This is hardly revolutionary. What is hardly discussed at all, as […]

More on Rhythm

I have been working on a new chapter on the uses and abuses of the metronome for Volume 3 of my ebook series, due to be published after Easter. For those who may love practising with a metronome, it feels important to offer some alternatives so you’re not left high and dry. Before I get to these, I need to discuss beat quality. Beat Quality All the metronome can really do is parcel up the music into equal capsules of time, one identical to the other, but music doesn’t work like this. It is easy to hear when someone has been practising with the metronome, listening to them play is the equivalent of viewing a movie frame by frame. The bigger gestures, such as phrase direction, natural ebb and flow and any subtleties of expressive timing go by the board and are obliterated. A point that is often missed here is that each beat of the bar has a different quality according to its metric placement in the bar. Eighteenth century theorists speak of “good and bad notes” but in Dalcrozian speak, the first beat of the bar (the downbeat, otherwise known as the crusis) is felt as a release of energy. The last beat (anacrusis) is a preparation of energy for the release, and is not really a weak beat as traditional teaching misleadingly describes it. The metacrusis is anything occuring between the crusis and anacrusis (the second beat in 3/4, the second and third beats in 4/4), the reaction to the crusis or the ripple effect. Getting back to the anacrusis, if I am lifting something up against gravity to prepare to put it down, this can hardly be described as “weak”. Depending on the […]

Playing Rhythmically

When I was a postgraduate student at the Manhattan School of Music in New York back in the 1980s, I decided to make up some credits for my master’s degree by taking courses in Dalcroze Eurythmics. Fortunately for me the teacher of these courses, Dr. Robert Abramson, was one of the world’s leading exponents on the subject and I learned an enormous amount about how rhythm works. Rhythm does not exist in the head, but in the body – we have to feel it physically. Playing a musical instrument rhythmically is a totally separate thing from playing by merely spelling out the counts. If music is dead in time, it is just that – dead! I once had an advanced student with a fundamental rhythmic flaw. Barely a bar would go by without some glaring rhythmic inaccuracy, and yet when I got her to count it out, it was clear she had a complete intellectual understanding of the mathematics of the meter. What was missing was the physical aspect, how the rhythm actually felt. The solution? No amount of metronome practice over the years had helped her one iota to play rhythmically. One term in a Dalcroze Eurythmics class did wonders to complete the circuitry and this made a huge difference to her playing. The whole body interprets musical rhythm enabling the large movements to become internalised. This rhythmic sense can then be executed by smaller parts of the body (namely our playing mechanism).   “Muscles were made for movement, and rhythm is movement. It is impossible to conceive a rhythm without thinking of a body in motion.” Emile Jacques-Dalcroze   Perhaps we can compare counting out with reading a recipe from a book and rhythm with actually […]

Practising Fast

Common sense suggests that if we can play a fast piece faster than intended, it will be easier to manage at the proper tempo, since we will have gone the extra mile. We’ll have stretched our resources and sharpened up the reflexes, and this is indeed an excellent thing to do from time to time in our practice sessions. Short bursts rather than complete performances are fine, and it is often preferable to play lighter, like the singer who marks rather than sings out full voice. When we go back to the normal tempo, it all feels easier. I like the idea of practising at a variety of different speeds but not mechanically – aim to make the music meaningful in each tempo. This is great if you are learning an accompaniment or an ensemble work, where the flexibility gained from this endeavour can only assist in maximising valuable rehearsal time when you get together with the other player(s). I would like to put the cat among the pigeons here and state that I don’t believe there is any such thing as the ONE CORRECT TEMPO, even despite indications from the composer. If I am playing a work in a cathedral, for example, I will necessarily have to slow it down to accommodate the acoustical space. If I am playing on a small instrument in a heavily carpeted room, I will most likely go for a faster tempo. The tempo of a piece of music is chameleon-like, surely? If I have had one cup of coffee too many for breakfast, then my performance that evening will likely be faster, because my metabolism and heartbeat will be faster. Music is organic, and performance is inextricably linked […]

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