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 […]

Firm Foundations

A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones. A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of […]

Fun With Scales?

I was planning to write a piece on the uses and abuses of the metronome in my new mini series “The Middle Path”, but a major publication deadline this week has temporarily diverted me from my purpose. Instead, I thought I could write a short addendum to last week’s offering on practising in rhythms as applied to scales, so here it is. Let’s not pretend that practising scales is an unalloyed joy for the aspiring pianist, so anything we can do to spice up this area of our work is to be welcomed. I am most eager to hear your ideas and suggestions – do please share them! For variety, we could take a phrase from a piece and use the rhythmical structure to hang a scale onto. We might practise a scale using the opening rhythm from Dave Brubeck’s Take Five: Or the theme from Bernstein’s America: This could even turn into a game for teacher and student, the one having to guess a well-known piece from its rhythm turned into a scale played by the other (role reversal is encouraged here). Taking this one step further, teacher could ask student to play a scale in the rhythm of a section of a piece they are currently studying – perhaps a section where the rhythm is weak and needs reinforcement? As a youngster, I found the following rhythms extremely useful for gaining control in scales, and in extended passages from pieces. In examples where the beat is divided into 4’s, you play the first 4 notes as crotchets, then the next 4 notes either twice as fast: … or four times as fast, thus: If the beat is divided into 3’s, here is the formula: […]

By |January 13th, 2013|Teaching|2 Comments

Some Thoughts on Five-Finger Exercises: Variations on a Theme by Hanon

Almost every book of piano exercises has a chapter dealing with five-finger exercises, and a lot of pianists won’t feel warmed up and ready to face their practice session without having spent some time doing these. I have several colleagues who are at the height of the profession who swear by this, and I know a number who don’t believe they help at all. It is like following the American primaries – you are probably either in one camp or the other! There have been those piano teachers who condemn five-finger exercises as not only a waste of time but also contrary to a holistic and natural way of using our body at the keyboard. But, like anything else we do in our practice, it is HOW we do them that counts. If we are doing five-finger exercises mindfully and for a particular purpose, then a few minutes daily can be of great value. My favourite warm-up (when I need it) is exercises in double notes followed by all major and minor common chords in all inversions, but I do occasionally assign five-finger exercises to students. I like to use modified versions of Hanon, whose patterns I use to my own devious ends. For those who like practising Hanon, have you tried doing them in other keys? Perhaps this is obvious, but I don’t understand the value of sticking with C major when no piece of real music ever avoids black notes. The point is how we steer around the keyboard, how we negotiate the ever-changing black/white terrain. Playing in other keys means we end up using the whole length of the key as the short thumb slides in to deal with the black keys, […]

On Passagework

There are innumerable examples in the piano repertoire of what is commonly known as “passagework”, a string of fast notes that lasts either a few bars, a whole section, or an entire piece. The function of this passagework may be decoratively melodic (rather like the singer’s coloratura), but is most often associated with bravura display. Even though I don’t really like the term, let’s stick with it as we all know what we mean by it. It is hardest to bring off at either extreme of the dynamic spectrum, loud or soft, but I think the difficulties are compounded by the sameness of the rhythmic value. If the passage were interspersed with slower or faster note values, this would act as terrain in an otherwise flatter landscape. Extended passages played fast and loud, or fast and soft, demand considerable control. I think immediately of two opposite examples from Chopin, the finale of the Funeral March Sonata (fast and soft, the difficulties compounded a hundredfold because both hands are in unison for the entire movement): and the Prelude in B flat minor (the right hand would be hard enough, but Chopin adds insult to injury with the left hand leaps): As a guiding principle, the finger plays from the surface of the key and releases to the surface (and not a squilimeter higher). The exception to this is martellato or when the passage (or elements of it) is controlled by forearm rotation. While the end result is that the fingers should be extremely close to the keys – in contact with the key surface – the practising dictates that we might regularly and deliberately use a raised finger. In the central nervous system, reciprocal relations exist between […]

By |November 27th, 2011|Practising|3 Comments

The Baroque Urtext Score (4): Tempo and Rhythm

I was hoping this would be the last post in this series, but I can’t quite squeeze everything I want to say in this week’s offering, so I crave your indulgence and will wrap it up next week when I bring some loose ends together. Fortunately, I have already covered ornamentation in my very first two blogposts ever (probably because I wanted to get it out of the way?). If you haven’t read them, here is the first post, and here is the second. Tempo I don’t want to get bogged down in complex baroque theory about time signatures, “good and bad” notes, etc., as outlined in the numerous treatises of the period. The subject is too vast for this. The purpose of this post, along with the others in the series, is simply to highlight the main areas of concern in the form of a potted digest so you can feel empowered, not restricted and even more confused! Thus I will touch on the most important areas and leave you to fill in the gaps – the reading list at the end is a good starting point. Meter Baroque musicians would have worked on the principle of a hierarchy of beats, the first beat of the bar the strongest, the last beat the weakest. 2/4 time was felt as “strong-weak”, 3/4 as “strong-weak-weaker”, and 4/4 as “strong-weak-less strong-weaker”. I am sure we all remember this from elementary theory lessons. This really doesn’t apply to the same extent in romantic and modern music – a residue of this remains but factors such as the long legato line and other phrasing/accentuation modifiers have diluted it and smoothed things out significantly (except, perhaps, for characteristic forms such as waltzes, marches […]

By |November 11th, 2011|Practising|2 Comments

A Ghost Story

There are certain places in the repertoire where I can predict that a student is going to hurry. They will usually tend to rob long notes of their value by rushing on to the next event. Perhaps our instincts tell us we should be busy making sound, playing notes rather than holding them? I surmise it has a lot to do with the nature of sound production at the piano: once we have made the sound, we need do nothing to prolong it except to hold the keys with our fingers, or hold it in the pedal. Wind and string instruments require a continuous and sustained effort of the breath or of the bow throughout the life of the long note, in other words movement. I would suggest that we pianists need also keep long notes alive – physically and in our imagination. I liken the arm in piano playing to the breath in wind playing or singing, and to the bow in string playing. If we don’t incorporate the articulations of the fingers into bigger, longer gestures of the arm we end up playing syllabically, robotically and thus without real expression. If we stop all movement as soon as we have played a long note or chord, we disconnect from our conductor (our body) and thus from the musical flow, that sense of arch that takes us from the first note of the piece to the last. There is nothing more disturbing than seeing a pianist flailing themselves over the keyboard with excessive movements that are so often irrelevant – a substitute for real listening, or built in for theatrical effect. This is not what I mean. A good example of very basic arm choreography is […]

On Dotted Rhythms

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 […]