Tag: Rhythm

The printed score and its limitations

A lesson with Irving on the Chopin: F Minor Nocturne

He is an intermediate level student, and has not had enough years of experience in reading scores to not be thrown off by ambiguities in the music notation.   In particular the rhythmic counter-intuitiveness of even an unusually fine edition like “Henle.”  Here are some of the issues we encountered.

Issue 1:

Sometimes it is difficult to tell that a series of eighth notes in the right hand line up simultaneously with a series of eighth notes in the left hand.  This is simply because of the optical illusion produced when the stems of the notes in one hand go up and the stems of the notes in the other hand go down.  We tend to be less aware that the note centers are vertically aligned and more aware of the left-right offset of the stems.

Issue 2:

The printed symbol for a whole note often takes up more horizontal space than that of a shorter note, for example a half note.  If there is a whole note and a half note in the same chord played by the same hand, before we can interpret the rhythmic relation between the two notes, we have to first ‘translate’ the feeling of horizontal imbalance on the page into a more mathematical sense of the ratio of the durations of the notes.

Issue 3:

In the edition of the Nocturne we are using, the first measure of the cadenza-like, cascading downward run in sixteenths, begins after a quarter note.  The publisher has left very little horizontal space between the quarter note and the first of the sixteenth notes.  The intuitive impression is that the sixteenth notes start sooner than they actually do.  As a result we may find it harder than usual to  play the simple rhythm of a quarter followed by four sixteenths.

Issue 4:

The width of two measures containing the exactly the same number of notes and in the same rhythm, vary because of the extra horizontal room taken by accidental signs, especially the double flat sign.

Issue 5:

Near the end of the piece there is a wonderfully chromatic and somewhat dissonant pair of voices converging in the right hand. The printed notes are already counter-intuitive because of a sort of staggered chromaticism between the two voices.  This makes the notes even more difficult to read because the edition compresses the width of that particular measure to save room.  The notes seem harder to read, not as much because of the composer’s unique choices of pitch, but because they are jammed together left and right.

One can adduce many more such examples.

In general, a publisher assumes that the exact rhythm of a passage can be gleaned from, or sometimes in spite of, the horizontal spacing of the notes on the page.  That it is up to the pianist to “translate” the spatial information into a durational awareness of what the rhythm is.  Only sometimes does the rhythm on the page “look like” what it “sounds like” through time.

We forget this because of years of unconsciously making this translation, but for the less experienced pianist it helps to point out the when the appearance of the notes on the page make the rhythm even more ambiguous than usual to discern.

In Irving’s case we discovered just how strongly his subconscious brain rebelled against all of the above types of visual incongruities on the page.  And since this was occurring on a subconscious level, he did not stop to make himself aware of the cause of his discomfort.  He assumed that he somehow was doing something badly, or was having more trouble than other pianists learning the piece.  But once he became conscious of these ambiguities, he was able to stop blaming himself for the results of those ambiguities.  Irving could feel himself in the privileged position of a critic who is looking down upon the spatial appearance of the rhythms, but who out of kindness will correc in his mind the incongruities so that the rhythm sounds as the composer intended.

Singers have a particular issue with one aspect of the printed display of rhythms.  It results from which notes are beamed together with others notes as against a note having its own self-standing flag.  The publisher is more interested in showing where the last note of one syllable changes to the first note of the next syllable and does so by not beaming together those two notes.  They have prioritized syllabification over a clear portrayal of rhythm.  The result of seeing all the resulting isolated stems is to confuse the eye so that we cannot divine even simplest of rhythms, as when a quarter note divided into four sixteenth notes.

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Rhythmic coordination between the hands in sight reading

At a recent lesson, Irving* tried to sight read from “For Children” by Bartok, and experienced difficulty keeping the two hands coordinated rhythmically.

Isolating rhythm from pitch:

We tried to isolate rhythm from pitch so he could focus more entirely on the former.  This is similar to what happens in mathematics when all but one of the variables are held constant, while focus is concentrated on the remaining one which is still free to vary.

This is the particular procedure we used at his lesson:

We closed the fall board so it could act like a drum surface.  Then we tapped out the right hand rhythm with the right hand, then the left hand rhythm with the left hand, and then the two together.  This separated the rhythm from the pitches.  This step had the extra benefit of making him aware of how much of his reading difficulties were rhythmic in nature, both in one hand, and regarding rhythmic coordination between the hands.

Then, with the fall board open, he played the actual left hand.  Then he did that again but added his right hand, focusing on rhythm by playing only one constant pitch as a universal place holder for all the different written pitches.

We then reversed things.  He played the right hand as written, and played just a single pitch in the bass at the moments the left hand was expected to play.

Doing these things made sight reading the piece easier for him.

*Name has been changed

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How to play 3 in one hand against 2 in the other

This is a brief technical manual for coping with the rhythmic situation known as “three against two.”  One encounters this situation when one hand is subdividing a pulse into three equal parts while the other hand is subdividing the same pulse into two equal parts.

I want to break the problem down into a short series of small, doable steps.

We start by taking the two rhythms (triplet and duplet) and superimposing them one upon the other, and derive a single composite rhythm.  Once we have it in the form of a composite rhythm, there is no longer anything special required to address the coordination of one hand with the other.  Once we see 3 against 2 as a single rhythm, it looses all its strangeness, and becomes a very simple rhythm to execute.

THE COMPOSITE RHYTHM ONCE WE HAVE AMALGAMATED THE TWO DIFFERENT RHYTHMS.

One way to write it is: a quarter note – eighth note – eighth note – quarter note.  It does not matter if these note values are different than those in the score.  Any note values would serve the same purpose as long as their durations stand in the following comparative ratio: 2 : 1 : 1 : 2.  Half  -Quarter  – Quarter – Half, or Eighth – Sixteenth – Sixteenth – Eighth ,would do as well.

We no longer have to concern ourselves with the difference in the duration of a triplet versus a duplet.  It is all homogenized in the combined rhythm.

This, then is the composite rhythm of a 3 against 2:

|| quarter – eighth – eighth – quarter ||

|| means a bar line.  We assume the meter to be 3/4 time,

First, let us consider the situation where the 3 (or triplet) is in the right hand and the 2 (or duplet) is in the left hand.

THREE IN THE RIGHT HAND VERSUS TWO IN THE LEFT HAND:

Step 1:

|| quarter – eighth – eighth – quarter  ||

Using both hands at once, tap or play this rhythm (quarter eight eighth quarter) over and over in an endless loop*.  You can keep the hands a foot or two apart as you do this.  Each time you reach the end of the measure recycle, without a pause, to the beginning of the measure.  And continuing in this fashion, doing the measure over and over.  Do it enough times for it to feel completely natural and automatic in the hands.

What to tap on:

You can tap it on the closed fall board at two separated places, or always playing the C below middle C with the left hand and Middle C with the right hand.  Or on two drums, or on your lap, or anything else handy.

Step 2:

Repeat step 1 and add these spoken words to the notes:

|| quarter  eighth eighth quarter || quarter …. <-Play *

|| together  right   left   right”   || together … <- Say

* each note with both hands

Step 3:

Repeat step 1 and 2 with this revision.  The four notes in the composite rhythm are not all played with both hands.

(the rhythm):

|| quarter  eighth eighth  quarter  || quarter ….   || together  right   left       right       || together …

(which hand(s))

here is another description of step 3:

play the first note in both hands and say  “together”

play the second note in just the right hand and say  “right”

play the third note in just the left hand and say  “left”

play the fourth note in just the right hand and say “right”

start the pattern again with “together”

just make sure to stay with the same rhythm: quarter eighth eighth quarter.

Step 4:

4A  for the right hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘right’ and only at those times when the right hand is due to play.

|| quarter    eighth   eighth  quarter  || quarter ….    <= play

|| right         right                     right       || right     ….    <= say

4B  for the left hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘left’ and only at those times when the left hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter .

|| left                          left                         || left ….     <= say

Let us now consider the situation where the 3 is in the left hand and the 2 is in the right hand.

TWO IN THE RIGHT HAND VERSUS THREE IN THE LEFT HAND:

Step 1:

Step 1 is the same as before.  Using both hands at once tap or play this rhythm (quarter eight eighth quarter) over and over in an endless loop.  At the end of each measure of 3/4 go back (without a pause) to the beginning of the measure.

Step 2:

Repeat step 1 and add these spoken words to the notes:

|| quarter    eighth eighth quarter || quarter ….   <= Play

|| together  left     right    left        || together …   <= Say this

Step 3:

Repeat step 1 and 2 with this revision.  The four notes in the composite rhythm are not all played with both hands.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= rhythm

|| both left  right left ||  both … <= which hand

here is another description of step 3:

play the    first note  in both hands  and say  “together”

play the    second note  in just the left hand    and say  left”

play the    third note     in just the right hand  and say right”

play the   fourth note    in just the left hand    and say  “left”

start the pattern again with “together”

Once again, just make sure to stay with the same rhythm: quarter-eighth-eighth-quarter.

Step 4:

4A  for the right hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘right’ and only at those times when the right hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= play this rhythm

|| right                       right                      || right ….    <= say

4B  for the left hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘left’ and only at those times when the left hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= play this rhythm

|| left           left                       left         || left ….     <= say

Have fun. Start slowly until the muscular and vocal habits have had a chance to set in.

I would love some feedback.  For instance,

1) is this technique too complicated to follow

2) does this technique help put the 3 against 2 issue in a clearer light

3) A: didn’t help much. B: helped slightly C: made a difference

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Comments

  1. Joe – how do you feel about using a saying/ phrase to learn 3 against 2? I learned it in Sightsinging class as “Nice cup of tea” for 3 against two, where you say that as you tap. The three (nice, cup, tea) is in the right hand, and two is in the left hand (nice, of). It helps to start saying the phrase slowly in rhythm (the one you outlined)
    Then for 2 against 3, we had “Pass the butter” where two is in the left hand (Pass, but-) and three is in the right hand (Pass, the, -ter).
    Does that make sense, or is there any reason that is a bad method to use?

    Joe: It makes perfect sense. Whatever ‘works’ is a ‘good method’.

The beginner who has trouble with rhythm and counting

At her lesson yesterday “C” told me that the amount of focus and concentration she needs to keep track of rhythm as she plays through a piece in real time is so great that she often cannot sustain that effort, given that she is already focusing on what the notes are.

There are some students who are convinced that they do not have the ability to play with the rhythm in addition to playing the correct notes.

Often I find that their conclusion is inaccurate.  They do have the ability to feel and reproduce a rhythm; what they lack is the ability to translate the visual notation of that rhythm, a series of odd looking musical symbols, into the feeling of the rhythm that is already in their bodies.

While playing, the student if necessary can interpret and react to just one note at a time.  However, for rhythm, it requires fusing a group of successive written symbols into a single sustained act through time.  In other words, the rhythm does not lie in a single note but in a series of notes.

To prove to the student that they do have the ability to execute rhythms accurately, I use just one note (middle C for example) and reiterate it in a certain rhythm.  For instance if I play the sequence:

| dotted-quarter eighth  |  dotted-quarter eighth  |  eighth eighth  quarter  | half  |

the majority of students will be able to play that rhythm back.  They will do so at the same tempo in which I played it.  This last fact suggests that they achieve this without subdividing the conscious duration of their rendition into separate notes, without breaking it into a series of separate notes, each with its own private duration.

Now that the student is aware that they do have the ability to mimic, and therefore repeat if necessary particular rhythms, what’s left to do is leisurely learning to recognize the visual concatenation of symbols that stand for that whole experience that their body already knows and has internalized.

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