The Middle Path – Rhythm Practice

I sometimes get messages asking why I don’t write more about practising in dotted rhythms, and why I hardly speak of the metronome. This made me realise that both these topics, along with some others, tend to arouse fundamentalist beliefs among teachers, one way or the other. Among my own teachers, I had two who stressed practising in rhythms, one who was dead against it, and two who never really spoke much about it. These were all high calibre pianists and teachers.

The Greek Goddess Panacea was said to use a potion that cured all ills. Pretty much everyone has aspirin in their medicine chest, and taking a couple when you have a headache is a generally a good idea. However, it would be a very bad idea if you took them for everything – if you’ve got something wrong with your stomach, they might make it worse. As with all areas of piano practice, I find myself asking students not only how they are practising a particular a passage, but also why. I want them to identify the problem as well as the solution. For me – and I stress this is a personal conviction – overemphasis on crutches such as practising in rhythms or sitting for hours with the metronome can lead to mechanical, meaningless playing devoid of personality. We might recourse to these tactics when we can’t think of any other way of filling our practice time, and thus miss the point.

Like any tool, practising in rhythms can be extremely effective when used well, inappropriate and detrimental when used badly. There are innumerable examples in the piano repertoire of what is commonly known as passagework, a string of fast notes in a constant rhythmic value lasting either a few bars or for an extended section. Some pianists claim that by taking such a passage and playing it several times, each time using a different rhythmic pattern, they have much more control over the passage mechanically. This method is credited with strengthening the fingers, but actually it helps us to sharpen up the reflexes and allows us to constantly regroup the passage, and thus know it from a variety of different angles. The brain sees the patterns slightly differently with each rhythmical variation and when we return to the original, it is easier to play faster, evenly, more accurately and effortlessly. If rhythm practice has been done well, we can expect a positive outcome.

Consider for a moment what we are actually doing when we practise in different rhythms – we are deliberately going against the composer’s express wish for a passage  to be played evenly by changing the rhythmic notation to make it uneven. Heinrich Neuhaus, in common with some other pedagogues, is in favour of using rhythm practice for exercises, including exercises derived from passages in pieces, but not in passages of real music. In his great book The Art Of Piano Playing , he has this to say on the subject:

Why practise the Fifth Prelude in the First Book of Bach’s Forty-Eight, with dots and other rhythmic mannerisms, when the main purpose is to achieve maximum equality and evenness, keeping accurately the figure of each crotchet, which dots and rhythmical delays would only hamper? …I want to recall my constant advice: as far as possible make straight for the goal, holding course as the Red Arrow train from Moscow to Leningrad, on a straight line. (Neuhaus, p. 50-51.)

It seems that not every teacher would agree. Perhaps Neuhaus took this stance because he was against mechanical practising in any form, or maybe he realised that students would use rhythm practice anyway? It seems important to make a distinction between the working habits of those who have earned a place at the Altar of High Art and those who are not (yet) at this pinnacle. Not every piano student has the time, energy and indeed gumption to solve problems creatively and I feel there is a place for a type of mechanical practice. The secret is always to use rhythm practice consciously, aiming for good sound and maintaining physical looseness and ease.

The Middle Path

I once attended a class where the teacher was using a battery of rhythms to correct unevenness in the beginning of Debussy’s First Arabesque:


In the end, the passage was more even but the phrase had no shape and the touch was quite wrong – rather than a legato where the fingers are directed by gently undulating arm movements the student had developed a martellato disconnected from the arm, and devoid of the appropriate musical expression. This was a good example of recoursing to rhythm practice in a mechanical and incorrect way.

I don’t remember now, but the unevenness probably resulted from a fault in passing from one hand to the other, the connection between the two thumbs. A direct solution would be to stop on the second thumb, ensuring 1) the first thumb released its key as a result of a perfect legato to the second, and 2) there was a tonal match between the two thumbs, and that the thumb notes were no louder than the other notes.

Having said that, if you must, I can see the value of using two rhythms for practice here. Resting on the long notes allows us to feel the main beats of the bar. We can then propel the two quick notes towards the next long note, in one impulse:


The second rhythm enables us to land on the high and low points of Debussy’s design. Instead of a mechanical drilling of the fingers, we can add hairpins, and play expressively:


To sum up, the drawbacks of practising in rhythms include:

  • Becoming desensitised to the subtle timings in the music.
  • Applying a one-size-fits-all formulaic and mechanical approach.
  • The risk of building in tension.
  • Avoiding creative and analytic problem solving.
  • Discouraging active listening and thinking.
  • Going on autopilot.

By all means use rhythm practice, but ask yourself what you hope to achieve by so doing, and then check your results to see whether this has been effective or not. Bear in mind that, like much of what we do in our practice, the process needs to be repeated regularly for some days before the results show up. Try to be creative with how you apply rhythms – you may find that, rather than going through all the possible rhythmic variants, two or three will do the job while others may well get in the way.