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Playing Rhythmically – Practising the Piano

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 tasting the dish (the full sensory experience)? Rhythm (the placement of sounds in time) embraces the concept of timing, playing sounds either earlier or later than their literal, mathematically assigned moment. Playing metronomically is contrary to an alive, vibrant rhythm where beats are rarely absolutely evenly spaced apart. Music is almost never inflexibly mathematical.

Try this experiment: find two or three recordings and figure out the metronome speed. Put the metronome on with the recording and see how long the performance keeps to this strict beat. I will wager not more than a bar or two! The beat of the vast majority of music (except perhaps for toccata-like music or music that is intentionally meant to sound mechanical) is not carved in stone, but is flexible. You might compare the musical beat to the heartbeat – it can vary subtly and imperceptibly from moment to moment depending on our emotions and state of mind. We need to remember that in creative music making there is a balance between meter, which represents thought, and rhythm, which represents feeling.

This past week, I was sent details of a summer school in Dalcroze Eurythmics in Canterbury, organised and run by The Dalcroze Society.  Looking at the events calendar it seems that the society offers other courses and workshops that are bound to be of interest to performers and teachers looking to connect up their head with their body.

 

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Looping – How to Manage Repetition Rhythmically

Piano playing requires extremely sophisticated motor skills and superfine coordination. While we acquire these skills for a new piece or if we are polishing up an old one, a certain amount of repetition is inevitable. As we repeat, we refine and ingrain.

When we need to repeat something, it strikes me as preferable to know why we are repeating it. Am I repeating it because it was good and I want to make it a habit, or was there something wrong that needs to be corrected? If the latter, what was not right about the first repetition that I need to do it again? Not just a vague response like “there were some wrong notes” but something more probing, along the lines of “my LH misjudged the leap at the beginning of the bar and that threw me out”, or “I sensed tension in my forearm and noticed the semiquavers became uneven”.

I can hear some of you thinking that’s all very well, but young players don’t have the diagnostic skills to figure these things out by themselves during practice. I sometimes ask a younger student to give me a lesson, meaning we reverse roles and I mirror back to them what they did. I admit that sometimes I might exaggerate my point slightly, but I am amazed that most of the time they are able to hear and tell me what wasn’t right. It is absolutely possible to teach them to listen with elephant ears and to teach them by asking questions.

The Feedback Loop

When we use the feedback loop during practice, we deliberately stop and think before correcting a mistake. “Think ten times and play once” was Liszt’s command, and it remains a great principle to work by. Before we repeat, we diagnose precisely what went wrong and make the correction mentally by hearing it inwardly and visualising ourselves playing the passage in our mind’s eye before reconnecting with the keyboard. And we do this a few times, maybe not ten but certainly not just once. This takes enormous self discipline because during this phase we are not actually playing – all the work is happening in our head. Very few indeed have the patience to engage with this sort of practice.

Looping

The practice technique of looping is something I have come to use more and more in my work recently. It involves taking a small fragment and going round and round in circles repeating it, watching the difficulties melt away until the passage becomes easy and finally automatic. For years I was against this way of solving problems because it seemed like a sure-fire way of ingraining whatever was repeated, good or bad. That danger remains but looping, if  used wisely, can be a very effective practice tool.

Repeating a self-contained pattern of notes several times is sometimes a good way to form a muscular memory and immediately cement it. By repeating, we can organise and refine it in a matter of a few seconds. But beware! Because muscular memory is inextricably bound up with fingering, always make sure to use the fingering you have selected. Thus a certain amount of slow practice and hands separately practice will have to be done prior to this type of repetition practice.

When we use looping, we simply take a few notes and repeat them rhythmically as many times as we feel we need. Too few repetitions won’t be enough to form the habit, too many will lead to inattention and error. Doing this rhythmically is important, as it provides a structure (we have to start at a precisely ordained moment in time), as is doing it correctly. Wrong notes, rhythms or fingerings if repeated will make matters worse, so reserve this form of practising for a section you can manage reasonably well already. Make sure the section is short.

In this bar from Chopin’s Waltz in E minor, op. posth., we can loop the last note of the bar immediately back to the first:

waltz loop 1

If we feel uncomfortable about going straight back, we might add a bar’s rest. It is better to link back rhythmically rather than at some random moment, to keep everything on one continuous loop:

waltz loop 2

I have found the idea of linking back rhythmically extremely helpful. Starting each repetition at a very precise moment in time provides its own momentum and is much easier than generating a new upbeat each time. We might even decide on how many repetitions we’re going to do before we start, but try to keep it in single digits or you can bet that concentration will wane.

There is more on using the technique of looping in scales and passagework in Volume 3 of my ebook series, Practising the Piano. Here are details of how to order:

Special offer bundle – Part 1 of Practising The Piano eBook Series (All three volumes)

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