Solving a Problem in Beethoven’s op. 79

The other day, a student brought in a problem with Beethoven’s Sonata in G, op. 79 – the cross rhythms in the last movement. In several places, one hand is playing in 3s and the other in 2s, thus:

op. 79 example

With any passage like this, it is tempting to try to solve it with lots of slow practice but as Hans von Bülow says in a footnote to his edition:

Every attempt to divide mathematically the triplets of the accompaniment with the couplet rhythm of the theme will prove futile. A diligent practice with each hand separately will alone lead to the requisite independence.

The key is in the word “mathematical”. Rhythm can’t be mathematical, it has to be felt physically –  experienced through the body.  Sure, we can divide up the beats on paper and see where one note goes in relation to the others but this gives us a distorted and mechanical view of the passage that in my experience won’t translate well into performance.

My solution to passages like this is to practise alternating one hand with the other, having established an absolute and unerring sense of pulse. We maintain this pulse at all costs, feeling it in our body as though we were conducting and not letting it sag for a moment. With this process, using the metronome is not a bad idea. I prefer to leave a bar’s rest between each repetition or new variant, being strict about keeping the beat going during this measured silence. Having alternated one hand with the other, here is a possible plan:

op 79 process

This ends with both hands playing together, but it is bound to take several attempts before the hands synchronise correctly. Rather than playing the hands together end version immediately, it is so much better to return to the beginning of this so you can gradually build up step by step. Repeat each stage as many times as you wish, or play only once. Whatever you do, hold onto the pulse and really feel it.

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As an aside, if you haven’t discovered András Schiff’s lecture series on the Beethoven Sonatas, here is an audio clip of him discussing op. 79. One thing I had never noticed before is the similarity between the opening of the last movement of this and the opening of the Sonata, op. 109:

Op. 79 last movement (opening)
Op. 79 last movement (opening)
Op. 109 first movement (opening)
Op. 109 first movement (opening)


Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4

I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).

The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.

If you would like a video introduction and more information on the contents of Part 4, please follow this link.

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Solving a Rhythmical Problem – Practising the Piano

It should be obvious that playing in time and playing rhythmically are two rather different things. It is possible to play in time according to a fixed beat but still be unrhythmical, and – in my book – the only way to be truly rhythmical is to feel rhythm in the body.

Rhythmical mistakes can often be fixed by counting a steady beat out loud and clapping or tapping the rhythm of the passage in question. You could do it the other way around if you prefer, and clap or snap a steady beat while you vocalise the rhythmic pattern on the page using words or syllables; it is important to really bring the rhythm to life physically (using more of you than just your fingers) before trying it again on the piano.

Bach Prelude in C Minor

Students often come adrift in the Adagio bar (bar 34) of Bach’s Prelude in C minor (WTC Book 1), not because the rhythm is especially difficult to feel but because it is confusing to the eye. All those beams, it can be hard to discern where the subdivisions of the beats fall!

A simple way of solving this is to grab a piece of manuscript paper and rewrite the passage in note values that are twice as long (quavers become crotchets, etc.). Clap the pulse underneath the stave and vocalise the rhythm using “ta” syllables (or whatever you like).

If this still looks a bit foreign, double the note values yet again. The following example is a useful crib to mastering the rhythmical patterns and need only be done two or three times before it has served its purpose. Remember – this bar is cadenza-like and needs to sound free (as though improvised). In order to get to this sense of freedom, I recommend playing it strictly first.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics

If you struggle to solve rhythmic challenges like this, and are frustrated by how this affects your piano playing you might want to consider taking a course in Dalcroze Eurythmics. Dalcroze Eurhythmics teaches many things actually, ear training and harmony included. It has helped many people improve a weak sense of rhythm by showing them how to feel rhythm in their body in a whole variety of different ways. I was lucky to have studied Dalcroze as a postgraduate student in New York with one of the very best – Dr. Bob Abramson. I learned an enormous amount about music from this man. Here is he giving us a taste of what Dalcroze is about.

If you are in London in July, the City Lit is running a short course. Dalcroze UK offers various courses as well as a summer school and a taster day for those who might want to pursue this further.