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# Off-balance

September 15, 2009 at 10:56 AM

I've tried to write this blog before, but much like the musical issue that it's about, it has never come together.  While my major issue last year was intonation--the electronic tuner, the discovery of my tendency to play sharp, linking the concepts of intonation and tone--this year I think it is going to be rhythm.  I hadn't thought a lot about rhythm recently until my daughter struggled with it.  She resists breaking down music into beats.  She doesn't like clapping exercises or counting.  She's neutral about the metronome--neutral as in, she doesn't care if it's on or off.  It might as well be talking to itself.

I, on the other hand, have a tendency to obsessively break down beats.  I started learning violin right around the same time that I learned to do simple arithmetic multiplication and division, and I remember coming up with what I thought was a neat trick at the time:  multiplying or dividing quickly in my head the number of beats I had to count in a piece of music, and then counting to that number.  So, 5 measures rest in 4/4 time meant counting to 20.  A quarter rest plus 8th rest in 6/8 time meant counting to 3.  While everyone around me was saying things like "one-and, two-and," or the dreadfully irritating "one-ta-nay-ta, two-ta-nay-ta," I was multiplying, dividing, and counting pure numbers.    Occasionally, the rests would go by too fast, and if I couldn't keep up mathematically, I'd just say "rest, rest, rest" to myself, on the beats.

Unfortunately, a mental process that seemed clever and fun back then, is not really serving me well any more.  Over the years I've heard occasional comments that my playing is "too square."  The first time I heard that, I felt mostly confused, tempered with being annoyed, put-off, and self-conscious.  I didn't know what it meant, except that, well, it didn't sound like a good thing.  Outdated even in my day, "square" was a piece of slang that creaked and clunked, conjuring up images of hopelessly unhip nerdiness.

My teacher now, at least, has tactfully refrained from that little bit of description.  Her word is "beat-y."  That is something I can at least understand, and hear.  We are playing Schumann #3, "Rhenish," in orchestra.  The opening to the first movement is syncopated, off-balance.  It would remind me, if I really knew what one was, of a "hurdy-gurdy."  The only way I can sight-read it is to go back and cling to what I know:  break it down into individual beats.  I know it's supposed to be in one, and the conductor is conducting in one, but in my head is a continuous fast three.  I stick to my three, I don't get lost that way, I don't lose the thread, trip, and fall right off the hurdy-gurdy.  But I also don't see the forest for the trees.  It's "beat-y" and sluggish, always in danger of dragging and getting behind.  My teacher is right, the way she sings it it has life that my rendition doesn't have.  What she is doing is closer to what the composer intended.  I have to learn to think of it in one.

She makes me count out loud, actually say "ONE-and-a, TWO-and-a" before I start, emphasizing the downbeats.  Suddenly, I'm channeling my daughter.  I *hate* saying this out loud.  It is dreadfully embarrassing for reasons that are unclear to me.  The annoying sound of my own voice grates and distracts me, and when I come in on the violin, it's out of tune.  Trying to fix the intonation, I lapse back into counting 3.  I know I can't multi-task.  Ugh.

But we try it a few more times, and my teacher says it is getting better, maybe just to cheer me up because she is a kind soul.  She suggests using the metronome on the downbeat when I practice at home.  I perk up because that's something I can do that doesn't involve my having to speak.

I decided to blog about this experience in order to try to make sense of it.  I really don't know what to make of how much I hate counting out loud.  I don't have any bad childhood memories of it, particularly.  No dark psychodramas lurking about, at least no obvious ones.  But still.  Maybe I can make do with the metronome and clapping.

But the bigger issue is the breaking down of beats, which comes all too naturally to me.  If I think back, every time I play something new or difficult, especially if I'm sight-reading, the way I get through it is to break down the beats.  If it's in 2 I will think in a fast 4.  Last year I was playing a modern piece that switched, measure by measure, from being in 5/8 to 7/8 to 9/8.  The conductor would conduct in groups of 2 or 3 8th notes.  But I'd count 5, or 7, or 9.  Every beat.  It was exhausting, it was working too hard, but I made it to the end, most rehearsals, without getting lost.  Gradually, with enough practice, I got so I could think in 5, 7, or 9.  But I didn't seem to be able to start out that way.  I'm taking a similar approach with the Schumann, trying to gradually wean myself off of 3, onto one.

I'm distressed at how inefficient this weaning process is.  I can't help thinking it would be better to bypass the breaking down process altogether.  But that's what my daughter does and the results there aren't very good either.  She makes big mistakes like doubling quarter notes and playing them like 8th notes.  Her resistance to thinking in any beats at all means that her rhythm is always creative and idiosyncratic.  It makes it hard to play a duet with her, especially if you are playing off-beats.  There are a lot of different ways--many more ways than I would or could have imagined--that rhythm can go wrong.

This is right now a period of getting re-acquainted with my violin.  My daughter too.  We were otherwise occupied for most of the summer, and it's been a bumpy, beat-y re-entry so far.  But at least no one has mentioned square.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 12:58 PM

Wow!  What a problem.  It reminds me of all the other ways we have when we are learning violin of getting a handle on the music.  But then whatever technique you use gets in the way and becomes more of a hindrance than a help.  Maybe the solution is to stop counting totally (or as much as possible) and try to feel the drift of the music, using a metronome if you need a beat.    I never liked either counting or metronomes and was never good at either, because they tended to distract me from everything else I had to do to play.  Probably one reason (among many) why I am not a better musician.  Good luck!  Let us know how you solve this.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 12:49 PM

I make my students count out loud.  I like your teacher.  (Smile)

Instead of speaking the beats, you could sing the beats.  You don't need the violin, except maybe to grab a pitch or three.  If you can do that, you have internalized the music pretty well.  For me, Count Out Loud really means Sing Out Loud.

And for the self-conscious part of singing, I prefer to be completely shameless. You should try it sometime!  And have fun with Schumann #3.  It is one of my favorite pieces, so fun!  Are you playing vla or violin?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 1:34 PM

Anne, the problem with being completely shameless is that I really just hate the sound of my own voice.  Speaking or singing.  When I hear it, I cringe.  It's kind of weird, I know.  I've thought maybe I should take voice lessons some time to try to get over that.  I was better about it when I was in the church choir, but I quit the choir a few years ago because of lack of time.

In this concert I'm playing violin.  So far I've actually been thinking more about bowings than rhythm, which is another issue entirely.  But hopefully after this next rehearsal we'll have the bowings settled and can turn to other matters.  And I like my teacher too.  She puts up with a lot.

From Malcolm Turner
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 3:54 PM

Karen,

for "too square" they mean you're playing accurately. And you need to be able to do that before you can add rubato to it. Playing inaccurately isn't "musical" - it's just inaccurate. And especially in an orchestra, it's vital to be able to play with absolute accuracy.

One of the first things I learnt in a professional orchestra was how to sub-divide a beat, and I was lucky. Most people don't seem to know it, and are effectively guessing at the rhythms - so for a passage of quaver - 2 semiquavers (eighth note + 2 sixteenth notes) I'd think semiquavers so that the two semiquavers I play are exactly accurate. I've come across so many players who are just wayward and impossible to fit with.

I don't think "musicianship" should distort the rhythm - listen to someone like Oistrakh. You only realise what he's doing when you follow it with the score. It was never inaccurate, and done more by subtle tempo changes and a beautiful sustained tone. That's musicianship!

From William Gibson III
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 3:33 AM

I am struggling with rhythm myself .... worst is that I am just a beginner so add to that all of the aspects of what it is to play a violin or fiddle ....Currently my teacher is attempting to get me in the habit to tap out a count  with my foot ... I know that this is not what a true classicly trained violin player does (or do they ?) but my desire is to play even if it is blue grass / folk or maybe some classical to a level that will bring a smile or some enjoyment to others and myself . I know at age 50 I see little hope of reaching a proffessional level of expert ability, but hope and desire just to play well .... Maybe it is a refection on my ability that to try to focus on all that is required for me to do to get a good sound ?... and add in the tapping of my foot seems like I am trying to hop on one foot while at the same time pat my head and rub my tummy along with  reading a page of print ..... I can do one or two but not all at the same time so I try to practice and do my best but after a little over a year and a half of lessons it will be a long slow path I take before I will bring a smile to any one other than the kind hearted or those that really understand just what i am trying to do learning to play ....

Hints tips all greatfully accepted ....

Thank you

Bill G.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 4:15 AM

Greetings,

I agree with Malcolm. I thinkk I would also enocurage you to explore and expand what you are doing so it becomes a creative process.  Play with counting differnet rythm patterns while you play.  For exmaple a minim might be played with a couple of quaver sand a triplet, then the revrse or try fives and fors and all manner of combinations. Sort of like applied Galamian stuff.

Cheers,

Buri

From Drew Lecher
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 4:31 AM

10 cents (inflation:)

I agree with Malcolm, Ann and Buri…Always have subdivisions clicking off in the head, i.e., playing dotted 8th and 16th hear the 16ths and play to their precision. Listen to the moving rhythms in the orchestra as you would move to the drummer of the band; when a rhythmic change is coming have it going in your head before hand; then when all of this fits you can rest into the larger beats…don't lose your drummer.

When playing off-beats, simply shift the beat over like changing gears in a sports car and then shift back—this particularly gets rid of the unseemly bulges that players make in the middle of a note clinging mercilessly to the beat.

A tip—in dotted rhythms, slightly delay the last 16th except when having to fit precisely with moving 16ths in the piano or orchestra. Sing their part in your head and you will fit perfectly. Even in this last point, we will at times delay the last 16th as it spices up the music a bit and stays away from automaton playing.

Hope this helps, D.

From Randy Mollner
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 4:33 AM

Hi Karen,

It seems to me that what you are talking about are actually two different musical concepts.

Your daughter's difficulties are with rhythm strictly speaking, meaning the relative duration of different notes and rests.  In other words, how one type of note relates to another type of note.

Your problems, on the other hand, is with metre-- how each beat relates to the other beats in the measure regarding the natural stressing of stronger and weaker beats within the measure depending on the time signature of the piece.  All of the "annoying"  counting methods people use to count time are designed to replicate the natural strong and weak beats of a measure when spoken out loud.  I'm guessing the "square" statement was probably in response to having an excellent sense of rhythm and a lesser developed sense of metre and therefore losing some of the phrasing of a piece.

Consider the difference between playing a measure of sixteenth notes in 2/4 at 60bpm and a measure of eighth notes in 4/4 at 120bpm.  If I were to use your method of subdivision, these two examples would sound exactly the same-- I would count to 8 and play a note with each number.  In reality, though, I think of the first example of having the same rhythm as saying "Generator Generator"  while the second seems something like "Raisin Raisin Raisin Raisin".

Perhaps a fast three, conducted in one, could be thought of as "Prune Fetish"

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 10:42 AM

Randy, your definitions and that distinction you make between rhythm and metre are really useful.  I hadn't even known that there was a word for it.  And I think that example of yours is right on, I would make your two examples sound exactly the same, and they shouldn't.

Well, that's not my intent for the finished product anyway, but when I don't have enough time to practice--that is, when I don't get through the "weaning" process, off of 3 and onto 1 as in my example--I tend to get stuck in a stage where I'm being technically accurate but not musical.  Your point also explains another chronic problem I've had, which has been to "kick" the end of a phrase if there isn't an explicitly marked decrescendo.

Malcolm, my teacher also said she really taught herself to subdivide when she became a professional orchestra musician, and it was something she had to work at.  People with more talent than I might just do it naturally, but I'm glad she made it a concrete goal. The concert for the Schumann isn't until November 10, so I hope I have time to get there, out of the "square" mindset.

Unfortunately the "annoying" part of all this is a surprisingly real (and annoying) problem for me.  I have a hard time getting over being annoyed by hearing nonsense words and phrases in my head.  (My daughter and I both developed an almost passionate hatred for "Mississippi stop stop" a few years ago, for example).  "Prune fetish" makes me laugh, though.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 12:37 PM

Just a thought, but I remember you (I think it was you?) blogged about public transportation and listening to your ipod...you could load up Schumann 3 on the ipod, take along the 1st violin part, and practice counting along.

But on the train, you might want count in your head, and not sing out loud...

Hang in there!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 5:02 PM

Yeah, that was me (I?).  I have it on my iPod and have been doing more prosaic things like trying to learn fingerings and bowings.  Plus, I've been riding my bike rather than taking the T while the weather still holds.  However, overall that is an excellent idea.

From Royce Faina
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 5:28 PM

It's just a matter of time, you'll get it!  Just hang in there!  Snags are a good way of really testing our metal..... you'll get it.

From Elinor Estepa
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 8:05 PM

I love this blog Karen, thank's for posting, I thought I was the only one, suffering on this. I actually admit to myself, that " Hi! I'm Nor and I'm RHYTHMICALLY IMPAIRED".

Now, that I am playing in an orchestra, I am beginning to get the hang of it. Its a long road but there is  no choice but to take it. There is no other way anyway.

Thank's for everyone who share the bits and piece of advice, they're all helpful.

From sharelle taylor
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 9:55 PM

Love the blog, Karen.

I'm thinking along another line, of self conciousness. Can it be that letting go of the known and logical, the absolutely accurate, is a risk that puts your interpretation into the spotlight. (I ask this, because its why I completely resisted learning vibrato - I mean vibrato is technique for goodness sake, but there was an impression (and an impression supported by comments here) that the vibrato is an outcome of the player's feel for the instrument/creativity/ability to interpret. And that worried me because if I didn't have a good vibrato, did that mean I didn't feel the music well enough. Not pure enough to be a violinist).

And there's the same thing with rhythm and timing - when a piece allows for slowing or increasing, swing, and other shifting of goal posts in timing, it becomes another interpretation and therefore more exposed and risky. Allowing oneself to feel where the impulse is, rather than play it 'square' and dead accurate, is a risk, and maybe you won't feel the impulse in the 'right' way.

And don't go thinking that I' going to follow up with a fantastic suggestion for the problem if it is what I'm saying. I dont have one.  But my teacher said one thing to me (regarding another student that we were both admiring) that this student was 'committed to making a good sound'. I really engaged with that sentiment, and it was the week I started to learn vibrato, as part of my commitment.  Maybe there is something in that for you, maybe not.  But good luck.

From Shailee Kennedy
Posted on September 17, 2009 at 1:13 AM

Hey Karen. I play Irish music, so my advice might not be the best for classical stuff, but I've certainly had to learn a few things about rhythm. I've tried just about everything. I hate counting too!!!! Don't bother tapping your foot---the rhythm has to come from inside *you*, not your foot. I find the metronome helpful at times, but you don't want to start using it as a crutch---it's more helpful just for setting your internal tempo. I don't play with sheet music much, but I have actually marked the accents on a couple of trickier tunes.

What I find helps the most is playing with others, whether to a recording (good), or in person (better). With the kind of music I play, the whole point of it is being able to play with other people, and there's no stigma to playing along to recordings, the way I think there can be in classical music. It hasn't caused me to lose any of my own creativity, but it has helped me get a better *feel* for how the music is supposed to sound, especially the "lilt", which is part of the rhythm. Is this something you can do, even for short periods, just as an exercise?

From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on September 17, 2009 at 9:53 PM

Something I've done with myself and my students is focus on the phrasing.  The rhythm is foundational, but once you have that, then I have them focus on finding the bigger structure.  I get their brains working that way by 1) having them find the phrases; 2) having them find the shape of the phrase (where is it growing to/flowing from; where are the climaxes and anticlimaxes?) then play that way. That too may be an academic exercise at first but gradually it becomes a way of thinking, playing, and expressing.

As mentioned earlier, the rhythm must find its home in the meter; the phrase must flow within and above the framework of both.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 18, 2009 at 4:07 PM

Off topic, but since your v.c email doesn't seem to be working, I popped the v.c book club book in the snail mail this morning for you.  It should arrive next week.  Enjoy!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 18, 2009 at 7:49 PM

Thanks for the heads up, I didn't know my v.c. email wasn't working!  (And thanks for the book ;-)

I just checked my profile.  The email should be working, I've received other email at that account.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 18, 2009 at 9:07 PM

Nope, I tried (triad) again, and the email ain't working, so maybe I need to wave my magic fairy wand at the computer...or, I'll let Laurie know.

Enjoy the book!

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