Music stores are full of primers. The Book Ones for every instrument introduce quarter and half notes, and children often learn them long before they memorize their addition tables. Even a child with a moderately good ear gets the math involved with rhythm, because it’s fairly straightforward.
When playing the violin, however, the “easy” rhythm gets distorted by:
Tip of the Iceberg
As in everything in music, things appear simple until you realize they’re anything but. To listen to a Suzuki CD of Book One, played by the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, the sound, dynamics and rhythm are perfect. Unfortunately, most of us don’t learn from the top down, that is, by copying perfection like a game of Simon Says. We learn from the bottom up: obstacles show up unannounced like a video game. Unlike a video game, the obstacles show up repeatedly and no less obstinately.
Those obstacles, in the case of bad rhythmic habits, go away with understanding the nature of the problem, and sheer will power. When you hear for the first time a conductor say not to rush when you get louder, that’s your introduction to the tip of the iceberg, the complexity involved in the problem of putting musical rhythm into human beings.
An iceberg sounds insurmountable, but common sense tells you to navigate around it, not through it. As we explore the annoying quirks that stand between ourselves and good rhythm, remember that the ear usually hears music naturally. The mind that interprets what the ear hears, however, is another matter. If you can hear a melody as a child would, and then notice how your playing deviates from it, then you have begun the process of joining the two.
Hearing within our inner ear a natural melody is a gift that we have, even if we don’t sing. It is never easy, however, to take simplicity and quantify it. Whenever I analyzed my rift with rhythm, a journey which, by necessity, one takes alone, I had to parse such a big subject into many smaller parts.
A song gives us generally even beats, a few dotted rhythms, and the gentle, emotional content which ties it all together so beautifully. When I found myself distorting the simplicity of evenly spaced (ish), naturally unfolding, beats, I needed to identify exactly why I could so easily drift away from the flowing current of the music.
When you’re ready to face the devil of slowing down, remind yourself what the beat is. This means that you can hear a gentle, but insistent, beat in your head, or wherever you want it to reside. Years of stretching the music can only be undone by will power, because a bad habit is often reinforced by the musical mind justifying it.
To stay in control, remind yourself often what the beat is. Give it a fixed visualization in your mind, not something merely aligned with a feeling. A pulse may be associated with the heart, but a musical pulse is more connected to the mind. Give the pulse a more engineered presence, like a solid object which denotes distance. A brick is a good example, because its strength can keep even the most timid performer, who often forgets the beat, in line with a more firm pulse.
As much as musical rhythm changes and adapts when it’s following good phrasing, the tempo stays surprisingly rather consistent. If you try to keep the tempo steady, it will naturally bend and blend with the surrounding musical environment.
What the Orchestra Teaches Us
One of the great gifts music gives us is that of giving us good colleagues to bounce off of. Fortunately, many of us got our musical start in a school orchestra, and we formed our rhythm with the double security blanket of violinists playing together and batons showing us where the beat was.
Take that all away, the stuff “we learned in kindergarten that was all we were supposed to need) and you’re on your own to answer the eternal questions about rhythm. Why do I speed up when I get louder? Why does part of the orchestra play in its own groove, while others are clearly going with the brass and percussion? The answers are fascinating, just as any search for how things work is.
An orchestra teaches us that each person will play with his own particular style, while creating sound that the audience hears as unified. Any orchestra musician will have numerous memories of not feeling like it’s going very well on stage. This contradiction, that something so unified can feel anything but, lies at the heart of studying the complexity, and elegance, of rhythm.
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