Batons, Beats and Tapping Your Feet

May 27, 2017, 8:05 AM · If violinists could teach one thing to pianists, it would be that music exists within boundaries. Each time a musician looks up at a conductor, there is a plan in play. Unlike a metronome, the beats are conveyed in a musically convincing way. The fabric and dynamic of each sound are not just displayed for all to recreate, but are presented to show the limits which we need to organize ourselves. Coloring within the lines has never been easier, and the better the conductor, the more defined we become.

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When pianists don’t learn the boundaries imposed by playing with others, and you find yourself playing with them, it’s best to just stay out of their way. Follow them as best you can. It will be a wild ride, and not necessarily un-musical. Their rhythm has a certain flair, and it must feel incredibly great to the pianists. While throwing caution to the wind is one of the components of music, it’s just not high on the priority list.

Different Rules Reach the Same Results

The ideas of rules and boundaries aren’t spelled out, but from the moment we play in an orchestra, the lovely, magical relationship between beats and musical interpretation is absorbed. Some people are better at absorbing than others. Ansel Adams recreated with his camera what he saw at Yosemite, while the average eye never sees the national park as anything more than a two dimensional image. Without that third dimension, something dull and lifeless emerges instead.

The path from the second to the third dimension cannot happen without empathy and humility. What we learn from each other, and recognizing our similarities, are part of the process.

Since music is almost always a group activity, consensus awareness should be included in applied music courses. Our ears tell us what music is saying and how it is said, and there is much that we all agree on. However, it is to our selves we must each turn in order to reveal what our individual obstacles look like. Don’t ask someone to show them to you; that person is working out his own musical flaws and demons. At best, they may show you a new way to start the process over. (Who wants to go down that path again?)

Bringing Context to a Metronome

How can we make our own experience with beats and boundaries transcend the perfunctory world of the metronome? Pianists have two huge advantages over us. The first is that their melodies always have the context of harmony and accompanying rhythms. At certain stages of our playing, the melodies of string players meander in the air with the discipline of a three year old. There’s a reason that string players are sometimes referred to as “one liners.” (Attributed to the late conductor, Otto Werner Mueller.) The second is that pianists have the freedom to express themselves without limits imposed on them by others. Their performances exist in a musical Garden of Eden, never censored by conductors, and never crowded by limited space on stage. Pianists don’t get poked by bows.

Since the first time a child is introduced to a metronome can be a nightmare, a nice way to ease the process would be to show her how to conduct as well. By moving her hands and arms, she can’t help but appear and feel somewhat musical. Some of the most interesting performances take place when people move their hands while speaking. That beautiful, natural skill should be studied and alluded to more often.

Another way to introduce context to all the “one liners” among us is to play with imaginary 8th notes, 16th notes and triplets running through our heads. That relieves us of the difficulty of knowing what actually happens in the music at all times, a rare skill that composers and conductors are more likely born with. Accompanying notes give melodies two skills that don’t easily co-exist, sostenuto and drive. You can and should sing all you want in the melodies, but rest assured that you’ll be fitting well with others when you hear some accompanying notes and harmonies.

Don’t tap your feet while playing, unless you do it really well. Here’s how it works: the music must come first in the mind, while the tapping follows the music. This serves two purposes. First, it means that the performer is listening to himself and calmly tapping his foot, as opposed to the foot rushing, without regard to phrasing, and the music getting faster and faster. Second, it shows the interdependence of the beat and the music. Accompanying rhythms retain their individuality and they breathe in a different way than melodies. The foot is the most primitive of the basic beat, yet it can reveal much about the music.

Diagramming a Musical Sentence

Trying to ask a child to play musically with a metronome is like asking a blind person to draw a picture of the Grand Canyon. It takes images and imagination to convey the vividness of art. Without context, we can, at best, deliver an imitation of the real thing. Bach’s advice about music, “What’s so hard about it? Play the right notes at the right time,” works better on piano. All you have to do is touch a key to produce a perfect note. Playing an eight-bar phrase on the piano, where you never have to change bows, cross strings, bounce off the string, or blow through a mouthpiece is relatively easy. However, even playing the piano without nuance is still merely imitating a musical idea that we know has an actual life.

The metronome gets maligned by kids and adults alike, because we expect it to solve rhythmic problems, only to be disappointed by what it really is, an approximation of actual rhythm. Someone has to stand up for the metronome, however, because it’s more than a pale imitation. Its job is to be a reliable starting place for where rhythm begins.

Broadus Erle, the esteemed first violinist of the New Music Quartet and Yale Quartet, made, for rehearsal purposes, a metronome tape for one of the Bartok string quartets. That in itself is quite an homage to the metronome.

Contrast the metronome with a conductor. The world of the musical phrase resides within one of the most basic artistic frameworks ever devised by human beings. The greatest conductors give musicians time to complete a phrase, ample warning that a new dynamic is coming up, indicate with a smile that something human is taking place, and walk the line between encouraging a musical conversation with the forward thrust of being in charge. Never has diagramming a sentence looked so interesting.

Players agree that, in a world of endless musical possibilities, interesting interpretations can take place within the apparent confines of the metronome. Mild rubatos, sudden dynamic changes, and huge emotions take place within the mechanical beats. Metronomes are a reliable facsimile, and that’s saying a lot.

Human Error

Something that looks so simple is bound to come apart at the seams. Rhythm is an engineer’s Rubik’s cube. Constant vigilance is necessary. It doesn’t take much to keep it on track, as long as you know what things to concentrate on. Human error can happen accidentally, but sometimes intentional damage can be done. Such is the power of rhythm. The human mind can parse it in infinite ways.

Replies

May 29, 2017 at 12:14 AM · Very poetic but obviously written by and for musicians far more advanced than I am. I love the spirit in this piece but learn nothing useful at my rudimentary level.

I actually need to learn how to count time steadily and play in time with musical rhythm as read from the page. Timing is absolutely my weakest musical skill (not counting vibrato, which I've not yet even attempted), and I desperately need to learn how to play in time to the written notes. Once I get that, it will be a major breakthrough for me and my playing will finally sound like music!

May 29, 2017 at 01:44 AM ·

Thank you for your comments.

Something that helps me is to play for a teacher who has good rhythm, and then have the teacher play it back for me the way I played it. By listening to an exact replica of your playing, you can more objectively hear when you hold a note too long or too short. Even though beats are essentially even, rhythm plays tricks with our brains. You may think you're counting correctly, but the change of the music's character makes it necessary to make "adjustments".

Concerning the idea that my article is for more advanced players, I feel that self-awareness about one's playing is the first step towards improvement. Essentially, a student at any level can learn to think for himself. Once you've played an instrument for a fair amount of time, and you're old enough to value critical thinking, you are ready to solve almost any problem that presents itself. We're all more advanced than we think we are.

May 29, 2017 at 03:19 PM · I have a friend who is a pianist and started taking violin lessons with me a few years ago...we always struggle when playing together as I think she rushes...the music gets faster and faster...i've mentioned it jokingly many times but nothing changes...i've tried to keep up to her speed but then we lose the music. We've tried a metronome to no avail...i even have one that counts in a human voice 1 2 3 4 etc. Any suggestions would be welcome!

May 29, 2017 at 03:52 PM · Cheryl, Are you playing with her when she plays piano or violin?

May 30, 2017 at 03:59 AM · It's not fun to play with someone who rushes. In the imperfecect world in which we live, you can't change him or her because not only does he not know he's rushing, but he thinks he's preventing others from slowing down. In a perfect world, in which he is asking for help in order to not rush, I would suggest:

He should "shadow" the player with the best rhythm. That is, match everything he does, including phrasing, bowing and dynamics.

When you repeat a passage in which he's rushing, he should play it as slowly as possible. Often, the new tempo will be the correct one.

May 30, 2017 at 04:23 PM · I still don't understand the prejudice against foot tapping. I've run into it over and over again, since I was a kid. But I still do it a bit in order to feel the rhythm in my body rather than having to keep it all in my head.

I agree that any tapping shouldn't be loud or distracting to other players, but I think in order to think for oneself and keep from rushing, you need to get out of your head, and inhabit more of your body.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what you write here, but you seem to be of the impression that foot tapping leads to rushing--but I would think it would be the opposite.

May 30, 2017 at 08:43 PM · There is a certain paradox here. If you're tapping your foot correctly, it would not be rushing the music. The playing would be steady and stable, and the tapping would be nicely integrated with the music. However, if the tapping is not steady, measured and calm, it may easily get ahead of the music. Whatever is ahead, whether it be the playing itself or the foot tapping, will become the dominant force. It's pretty hard to play steady if the foot is fast.

That being said, I havre no trouble with foot tapping. But my stand partner might not like it.

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