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 Outdated even in my day, "square" was a piece of slang that creaked and clunked, conjuring up images of hopelessly unhip nerdiness.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.
It's Labor Day Weekend, and the fall semester is about to get into full swing. Orchestra starts Wednesday, my regular lessons start Thursday (new day of the week), my daughter's regular lessons start again then too.
But just before all that, I had the opportunity to visit some of my family at Mt. Rainier, Washington. It was a memorial service for my Uncle Jim, who climbed Mt. Rainier in his 30's.
Take a deep breath.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.