Rhythmic Sleight-of-Hand

December 4, 2015, 12:10 PM · Rhythm seems simple-a basic beat and a few subdivisions. Sure, the combinations are endless, but how difficult could it possibly be? Could we be so lucky that it falls into the category of “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten?”

A string player starts his musical life often in an orchestra, so rhythm is made easier by being framed and formed by the sound of the orchestra and the beat of the conductor.

What happens inside the mind of each musician, however, is a unique world of wonder and, sometimes, dysfunction.

beat line

Rhythm only appears easy because music is designed to sound natural. What we learned in kindergarten, however, may have been forgotten by the first grade.

Every Beat is almost the Same, But Every Beat Feels Different

The key to rhythmic concentration is to keep track of the quickly moving beat. While it’s important to predict the beginning of each beat, listening makes you sure of where it is. Awareness gets more precise as you feel the contour of each beat, as it reflects everything that’s happening in the music at that moment.

I remember my early experiences in youth orchestras when I was 9. I had a pleasurable sense of how the music I heard and played lined up fairly well with the beat. While I took for granted something that may not have lined up so well with others, I was blindsided for years by other details that I did not get. I was often running out of bow and not noticing my lack of control of my own sound. Rhythmically I was usually in the right neighborhood, but as I learned later, being a passive observer is not as satisfying as knowing what’s going on.

Beats have a way of tricking the brain into believing something that isn’t so. Some beats feel longer, but all that’s changed is the music’s character, not the length of the beat. Of course, the character is what the music is all about.

Maybe because a conductor’s beat, by its very nature, is better at showing movement, character change, and dynamic than the actual point of a beat, it’s no surprise that, if you blink for a second, you may miss how the music fits in with the context around it.

Slightly Behind the Eight Ball

In the world of music, there’s a sports metaphor that needs exploring. When the tennis ball is speeding towards you, you have to anticipate that it’s coming sooner, or patiently wait because it’s coming later. Unless you’re extremely gifted at tennis, you learn to compensate for your initial judgment, usually slightly off.

In similar fashion the musical beats fly by, but while they’re even and predictable, they nevertheless arrive slightly sooner than you expect. Hence, letting the 16ths surround the beat, rather than be within the beat, will nudge the tempo slower. The alternative technique is to play the 16ths fast enough that they’ll make the resulting beats sound perfect and inevitable.

If you’re used to playing the 16ths on the more leisurely side, and you’re been doing that for many years, it will take a trick of the mind to push the notes inside the beat.

You can play four 16ths, at almost the correct tempo, but still slightly impede the general flow and drive of the beats. This “gray area” of rhythm can make a lot of difference in whether you feel in control of what’s coming up next.

The Trick to Not Getting Behind

There’s a certain phenomenon I’ve noticed with students that have trouble getting their 16ths up to speed, whether they’re a little or a lot behind. There’s one requirement, however, before this little trick works, and that is that the notes must be played slowly in proportion to each other. If there’s no hesitation between the notes and the player has the notes in his fingers, learned and polished, then all he has to do is play the 16ths as fast as possible.

A funny thing takes place when the player gives the notes a “turbo charge” to propel him out of the previously slow attempt. The sudden jolt is what is needed to get out of the rut where the slow 16ths had been. Then the faster tempo turns out to be the exact tempo necessary.

Why does this happen? One theory is that the player has good enough ears to know what the music is supposed to sound like. He just needed to dig himself out of his not-quite-right rhythmic pre-conception.

Going Faster Doesn’t Mean Speeding Up

So it took a little effort to propel yourself out of the slower 16th notes, and you find the new 16ths sound just right. No damage was done to the flow of the music, and you’ve noticed that it’s not that hard to make the rhythmic parts fit. There is a downside, however, in that the fast, correct 16ths throw off the next beat of two eighth notes. For some reason, beats seem to react to each other in a subliminally co-dependent way. What needs to happen is that the beats flow naturally, while the changing values retain their character and independence.

The games that rhythm plays with our mind are endless. What often occurs can be dealt with if you know what’s happening in advance. There is a paradox that, on the one hand, a player can play too fast when not using a metronome, yet too slow when using one. Metronomes respect the laws of rhythm up to a point. They expect the courtesy that 16ths will fit within the beat, and subsequently the flow of the beat will be most satisfactory. However, the music’s character may demand that the metronome needs to slow down by quite a few markings. In that case, flexibility and maneuverability is what’s needed.


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