Rhythmic Inertia Is Not Laziness: How Fast and Slow Can Feel the Same

March 17, 2016, 5:18 AM · When it comes to the musical concept of quick tempo, we all remember the hotshot players in high school who had an innate sense of virtuosic, daredevil speed. It seemed like every fiber in their being contributed to such breakneck playing: their personality, knowledge of the fingerboard, and mastery of memorization.

The flip-side of such an impressive demonstration was that their slow playing didn’t necessarily have the same persuasiveness. Some players are naturally fast and others are methodically, and carefully, slow. Music is constantly seeking the middle ground, and that’s why it’s both fascinating and endlessly challenging.

con ritmo

The component to rhythm that provides balance is called inertia. It makes certain that all cycles - the tiny phrases, the groups of sixteenth notes, the allowance for dynamic presence, etc. – have time to complete themselves. According to Wikipedia, “inertia is the resistance of any physical object to any change in its state of motion (this includes changes to its speed, direction or state of rest.) It is the tendency of objects to move in a straight line at constant velocity.” It’s not laziness, but the person who called laziness "inertia" was very clever. Inertia, for musicians, is the ballast that makes potential chaos run smoothly.

What the Music’s Character Teaches Us

Tempos can be strong and predictable, but at the same time, bend with the character of the music.

Yet some beginners slow down and speed up indiscriminately. That is because tempo is influenced by factors having nothing to do with rhythm: Up-bows, dynamics, and position shifts make us shy away from the tempo or drive it up a few notches. More subtle factors can also interfere with tempo: for example, a tie over a bar line and waiting to listen for something (that may not arrive in time.)

Sometimes, the character of the music is misinterpreted, and that can influence a player to needlessly and mindlessly change tempo. The wrong assessment of the character will slow the player down by many metronome markings, with no idea that it’s happening. The student may firmly believe he is right, and it takes an act of exorcism on the teacher’s part to show him the more organic, and fluid alternative.

What an Orchestra Teaches Us

It takes an enormous act of will to keep a tempo steady and steadfast. When you can do so in a way that also allows for phrasing and breathing, you have created a perfect course, which you then follow and adhere to. Orchestras create such an environment, because conductors create a template, a tempo and a dynamic. The uniform sound of all the individuals draws the player in like a magnet. Since you can enhance it without drawing attention to yourself, this kind of ensemble playing, called shadowing, raises the performance level to a high artistic level.

Fortunately, the first ensemble experience for many violinists is an orchestra, so the lesson is there for the taking. Unfortunately, the learning curve can be very slow, since we take for granted that which is given to us too easily.

Teachers Teach You How to Close the Gap

Years of orchestra rehearsals and concerts can help us learn that quality inertia in tempo, but some lessons cannot be learned by ensemble experience alone. The most important lessons need to be verbalized by teachers, who can point out the rhythmic problem areas, explain why they’re happening, and finally show how to fix them.

Since old habits die hard, it will take time to even out the rhythmic quirks. The teacher will see clearly the gap between how the student should be playing with a conscious rhythm plan, and the way it’s actually coming out of the instrument, complete with unnecessary rhythmic stretching and contracting.

Since one of the hardest things in music is knowing what you actually sound like, the teacher should demonstrate what the student sounds like and then play the alternative, improved way. When the student hears the teacher imitate him or her, the difference becomes clear.

Einstein and Relative Speed

We’ve all heard that the key to practicing a fast passage is to first practice it slowly. Before we take such wisdom for granted, let’s examine the foundation behind something that sounds so simple. Fast passages tend to bring some players to, literally, a grinding halt. When a player stops on the proverbial dime, it’s often because the walls of the beat seem to be closing in on him, ala Indiana Jones being squeezed. The alternative, and more preferable option, is the type of beat that allows the music to breathe and unfold organically.

When you practice slowly, you need to allow the different rhythmic values to co-exist, and not to speed up one value because something else seems fast. You have to turn off that part of you that over-reacts. If music has any downside, it is its ability to derail the technique because of sensory nerves being overloaded.

When you work out the right proportions during slow practice, and switch to a faster tempo, the mind does an amazing thing. Like the parting of the Red Sea from the story of Moses, something in the mind opens up. The walls of the beat are simply displaced from where they were, the muscle memory kicks in, and the mind sequentially plays the passage. The little portions of notes that the mind handles, without rushing or losing patience, come out the same way in a faster tempo.

If you respect the mind’s capacity for taking in data, which we see so clearly when we read a book and take in about five to seven words at a time, the mind will give you unlimited flexibility in dealing with tempo.

In Einstein’s world of music, the violin and relativity, one can’t help but wonder what his perceptions in music were like. He said that music, and specifically the violin, gave him an insight into relativity. Why he didn’t explain that statement was because he made his living as a physicist, not a musician. What could he have meant?

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March 18, 2016 at 01:27 AM · It was not the Dead but the Red Sea. Guillermo Rochabrún.

March 18, 2016 at 08:55 AM · Thanks!

March 19, 2016 at 09:15 AM · I found that the way to learn to play fast is indeed to start slow and proceed to increase speed when you mastered the part.

March 22, 2016 at 06:45 PM · I've always been very conservative when it comes to tempo, although a certain amount of ebb and flow can make a piece quite expressive. But I've heard experienced musicians play with what I consider excessive - even wanton - rubato, which to me disrupts the flow of the music. It's like being a passenger in a car whose driver swerves abruptly and unexpectedly - and it's not a pleasant experience.

March 23, 2016 at 07:30 AM · I agree that wanton rubato can weaken a performance. The ear knows when something is amiss, and a lack of flow and proportion throws everything off. The beautiful structure that we crave and learn to expect - GONE. The great rubato of Fritz Kreisler was based on an expert foundation. Not surprisingly, his tempos can be slower than they might initially appear. It's amazing how much music can be fit into organically spaced pulses.

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