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.
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.
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.Tweet
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