Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy in 1997 and pinpointed the difficulty of playing rhythmically: "It’s often said that rhythm is music’s most 'natural' aspect, that it comes to music from pulsations we find in our bodies. This is one of those observations that, like the flatness of the earth, is blatantly obvious and blatantly wrong."Robert Jourdain published
Rhythm has plagued me my whole life because I began my musical studies with the gift and curse of playing in an ensemble as soon as I picked up the violin. The gift was that I was invited to fit into a musical, sonic, and rhythmic template. The curse was that I was invited to fit into a musical, sonic, and rhythmic template.
When the rhythm, texture, and melody were handed to me on a silver platter, with conductor and fellow musicians laying out a clear path, the negative side effect was that I took it for granted. When it was all taken away, leaving me having to figure out things in the practice room all alone, I had to learn self-sufficiency.
This is where the art of thinking while playing becomes very useful and helpful in breaking down barriers.
Let’s start with how we learn to value and appreciate thinking. The typical rhythmic mistake many of us make is over-indulgence; we play too long during half-notes, mindless of the subdivisions and the general rhythm of the ensemble. It takes a lot of thinking to correct that problem. The first thought, and the most important one, is knowing that we started slowing down. (Music’s structure is so tight yet sensitively proportioned that it’s no surprise we all slow down and speed up.)
The second thought is to define the beats more clearly, not as simple as it sounds. When we linger on an emotional rhythm, we pretend that beats can be vague. Instead of blissfully ignoring reality, we must think rationally. If the beat is wavering, we need to question how we’re hearing it. If our ears are temporarily failing us, quantify the beat in a different way. Just as conductors create a shape for the beat, we may need something more specific and reliable.
Oddly enough, I have found that thinking of a brick creates the image of length that I can rely on to keep me on a sophisticated, rhythmic path. Musical thinking allows for this kind of image because the beat will remain comfortably consistent even when rubatos and ritards are at play. In other words, the beat stays the same, but it plays tricks with our brains. (Nitpickers may quibble about beats wavering between eight to twelve metronome marks, but in a slow-ish tempo, a great musician considers that fluctuation the price of a beautiful rubato or harmonic change.
There’s Just One Tiny Problem with Thinking
Musicians impress others with the dexterity of their fingers, and violinists in particular are singled out for playing in tune on a fretless fingerboard and shaping a beautiful sound out of a structure built on a house of cards. (compared to the solid edifice of the piano, chimes, and bass drum.) Yet ask a violinist to think while he’s playing, and make one or two changes, and the mind’s quirks come into play. The first time I heard my fourth grade conductor in Dallas say "don’t rush when you’re getting louder," she wasn’t just whistling Dixie. She was giving me my first glimpse of the trickiest thing in music: fix one mistake and create three more. It sounds overwhelming, but it’s not the same as plugging the hole in the dike; no one is going to drown.
Yet we must come to terms with this dilemma and create a technique that makes thinking fun and not a burden. If we know in advance that changing one fingering may even disrupt the bow arm, we’ll be more prepared to deal with it. Changes create side-effects. Plan on fixing the fallout in two or three attempts. This is the easy part. The hard part was realizing a change needed to be made and thinking of a strategy and a solution.
This process of musical growth is the most enjoyable and rewarding aspect of our love of music. By definition, nothing we play is an island unto itself. There is always a gentle, or in the case of playing in an orchestra, an urgent responsibility to match the prevailing phrase, dynamic, and tempo. Change is inherent, and thinking is the means by which we achieve it. We can’t change it or wish it away, but we can accept it. It will never get easy, but we’ll keep getting better at it.Tweet
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