Rhythmic Potholes-Violinists Explore Phrasing

April 21, 2019, 11:39 PM · It starts so innocently and simply. One half note equals two quarters. The eighth notes just continue to blend into this mathematic formula. Sometimes triplets don’t show up until Book Two of your primer. Even when the dotted eighth and sixteenth are introduced, we’re not required to play the sixteenth a little later. Such a sophisticated skill, in which the sixteenth note “belongs” to the next beat, can easily be ignored.


Subtleties keep multiplying. What started with a straight-forward equation between quarters and halves, is now a language with ebbs and flows. Human interference in orchestras and chamber music takes its toll on reliable rhythm. The properties that music has to express or to constrict know no limits. How can we harness the good and eliminate the bad?

As music gets more exciting, nuanced, and dynamic, our rhythmic perceptions play tricks with our brains. Dotted rhythms give off a false sense of faster movement. Our minds don’t necessarily come equipped with rhythmic regulating devices. Ironically, the first line of defense against wayward and willful rhythmic meanderings is within the mind itself. We can develop a radar device which alerts us to the slightest whiff of rushing or slowing down. To do so, channel the talents of the great second flutists and oboists who shadow their principals. These players have learned the art of “quantifying” every dynamic, articulation, and rubato under the sun.

Two Inspirational Guidelines

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that an oboist devised a formula and a philosophy for following the rhythms of nuanced phrasing. Marcel Tabuteau, the principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra, recognized the complex job of following conductors and staying within the parameters of their fellow wind players, let alone strings and percussion. His method involved a numbering system which showed various ways to play a phrase. Tabuteau’s ideas taught fine players to become multi-faceted and flexible. No phrase is static or predictable, but instead is attuned to its environment. An excellent article about Tabuteau’s contribution is Musicality by the Numbers, by Los Angeles Times music critic Chris Pasles.

Ivan Galamian created a method called “correlation” to help violinists juggle multiple bits of information. In his scale book he includes rhythmic and bowing variations to guide a player as he adapts in a timely manner and polish in a reasonable period. (Adapting immediately is preferable!) Of course, it’s as difficult as it sounds during the first attempts, but it gets easier. The major obstacle is when the violinist tries too hard, instead of letting his mind expand to let in new material. Don’t be put off by the awkward nature of unmusical rhythms or frustratingly complex bowings. It’s just an abstract exercise!

Breathable Beats

If fast sixteenth notes are gaining uncontrollable momentum, like Indiana Jones having the walls close in on him, then your rhythm needs a little tune up. If you find yourself single-handedly rushing and playing louder than everyone in your string section, take note! I remember a superb violinist, who was subbing in our orchestra, literally riding roughshod over the sound of the entire section. Later I tried to recreate the energy necessary to cause such a disturbance. I was shocked at the amount of exaggeration I needed to play with, but I was happy to realize how spacious our comfort zone is for playing with others. When someone plays that far afield from everyone else, I suspect utter cluelessness or plain old-fashioned sabotage.

The ability to play with rhythmic plasticity rarely come naturally, but there’s enough in each one of us to encourage development and growth. General violin training doesn’t have time to develop the important nuances we need, but a long life gives us plenty of time to strengthen our deficits.

The word “plasticity” is wonderful in describing rhythm and its many shapes and surprises. It is defined as “the quality of being easily shaped or molded”, and “the adaptability of an organism to changes in its environment or differences between its various habitats”. When sixteenth notes begin to rush, it may be because we’re not listening to the melodic line we’re accompanying. The problem isn’t rhythm, it’s listening and noticing dynamics and harmonies.

The Practice Room as a Laboratory

If I was asked for the best philosophy that teaches flexibility, I would say it’s flipping the mind back and forth between the left hand and the right hand. We start life as violinists almost totally focused on the left hand. Fear of thinking about the bow arm is irrational, but compelling and understandable nonetheless. Every time we let go of one fixation, the door opens for new ways of seeing and hearing things.

Play the same phrase three different ways in three minutes, while maintaining rhythmic balance and proportion. If you guide yourself with different dynamics and pacing, you won’t have any trouble following the obvious contours of the conductor’s interpretation.

The most important thing to get you through the period of change and maturity isn’t talent, but a sense that music offers exquisite communication. It goes beyond sound and virtuosity. A musical genius is most likely not a prodigy. You see this rare gift in great conductors, ones who show you the process because they had to discover it on their own.

The sublime pianist Mitsuko Uchida freely admits that she wasn’t a prodigy but had to work out problems in a painstaking way. See her interview on YouTube at The Berliner Philharmoniker’s Live Lounge at the 2016 Baden-Baden Easter Festival.

Talent interferes with development because it allows easy solutions to satisfy us. The more important goal is to master the predictability of music along with its rubatos and poetic possibilities. Uchida’s difficulties and her powerful spirit teach us that the mind is the most useful tool we possess.

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April 22, 2019 at 08:26 PM · Thank you! I've been trying to come up with my own system for phrasing that is understandable for not just myself but also my teacher(s). Tabuteau's looks like it will fit the bill! I understand what my markings mean, but any further help/refinement is great.

You are so right about the runaway sixteenth notes - I tend to do that when I get excited (nervous, forget about the rhythm and be an idiot, etc.) about the piece and pick up momentum and have to put extra markings in to breathe and reconnect with said rhythm so as to no longer be a clod.

April 22, 2019 at 10:46 PM · Pamela, I think it’s great that you have been designing your own system of phrasing that is understandable. Many of us think about how we play but have trouble putting it into words. It helps to know what we think, because then it’s easier to change the course of a phrase.

April 23, 2019 at 03:54 AM · I really like what you said about how great conductors show you the process because they had to discover it on their own. It's very true that when we don't just reach for the easy solutions, we have a chance to get closer to that "exquisite communication" you talk about. Thanks for a thought-provoking article!

April 23, 2019 at 04:15 PM · @162, thank you for your comments. Conductors have to learn the art of letting the rhythm “unfold” at a leisurely, conversational pace. Violinists on the other hand learn a more virtuosic approach: tighten the beats, play quick triplets and sixteenths, and “play it forward”. What conductors do requires maturity and thoughtfulness. Ultimately, it makes the music easier to play, since there’s more time to play everything.

April 23, 2019 at 08:26 PM · Paul - I am trying! Music is multi-dimensional and trying to capture my interpretation in two dimensions with the help of a pencil is rather challenging. Sometimes my teacher looks a little overwhelmed with my marking style. Reading about Tabuteu's method has been wonderful these past two days - very helpful.

April 24, 2019 at 10:31 PM · I enjoyed reading your view on this as I have played for seven years now! I have struggled with rhythms throughout playing and I wish I would have seen this sooner!

April 24, 2019 at 10:33 PM · Excellent article. Thank you.

While a relatively new student to the violin I've been a musician for over fifty years. While I've known people who seemed to be human metronomes, I'm not one of them. I remember my earliest days in grade-school band when our 'band-director' would constantly say "slow down...you're rushing." I learned to recognize the feeling when, during difficult passages I would tend to rush. I learned to recognize the feeling and to concentrate on tempo.

April 25, 2019 at 04:21 AM · Steven, I bet your band director would be so happy to know what you learned from him about tempo and rushing. Fortunately, a steady amount of concentration wields good results. Unfortunately, I've rushed at the ends of phrases. Who hasn't? I don't do that when I talk! We all speak with the proper cadences; playing the violin is another matter.

April 25, 2019 at 06:44 PM · There's something about a string of sixteenth notes that often induces a panic attack. So many people (myself included) tense up and start rushing - with comical results if it's a largo passage where nothing is happening quickly. It takes a real effort to relax and play it as it comes - although this is easier after a few practice sessions where you get familiar with the passage.

April 26, 2019 at 05:03 PM · Charlie, Thank you for mentioning the 16th notes in a largo “nightmare”. And if the notes are written smaller, like in cadenza or recitative notation, it’s a double nightmare. I love your comments “nothing is happening quickly” and “play it as it comes”.

When I see such music, I try to shift into “soloist mode”. I make my sound richer, since my part is the predominant one. No one is trying to rush me (god help them if they are.) I try to divide the section into phrases, with generous breathing breaks between them. Given the right circumstances, these could end up being the easiest types of passages to play.

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