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!
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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