I’ve run across only one person who actually said, "I like to make music as difficult as possible." Even though there may have been some pedagogical value in what he said, the statement was 99% bragging and 1% cryptic. This was the same person who over-analyzed every interval just to sound smart and found fault with everyone’s rhythm except his own.
Just how hard is music supposed to be? Or a better question would be: "Why do we make something that is so simple so difficult?"
I have played with musicians who make every beat feel like it’s shaped organically by the music, and others who made me feel like the contents of a paint can being violently mixed at Sears. The latter consisted of players who tried to make things hard for others, whether consciously or unconsciously. But rhythm is an act of nature. It can either unfold naturally or it can be manipulated to create confusion and havoc.
Best be prepared!
Balancing Inner Rhythm and Outer Cues
How can something so smooth be so square? The language we use to convey rhythm is specific and mathematical. The way we play it demands a certain kind of precision - but it also requires a great deal of flexibility and awareness.
The peace, calm, and proportion that you hear in music can be replicated in your personal rhythmic approach. The rhyme and reason associated with rhythm is indeed an amazing phenomenon. It is built on a system of patience in finishing each beat, and flexibility in adapting to constantly shifting sands.
When it all works, it makes music incredibly easy.
Let the Beat Breathe
I had a crippling habit in which I would cut off a fraction of a beat -- before it was supposed to finish. Of course, this made music more difficult because I had less time to play all the notes. If the notes were getting higher and the music was getting more exciting, it was understandable that I would misjudge my timing. I even named it "destination disease." The inverse of this affliction, but equally as deadly, was when I thought I had too long to play a beat. I named it "dawdling disease."
Beats breathe, and they ebb and flow depending on texture, dynamics, and phrasing. That may seem like a formidable number of factors to monitor, but it’s easier than it sounds. With the exception of the conductor, who has to formulate his interpretation lest he, god forbid, follows the orchestra, the rest of us merely have to listen to the prevailing phrase and fit in. Surely it’s incumbent on the violinist to sidestep the obstacles thrown his or her way, such as wayward dynamics, conductors looking like they’re not with the orchestra that they’re leading (it happens) and your own personal errors. Music’s essence always comes through the smokescreen.
Adapting Proportion to Changing Conditions
If I had to name an example of a perfectly designed system involving humans, the symphony orchestra would win, hands down. The mood dictates the flow, so even rubato -- when there is fluctuation in the tempo -- is clearly defined. Different rhythmic values fit together as long as they don’t fight each other. The way sostenuto quarter notes wrap around staccato eighths demonstrates the compatibility of vastly different objects. Sometimes major adjustments have to be devised, like interpreting the dotted 8th and 16th note. It only works if you think of the 16th as belonging to the following beat.
During those years when I wasted time making music as hard as possible, I could not see the simplicity of fitting together parts that are mathematically designed. However, thoughts of music resting on a foundation of elegant ease and proportion were floating somewhere in my mind; they were doing a good job of hiding, though. It took many years for me to start listening to the healthier voice.
I love this idea: when beats are laid out with the same deference to each other as we experience in conversation, there is always enough time to fit any number of notes. Years of frustration built up while I made numerous shortcuts through beats, only to find out that the "squareness" of rhythm produces music of the smoothest and most perfect nature. There is time, there is room for every rhythm and beat.
The technique of breathable beats and organic proportion helps violinists blend into most ensembles. The major ingredients that make it all work are kindness and humility, from conductor to musicians and between the musicians themselves. Navigating such a simple set of concepts is anything but simple. Fortunately, it’s always lurking in the back of our minds.
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