One of the greatest sensations from my early musical experiences was noticing how I fit in the rhythms swirling around me while playing in the elementary school orchestra.
If you like the feel of music floating through the air, while at the same time find yourself fitting into beat patterns that speed up and slow down, you never forget the logic and the comfort. The formula inherent in the combination of conductor, colleagues, rhythm, and harmony becomes a gift that never ceases to amaze. It should never be taken for granted. Its laws are natural and predictable, but they take a lifetime to learn.
The rhythmic cells fascinated me. How convenient that quarters, eighths, and all the rest fit together perfectly, and can even be stretched and narrowed without falling apart. How do you not only play in the moment of the music, but also know what’s coming up? Staying connected and feeling the security of being in the right place at the right time is something to strive for.
The Advantages of Counting
There are two great benefits to keeping a count going in your head while you’re playing – it keeps the music organized and proportional, and it is good practice for concentrating on more than one thing. However, there can be difficulties involved when music is flowing through your mind and you interrupt it with a thought.
Thinking and playing are not necessarily compatible – thinking may feel more cumbersome. When you’re playing, it can feel like an instinctive re-creation of what’s going on in the ear. It doesn’t need rational thought, but it will veer in unwanted directions if you don’t remind yourself to regularly listen to others.
How can you count with confidence and conform to the flexibility of the phrase?
Being Ready for a New Interpretation
When practicing a passage, be prepared that little things will feel different while playing it with others. There will be a cumulative effect as changes snowball into a phrase with a different feeling. Holding a note longer or changing the overall tempo will lead to other things. Pretty soon, you may feel like you’re on a bucking bronco, but if you practiced carefully, you’ll adapt. To put things in perspective, though, the parts of the phrase are still proportional to each other. A faster tempo still has the predictability that you relied on when you practiced it at a slower tempo.
To appreciate the need for flexibility, listen to the subtext of what the music is about. Music on the printed page takes on a new life when you know and feel the range of emotions it’s expressing. Rhythms naturally move faster and slower depending on the human pulse fueling the music. It’s common to be stuck on one tempo, but experience will show you that music changes all the time.
Since motivation lies at the heart of progress, I would recommend a podcast called Aria Code, which shows the depth and nature of a single aria. It reminds me of how often music’s character changes, and how rhythm, tempo, and articulation must always adapt and set the stage. The host Rhiannon Giddens, a former opera singer and now a fiddle, banjo, and bluegrass artist, ties together fascinating connections between music and human drama.
As I listened to soprano Diane Damreau sing the finale to Act One, the tempos reflected her character’s slowly unfolding resolve. It reminded me to always consider how the parts of the music evolve and relate to one another. If you can follow the phrasing of an aria, which is impulsive and spontaneous, you can relate it to reading violin music and discovering the phrasing inside the notes. Finally, opera reminds us to think big. To squeeze a phrase into a tiny box only compresses and inhibits technique.
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