Rhythm Practice

| posted in: practice 

One of the recurring issues I have with my playing, and one that my teacher assures me happens to all beginning students, is giving each note its due. Following a series of eight notes I tend to truncate a quarter note. Dotted quarter notes, equivalent to three eight notes, get really short changed.

So I have been working at playing with the right rhythm. which isn’t always easy, especially once I’ve learned the piece with a slightly fractured rhythm.

First some brief definitions. Tempo is how fast or slow a piece is played. Pulse, or beat, is the recurring manifestation of the tempo. The beat can speed up or slow down, but it doesn’t skip and it doesn’t double up - that would be rhythm. Rhythm, besides being hard to spell, is the combination of short and long notes.

Learning a new piece is complicated. There are the fingerings, the bowing, the tempo, and yes, the rhythm. Learning all of that at once is too much. Even shortening your focus to one or two measures is sometimes too much. Music is three dimensional; the notes themselves describe the horizontal, the dynamics, bowing indications, slurs and other descriptive markings are the vertical, and the third axis is the rhythm. The key to success is to break each new section down into the smallest pieces possible and only add a new dimension once you are comfortable with the previous one. And the only way to learn the correct rhythm is to start with it, so that the incorrect rhythm doesn’t become ingrained while you learn the other two dimensions.

The way that Sibylle has been helping me to learn the rhythm for a new piece or a new section of a piece is to put the cello down, and focus solely on the relationship of short and long notes. She assigns words to each note type: cat for quarter notes, kitty for paired eight notes, long-cat for half notes, and purple-cat for dotted quarter notes. (At this point in my musical education none of my pieces have rhythms any more complicated than can be expressed with these mnemonics.) What the words are isn’t as important as the number of syllables in each. The syllable count needs to match the number of beats each note receives.

With mnemonics in hand the next step is to read the piece, aloud, assigning each note its proper rhythm word. I suppose you could also clap the rhythm, but it’s hard to clap and play the cello at the same time. You can play and say to your self, “kitty-cat kitty-cat cat cat cat cat long-cat long-cat purple-cat rest”. Only once I can rhythmically say the piece (or section) am I ready for the next step.

Adding the metronome to my practice has been frustrating until now. It’s hard to hear over the cello, and it is relentless. If you miss a note or play something out of tempo the metronome marches on without you. So the next step is not to play with the metronome but to rhythmically say the piece using the mnemonics in time to the pulse or beat the metronome is describing. Nodding your head or tapping a toe in time here helps too as it physically manifests the pulse in your body.

Once I can say the piece rhythmically in time with the metronome it’s time to add air bowing. Holding the bow in my right hand I move it back and forth as if I was playing, in time with the metronome and using the cats and kitty cats to describe the rhythm. Like nodding of the head or toe tapping this physically motion incorporates the pulse of the piece into my body.

Next I may play the rhythm on an open string, making no effort to play the right notes, only focussing on the pulse and the rhythm. None of these iterations are very long, perhaps two or three times through for each step, but the accumulation of the steps makes a huge difference in the next step: actually playing the notes.

Up to this point I have been focused on a single dimension, the rhythm. Adding actual notes adds a second dimension and usually upsets the whole thing. Slowing the tempo down considerably allows enough time to prepare the proper notes, and to play them in the proper rhythm. After a few repetitions through the selected section with actual notes I can start to add the final dimension, all the dynamics, bowing directions, et cetera.

By making the foundation of a new piece a solid understanding of it rhythm, I have something solid on which to base the rest of the piece. Starting with the notes and trying to play the piece is attractive because you are making music, but trying to retrofit the rhythm onto a piece once it is committed to muscle memory is difficult and frustrating.

Until now, piece 15 in the first Suzuki book, I have gotten away with playing first and bolting the rhythm on later. For the remaining pieces in this book, and for those that follow, I’m going to discipline myself to learning the rhythm first, and resting the notes on top second.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Mastodon.