From the mailbag- rhythm and sightreading

Today, we turn to another question from the mailbag, from our friend Bob in New Jersey– a very fine amateur violinist I know from around and about. He writes-

Hi Ken. I enjoy reading your blog. The bit about “transference” and first rehearsals caught my attention. I’ve noticed that, in the various amateur groups that I’ve played in, the first rehearsal sets the tone for every subsequent rehearsal. And it’s usually evident after a few bars of playing whether the group is a promising one, or one that will continually struggle. And speaking of struggling, why can’t more musicians count? It’s one thing to struggle with counting the clarinet part of the slow movement of the Brahms quintet, which I have seen bring some very good amateur clarinettists to their knees. I am referring to tasks such as dividing a quarter note into triplets or sixteenth notes – a task which I have seen musicians fail at, over the span of multiple rehearsals. It’s difficult to understand the trouble when these problems can be so easily corrected by briefly practicing in front of a metronome. Do you encounter similar problems at the professional level? Do I take counting too much for granted because of my engineering background? And have I provided inspiration for future blog postings?

Dear Bob-

I think the phenomenon you describe is one that can be detected at all levels of ability in many parts of the world. It’s a pity, because if there was one musical skill I could teach or have taught to every young musician it would be the basics of rhythmic subdivision and how to apply them when playing.
However, I think that, in America at least, this is the result of an even more fundamental failing of our system of musical training. The sad fact is that for most young would-be musicians, they don’t receive any systematic musical training, only instrumental/vocal training. All of our early musical training comes through the prism of an applied performance area, so any modest amount of training in musicianship (remember your piano teacher yelling “count Ken! One-and two-and, one-and two-and…”) is limited to whatever level of skill (probably not much) you’ve built up on your instrument.
I was talking to a colleague who I admire tremendously a couple weeks ago, and he made the point that most of the students in his orchestra (one of the best student orchestras in the world) are really there because they love playing their instruments, much more than they love playing music. He feels it’s partly his job to encourage them to develop a passion for music separate from their instrument.

Anyway, I see all the time in orchestra and chamber groups instances where we have huge ensemble problems because someone is so fixated on playing their violin well, that they completely forget to play with their colleagues. We become so obsessed with doing that pinky thing our teacher taught us, that we don’t count.
Counting shouldn’t be something one does simply to avoid making a mistake like coming in at the wrong time- it is not a prophylactic process. Counting should be the enlivening force of all of our music making. Counting is half (singing the other) of our inner soundtrack, and I really encourage all my students to train their inner metronome not only to measure time accurately, but in character. Counting with a louder internal voice when the music is louder, a more threatening one when the music is full of menace or a more tender one when the music calls for it.

Otherwise, to the extent we have any inner soundtrack at all, it’s just of the “singing in the shower” variety. No harm in that, except that playing an instrument is hard, and managing those difficulties is bound to screw up your time without some inner monitor keeping an ear on things. Heck, most people can’t even sing in the shower in tempo if they reach for the soap, let alone play the viola.
I completely agree with Bob about the extent to which the first minutes of a first rehearsal can tell you a lot about the prospects of a new group being any good. There’s always a sigh of relief when you settle in and realize things are clicking- life would be grand if it were always so. Hah! Even at the highest levels, there are whole religious denominations that seem to abhor accurate rhythm. Travis- you know who I’m talking about.  However, you may have many instances where you have to make a bad or troubled group work, and it helps to have a bag of tricks to get a group. Some of those involve managing the damage that transference does to your own playing, while the rest deal with getting the best out of a poorly matched group.
Sometimes, the best trick is working at incredibly slow tempos with a loud metronome clicking eighths or better-yet 16ths instead of quarters. That kind of slow, quasi intonation work can do wonders for rhythm.
Bob- I don’t think you take counting too much for granted at all, but I think you hint at a good fundamental point. A good musician has to be not only a poet, but an engineer as well. Our slightly narcissistic society has taught us that emotional self-expression is the our right as musicians, but a bit of humility to deal with the nuts and bolts is essential in making that music making honest and communicative. Subdivision isn’t a straight-jacket that keeps us from freely expressing our musical instincts, it is our very heartbeat itself- rhythm is life, as anyone who’s had heart trouble will tell you.
Thanks again for the note, Bob. We’ll see how many more blog posts I can squeeze out of this comment.

Dear readers- please keep writing!


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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