Commandment 2) THOU SHALT KNOW AND LOVE THY BEAT.
The most important thing in music is rhythm, the most important thing to rhythm is the beat, and the most important thing to the beat is its steadiness.
I can play a familiar melody such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, and make it completely unrecognizable by radically changing the rhythm. However, it is still easily recognizable if it is played in a serial tone row, (maintaining the melodic shape while using large leaps and wild chromaticism) but keep the original rhythmic patterns.
There are two components to a secure sense of rhythm. First you must KNOW where in the score the beat falls. The beat can be any note value assigned as the primary rhythmic motive function. You must understand where in the score these beats occur.
The next part is the “Loving”. You must have a physical sense of the beat. There is no guessing allowed in the beat. Clap your hands, stomp your feet, jump up and down, tap a foot, tap a toe, count out loud; do something to physically feel the presence of the beat or pulse.
Now put these together. Know where you belong in the score as these beats you feel come by. No matter what, you must be where you belong! If your playing is controlled by a steady, known beat, with a thorough understanding as to where you belong in the score with the beat, you will have a secure rhythm. Failure will make your playing rhythmically unintelligible.
One of the things which intervallic music reading teaches us is the correlation between the arrangement of notes on the pages and physical act of reproducing the music on the piano. The movements we make in the act of playing are choreographed directly from the score, as the notes go up the page, we play higher on the keyboard and the shapes of chords are expressed by various and uniform hand shapes. There is a parallel understanding available to us in regards to rhythm.
Musical notation indicates proportional values; two of these equal one of those and three of these equal one of those. The most fundamental aspect of good rhythm is maintaining a steady pulse. The note value assigned to that pulse is irrelevant, the only thing which matters is deciding which note value will be assigned the pulse and keeping that pulse steady. The next step would be to understand which rhythmic signs are equal to two (or three) of our pulse and which signs are half the value.
As in note reading, the ability to name the notes has nothing to do with the ability to play the notes; naming is simply for the convenience of communication between people and with ourselves, the mastery of beat numbering and subdivision syllables will never yield effective rhythm. You can say all the right numbers and syllables, but if you speak them without any reference to the beat or pulse, this knowledge will not give you the correct rhythm. And again the numbers and syllables simply provide a means of identification and labeling and nothing else.
Learning to maintain a steady pulse is something which best begins with some type of larger motor gesture than we experience with simple finger movements. Finger movements are poor pulse keepers for many reasons but primarily it is often a different finger moving for each pulse which weakens the relationship between the movement and the pulse. I have often told my students I really didn’t care what they did, tap their foot, jump up and down, shout… just do something very noticeable. You have to feel the pulse to be aware of its steadiness. I understand, taping ones foot can be unsightly in a performance setting, but it is a very effective method for having a physical action, separate from playing, to keep a steady pulse. As the student matures the foot taping will diminish anyways, learning to feel a steady pulse is just too important not to find something for the student to do.
One of the advantages of foot taping is the built in subdivision. The top of the movement represents the half subdivision.
The most complex musical notations (with the exception of some very modern scores) can usually be broken down to simple 2:1 and 3:1 relationships. Even in the presence of 128th notes; they also have a simple 2:1 relationship to 64th notes. If you assigned the pulse to the 4 beamed 64th notes, the 5 beamed 128th notes take on the same rhythmic simplicity as quarter and eighth notes. As comfort and tempos increases it is a simple matter to move the pulse to the next values, the proportional relationships remain the same.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of rhythm is the meter, sometimes strangely called the “time signature”. The typical explanation for the meaning of the two number will often go like this: “X is the number of beats in a measure and Y gets the beat.” That is pretty worthless! Yes, this information may be partly true, but it doesn’t tell us what those two numbers mean. A more succinct and accurate was of express this information would be to say: ” There are X number of Y’s in a measure.” A perfect example of why the first expression is inaccurate can be found in most compound meters notated in 3/8, 6/8 and 9/8. We most commonly count these meters with the dotted quarter receiving the beat which is a value not present in the first explanation, though it seems to imply there should be.
But neither of these explanations tells us what it means. We should think back to the very origins of music. The original musical instrument was the human voice and we had metered poetry set to simple melodies. The most effective settings were those which fit best with the alternating patterns of accented and unaccented syllables and whose cadences matched the punctuation of the poetry. The meter reflects this poetic patterning. Each meter is made up of accented and unaccented beats, which when text is present, and well set, is reflected in the organization of each measure of music.
So back to our original idea. You must know and love your beat. You must know in the musical score the location of your beat. We can add to this in time the relative importance of that beat to all others based upon the meter of the music. And Love is a feeling, so you must feel your beat; it has to have a physical reality to you.
Recently I was visiting with a fellow traveler in the piano world. He is one of the few people I have met in my life who has traveled a nearly parallel road as mine. He is a piano tuner and rebuilder, teacher, and has a similar education as my own. What a treat! In the course of our conversation I shared with him my experience as a church musician. His reaction showed me some of the unique advantages I had gained from my time behind the keyboards.
A little over 11 years ago I took a job at the New Life Lutheran Church of Bolingbrook as their organist. Now I had a semester’s worth of organ lessons in college and had “played” the organ for a couple of years at another church but I was no organist. But, as someone always willing to do something new and challenging I jumped in.
As time went on I quickly learned the liturgy and ran through the limited amount of music for both the piano and organ I had for the preludes and postludes. After repeating myself a few times I began to get bored with the whole process. I knew I wasn’t giving or getting everything out of the opportunity. So I decided to use the opportunity of needing a steady supply of new piano music to create a need and motivation for me to greatly expand my repertory. Rather than doing a scatter shot approach to learning new music, I decided to play through more systematically the repertory of the piano.
I started very simply with the Clementi Sonatinas and much of Anna Magdalena Bach book. I moved on to other literature of Chopin, Mednter, Debussy, Beethoven, and Bach. A funny thing happens when you set out to learn 5 – 10 minutes of new music every week; after few years, you have really learned a lot of music.
I am not sharing this to brag, but to encourage those of you with a similar opportunity and need to take full advantage of the discipline such a situation can place you under. I have become a big advocate of learning complete cycles of music. I cannot begin to explain everything I learned about music, Beethoven, the sonata, or myself after playing the complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas or Bach’s 48. Even if the cycle is as small as Bach’s 2 Part Inventions, learning and playing them all will give you a unique perspective quite different from knowing only a few.
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