The Violin Channel recently caught up with respected Australian-British violinist and educator, Professor Simon Fischer.
In a VC-exclusive guest blog, the Guildhall School of Music and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland teaching faculty member shares his tips and insights for improving one’s sense of rhythm.
“Playing well but without rhythm
The three chief elements of playing music on any instrument are pitch, sound and rhythm. In contrast to the keyboard, where all the notes are ready, a particular problem exists on string instruments because of the initial challenge of playing a note in tune and with a good sound. As a result, many students (at every level) easily fall into the trap of ending up trying to make a performance out of playing only ‘good-sounding, in-tune notes.’
Yet musical rhythm is the single-most important element of the three. Every note must be in tune, and every note must be pure; but in the end, it is through rhythm that musical expression is created and communicated.
Feeling the underlying pulse
It is one thing to play the written note-values. It is another thing altogether to play those rhythms while feeling an underlying pulse. You need to have the ‘tum ta-ta, tum ta-ta’, or ‘dum, dum, dum, dum’ in the background. This underlying pulse is the ground that the printed rhythms stand on.
Again, it is because of the complexity of playing a note in tune, and with the right sound, that the background pulse may be forgotten.
Apart from robbing the music of rhythmic expression, a lack of underlying pulse may often make the playing appear too mentally-controlled, and therefore detached. When the written note-values sit on top of a pulse, the playing gains a different quality of natural flow and communication.
Part of feeling the underlying pulse lies in sub-dividing all longer notes into smaller units. When playing quarters, you need to feel eighths; when playing, say, a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth, you need to feel four sixteenths.
Understanding technical and musical timing
There is often a difference between the exact moment when a note should actually sound, and the technical preparation for it. In smooth string-crossing, the bow must begin to move towards the new string before that string is sounded; fingers often need to be prepared on the string ahead of the bow; shifts must begin before the moment that you want the finger to arrive; and so on. All these cause rhythmic uncertainty. Such problems are cured automatically through good listening, but technical understanding is always a great help.
Sound + silence = note value
When a note should not sound for as long as its printed value – for example, separated strokes in baroque or classical music, or if a note-head has a dot over it – time must not be stolen from the space before the next note.
If, say, a quarter with a dot overhead is played as a dotted-eighth, the silence after it must equal a sixteenth. Clipping the beat, by cutting the value of the silence, causes hurrying and lack of rhythmic control. The simple formula of sound + silence = note value must always be at the front of the mind.
The overall cure for such problems lies in sub-dividing and close listening.