by Laura Jellicoe
How do you help students use rhythm appropriately?
Hello everyone, and warm greetings from Manchester, UK! I really hope you are keeping well, and are enjoying a little more freedom with regards to Covid – hopefully you are now able to enjoy making music with others again, which is what we love doing best!
The question of rhythm is fascinating, and there are many facets to it. According to Pablo Casals, the famous cellist,
“The vitality of a musical performance is dependent upon the spontaneous feeling for rhythm communicated by the interpreter”.
The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams asked “What is rhythm?” and he then quoted Lord Haldane’s epigram “I cannot define an elephant, but I recognise one when I see it!”
We are in the best company when we admit to “Rhythm” being very difficult to explain in words! However, a few things come to mind which it might be helpful to mention here, and I’ll share a few ideas of how we can develop our sense of rhythm in our flute playing.
It goes without saying that Rhythm is one of the key elements of music making, and yet too often we simply don’t give it enough attention when we’re practising. Since it is our job as interpreters to convey the rhythmic feeling and energy of the written music to our audience, it makes sense to pay much more attention to it - we need to find a way of making the music sound spontaneous and find joy in the rhythm, and in so doing bring the music to life for the listener.
I’ve sat on many orchestral audition panels over the years, and yet I always find it sad when around three quarters of the applicants are eliminated within the first few minutes of their audition because their Mozart wasn’t ‘rhythmical’. This is a tragedy – other aspects of their playing might be fabulous, but a slightly rocky or hesitant pulse or a lack of rhythmic energy in Mozart suggests a weak link and therefore it’s a ‘no’ from the panel. Imagine – all those years slaving away at Moyse’s tone exercises, virtuosic studies, scales, scales in thirds, scales in fourths etc and yet what lets us down in the actual audition is something as ‘simple’ as rhythm! So let’s think about how to remedy this.
For me, the most important thing is to find a way of getting the rhythm into our bodies!!!! We need to feel it from our insides! Sometimes having an instrument in our hands can inhibit us so I like to go out into the hills, walking to an imaginary beat, singing the music in my head, at the same time seeing how flexible I can be with the rhythm and trying to make it sound natural. Dancing also helps, and conducting. And I’d recommend getting a beat going, either by tapping your foot or by tapping your hand on your leg, at the same time as singing the rhythm of the notes with the character you want to convey in the music. Also make sure you feel the rhythm of the accompaniment, as this is often what drives the beat.
Rhythm is in all of us, it is a part of life. There is a rhythm to nature, to the seasons, to the birds and the bees. It is all around us, we can’t avoid it, and yet when we are playing we sometimes forget about it because we are focussing on other aspects of playing. So when playing music, try to connect with this rhythmic energy and give it more of your attention - move it higher up the priority list in EVERYTHING you play.
When talking about rhythm as a musician, there are a few aspects which we need to think about;
- Rhythmic pulse (should it be regular - if so, can we maintain it?)
- Rubato/flexibility (how much does the music need?)
- Rhythmic flow (however slow, music should always be moving forward)
- Rhythmic energy and drive
- The basic feeling of ‘fast’ or ‘slow’
Most music is derived from Dance, going back to the beginning of time, so the more we feel able to physically move with the music (away from our flute!), the more we can re-engage with our natural sense of rhythm.
Before we go further, I’d like to mention the “Dalcroze Eurythmics Method”. This was developed by a Swiss gentleman called Jacques-Dalcroze, who was appointed Professor of Harmony at the Geneva Conservatoire in 1892. He soon learned that his students needed to feel the rhythm in both their minds and bodies, and so developed a system to help with this involving movement. It has now grown worldwide and is a highly regarded way of training young musicians. I’d recommend researching this online and maybe signing up for a course at some point – it will certainly develop your rhythmic skills and sense of time.
Alongside movement, the metronome can also be a great friend to us when developing our internal sense of pulse. Once this pulse is more secure, we can then be a little freer and more ‘natural’ with our rhythm, but the metronome is an invaluable tool along this journey and I would recommend having it with you in every practice session – and throughout your life!
Ways of practising with the metronome
- Rhythm exercises without flute
So much of our best practise can be done away from the flute, whether it’s rhythm, or finding the emotion and feeling within the music, or phrasing, or even memorising notes. Here are a few simple clapping games that will develop your inner sense of pulse.
- Crotchet = 60
This is a very basic exercise, but it’s a good place to start from and make sure that we are playing exactly with the beat. You can also practise clapping the offbeats only. Gradually increase the metronome mark to around 150 beats per minute.
- 2 3 4 clap on each beat
1 2 3 4 clap on 1 and 3
- 2 3 4 clap on 2 and 4
- 2 3 4 clap on 4
Now we can start subdividing. This is where we divide the big beats into smaller beats to help us keep a sense of flow through the music, and it also helps us to work out the more complicated rhythm patterns precisely (see towards the end of this article).
- 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
Clap and count aloud on each of the main beats, but this time also say ‘and’ on the off-beats - this produces quavers or eighth notes.
- 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a
Again, clap and count aloud on the main beats, but this time also say ‘and a’ on the off beats, to produce even triplets (1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a).
- Semi-quaver Semi-quaver Semi-quaver Semi-quaver
This is where we count aloud 4 notes per beat, whilst clapping the main beats 1 2 3 4.
- Mix and match!
Practice combining these rhythms until you can flow easily from triplets to semi-quavers, quavers to triplets etc.
Eg. 1 and 2 and 3 and a Semi-quaver (repeat)
Semi-quaver Semi-quaver 3 and a 4 and a (repeat)
- The next stage is to practice clapping quavers, whilst at the same time saying aloud triplets; or clapping crotchets whilst saying triplet crotchets! If you haven’t tried this before it’s great fun, although can take a little getting used to. As musicians we need to be able to do this fluently, and it will prepare you well for more complex rhythms.
- For all the above exercises, change the metronome mark to make it more difficult – from as slow as a very peaceful 40 beats per minute, where it’s more difficult to be precise, to somewhere around 120.
- When you are more familiar with these exercises, you might find it easier to simply say ‘t’ on each of the notes, instead of ‘semi-quaver’ or ‘2 and a ‘.
- Also practise being ‘almost’ behind the beat, and ‘almost’ in front of the beat, as they will each give you a different feeling.
- Increase to 5, 6 and 7 notes per beat – count aloud saying 12345 every beat. With practise, even 5s and 7s can start to feel natural. Practise going from 3s to 5s, back to 2s, then 7s etc.
Once these exercises are fluent, take your flute and practise scales with the metronome. Most of us normally practise scales with a semiquaver pattern, so why not mix things up and try playing either 3 or 4 or 5…or even 7 notes per beat? It changes the emphasis in the scale and it’s a real workout for our brains – which is always a good thing!
- Find joy in these rhythms, and imagine communicating this joy to your listener!
Playing slow tone exercises with a metronome is very useful – what we are aiming for is to find a way of sounding free, natural and expressive, yet within the discipline of the rhythmic structure. Once you have found the colour you are happy with and are ready to proceed with the tone exercises, play them with a slow metronome beat for a few minutes, feeling the pulse in your body and fitting your breathing into this pattern. When you feel ready, turn the metronome off but continue to feel this pulse and work with it.
- Keep alternating between playing with and without the metronome
- Try to feel the pulse in your body throughout but make sure this can’t be heard in the sound, especially as you change note.
- Try physically moving with the beat sometimes in your practice, for example walk round the room to the beat, and fit your notes in around this.
- It’s also very useful to be able to play crescendi and diminuendi to a rhythmic pulse, in an organised and disciplined way. For example, crescendo for 4 beats, diminuendo for 4 beats.
The Italian translation for Rubato is ‘stolen time’. It is an expressive term often requested by composers, and it takes thoughtful practice to do it well and still give the music a natural flow. It’s generally a mixture of moving forwards and backwards rhythmically within a phrase, so that the amount of beats stay the same but the speed of the music slows and quickens – it’s much easier to explain by demonstrating than by using words, so start noticing it when you listen to your favourite recordings.
The Impressionist composers use Rubato in abundance, and one of the biggest orchestral flute solos demonstrates this well. During the huge flute solo from Ravel’s ballet “Daphnis et Chloe”, which is very slow and seductive, the rhythmic tension is created by pizzicato chords from the strings on the 1st, 2nd and 4th beats. This leaves the flute player, who has quite a lot of notes and needs to sound incredibly expressive, to be very free, especially in between the 2nd and 4th beats. It’s helpful to practise this solo playing to a slow crotchet (quarter note) beat on the metronome, and see how much you can pull it around (tastefully, of course!), but still keep arriving back on the 4th beat with the conductor. Try different rubato each time, be adventurous and you’ll end up with something you like.
Experiment with using rubato on your favourite tunes – you could use Moyse “Tone Development through Interpretation” or Robert Winn’s “Melodies for developing Tone and Interpretation” for ideas. Put the metronome on a suitable beat, and see how free you can actually be by moving forwards and backwards a little with the Tempo, but at the same time still being mindful of the pulse and arriving back with the metronome when the time feels right!
A few other thoughts on ryhthm….
It’s so important to think about the rhythmic character of each piece. For example, in Baroque music, often the only clue we’re given by the composer as to the nature of the music is ‘Fast’ or ‘Slow’. If it’s a fast movement, try to make it actually sound fast, and vice versa if it’s a slow movement make it sound slow. This might seem very obvious, but often we hear something played at a very fast Tempo, but which lacks rhythmic sparkle and energy, or a slow movement which even though it’s played at a slow Tempo, just doesn’t have enough gravitas, or has too much nervous energy to really capture the beautiful stillness of the music. Our job as an interpreter is to communicate to the audience the true character and emotion of the music, so choosing the correct Tempo for the piece is not enough.
Working out rhythms
When learning a piece, or trying to work out a difficult rhythmic passage, I find it’s really helpful to clap the beat, or tap your foot to the beat, whilst singing or saying the rhythm of the actual notes. This is instead of using a metronome. This can be so beneficial in allowing the student to actually feel the pulse, rather than just ‘counting correctly’.
Another invaluable tool is SUBDIVISION.
Sometimes it’s really hard to work out rhythms, at every level of playing. But if we subdivide the beats, things suddenly become clearer. For example, let’s take something like Varese’s Density 21.5, where Varese uses a variety of crotchets, minims, quavers, triplets, and triplet crotchets to change the meter and hence create rhythmic tension. Often players are too approximate with these changes in note value, and then the whole rhythmic structure and rhythmic drive of the music is lost.
By subdividing each beat into either quavers or triplets, we can work out precisely the rhythms that Varese is asking for. This takes a little time and patience, but next time you face a similar piece you will learn it more quickly as you develop your own method – and you will be much more accurate. Specifically, using a light pencil, mark above each ‘long note’ (crotchet, minim, semibreve etc) the subdivision which will help you on the FOLLOWING beat – it will either be quavers or triplets. I will explain this more clearly with manuscript examples when the book comes out!
These are just a few of my thoughts on rhythm - for further reading, I’d strongly recommend David Blum’s wonderful book “Casals and the Art of Interpretation”. This is a collection of some of the gems that Pablo Casals imparted to his students, and is well worth a read. But most importantly, FEEL the rhythm, and have confidence in your own sense of pulse.
Take care everyone, and thanks for reading – I do hope these articles are helpful on your journey, and I hope very much to hear you play one day. Enjoy your walks out in the fresh air – up in the hills if you are lucky enough to live near some, keep dancing, and let your musical imagination take flight!
Laura’s career as a flautist has taken her all over the world, playing with many of the UK’s top orchestras and ensembles. She won 1st prize in the 1992 British Flute Society’s International Young Artist Competition, chaired by Sir James Galway, joined the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at only 22, and is currently Principal Flute with the English Symphony Orchestra.
She has also played with orchestras such as the BBC Symphony, including at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ and many other Proms concerts, and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with whom she has toured Europe. She has broadcast on radio and tv many times, and can be heard on recordings such as the complete Beethoven Symphonies with Sir Charles Mackerras, the Bax Symphonies conducted by Vernon Handley, Delius with Richard Hickox, and Faure, Kodaly, Nielsen with the RLPO.