Teaching Rhythm in Rehearsals
This is a reflection on the third week of the online course Fundamentals of Rehearsing Music Ensembles - you can also check out my notes on week 1 and week 2.
Dr. Evan Feldman began this week by asking an often overlooked question:
As you rehearse, each time you are going to ask something musically, stop and think to yourself: does the ensemble have the technique to put this into play? What's the technique? Do they have that technique? And how would I go about teaching that technique?
I know that I've overlooked this obvious question in the past, especially when leading ensembles that are new to me. So, for example, when I started my most school post and set up the brass ensemble, I made assumptions that the students knew how to carry out what I was asking. Now that I know the students much better it's easier to gauge their understanding and ability. But we do really need to keep this question at the front of our minds throughout our rehearsals.
Given that rhythm is often the main musical element that we come back to again and again in rehearsals, how do we (as the question encourages) ensure that the players have the necessary techniques to ensure that they can play secure rhythms? And, more importantly how would we go around teaching these techniques in a rehearsal context?
This is where the rehearsal toolkit comes in.
In our toolkits there should be a number of ways for addressing problems and building techniques. For the remainder of week 3, four tools for developing the rhythm of our ensembles were discussed and shown. These were:
1. Subdivision: external & internal
One of the recorded rehearsal videos highlighted two ways in which Dr. Feldman used external subdivision to help a percussionist play an ostinato correctly:
The red solution simply fills the rest that the percussionist is struggling to gauge with the subdivided beat. The purple solution is similar in that it subdivides beat 3 and so anticipates the off-beat, but it's also worth noting that this subdivision doesn't need to be aural but can be conducted.
Throughout the videos 'Mr/Mrs Metronome' was called on to help externalise the subdivision. A percussionist would simply play the quaver pulse on snare drum which helped the band to play in time. As simple as this is, the point was always made that the subdivision needs to be performed in a way that it becomes internalised by the band. So, 'Mr/Mrs Metronome' would eventually become a quieter, vocalised 'tss tss tss' by the members of the band who are not performing in the particular passage that needs worked on.
Taking internal subdivision to a deeper level, we were encouraged not to think of rests as actual rests. In other words we should not be passively resting during rests but actively 'playing without sound' and keeping the subdivision pulsating in our heads so that we come in at exactly the correct moment. If you're going to jump on a carousel that's already spinning, you don't just stand and jump but you run beside it at the same speed before you jump. Apparently.
Here's a quick video explaining what this technique is:
Bopping is useful in a number of ways:
Clarifying thick textures: bopping 'clears out' the texture allowing the movement of the inner parts to be heard more clearly. Obviously, you can select which sections of the band to 'bop' which breaks it down more thoroughly. The most important element of this is we need to keep the clarity and precision provided by bopping even when we're not bopping!
Legato bopping: developing the previous point, making the bopping is tenuto allows a greater element of expression which brings inner voices into sharper relief.
Developing articulation: in a very straightforward way, bopping helps the ensemble to play shorter and is a great shortcut for staccato.
Correcting rhythmic inaccuracies: when everything is bopped it is suddenly very obvious who is not playing with correct rhythm as they stick out from the texture. What does stick out, and is very useful, are solo lines and so the players suddenly become aware of their moving voices (as has been described above already). Taking this a stage further, all crotchets could be bopped as quavers which creates our own ensemble metronome and can correct rhythmic inaccuracies. This technique could be layered: 'All men externalise the subdivision; all women play as written'.
Singing is a much more effective method for communicating musical ideas than the conductor saying what he wants. However, because of this we need to ensure that the rhythm that we sing to the ensemble is exactly correct. If we model bad rhythm then we're going to hear bad rhythm from the ensemble.
Especially for brass players, singing can sort out a lot of rhythmic problems whilst saving chops!
4. Slowing right down
When dealing with a quick run of semiquavers, the semiquavers were broken up like this and played very slow:
If the run lasts more than one bar the next step would be to play one whole bar of the run followed by a full bar rest and then the second bar of the run, etc. When demonstrated in a rehearsal the effects of this were quite dramatic and the semiquaver movement improved a lot.
On a slight aside from improving rhythm, slowing down was also used to develop a more in-tune ensemble. Playing through a passage slowly allowed the performers to focus on whether the pyramid of sound was really present in their playing or not. As a fun exercise, the conductor in one video would indicate when he wanted the pyramid of sound inverted to ensure that the performers could really feel what a proper pyramid sounded like.