Recently, while coaching a violin and piano duo, it struck me just how common it is for musicians to “miss the forest for the trees,” particularly in regards to the essential rhythm of the music. We were working on Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro.
In the Kreisler Allegro, the violinist presented a sixteenth-note passage in this manner:
Kreisler: Allegro, mm. 25-28, Violin part
Although any listener would agree these notes are indeed sixteenths, the playing is dull and somewhat mechanical. There are several factors to consider in passages such as this, including harmony and counterpoint. But I shall focus on what I refer to as metric placement and stress, which are part of a broader concept of rhythmic inflection.
“Metric placement” is a simple concept that describes the hierarchy of stressed notes within a measure. The Kreisler Allegro is in ¾ meter; generally speaking, the downbeat is in the strongest metric position, followed by beats 3 and 2, respectively. Similarly, the off beats (in this case, off-eighth notes, or the third notes of each group of four sixteenths) are in a stronger metric position than the second and fourth sixteenths of each group.
Being “in a stronger metric position” doesn’t mean that heavy accents are required. Rather, rhythmic inflection is informed by metric placement much like the stress placed on words by a gifted actor. When a student ‘kicks’ notes with false accents, I often point out the metric stress of the passage and say an English phrase or the student’s name to emphasize the point.
“How do you say your name? – JEN-ni-fer. Would you answer if someone called you ‘jen-ni-FER,’ or ‘jen-NI-fer’? When you play with random accents, your em-PHA-sis is on the wrong syl-LA-ble!”
This can be uproariously funny to some international students. If I try this with a Chinese student, for example, the misplaced emphasis coupled with the wrong ‘tone’ for a Chinese name can produce something that is not only poorly stressed, but completely unrecognizable. I only hope that I’m not saying something I don’t mean to say…
The point is quickly made, and is reinforced by having the student sing or ‘orate’ the musical passage. This sets the stage for teaching how metric placement influences musical phrasing. In a passage like the Kreisler example, it’s helpful to organize one’s conception of the sixteenth-notes into groups that cycle toward the next pulse, thinking “2-3-4-1, 2-3-4-1″ rather than “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.”
A subtle inflection is felt, not only avoiding unnecessarily strong accentuation of main beats, but also the random ‘kicking’ of unstressed notes. In turn, this ‘cycling’ phrasing produces a kind of inner momentum that allows a larger architectural unit to emerge—in this case, a four-bar phrase with a gentle “ebb-and-flow” rubato that happens proportionally:
Violin part with “ebb-and-flow” rubato
Another passage that flummoxed our Kreisler duo was this one:
Both performers dutifully played their rhythms, but without any lilt, meaning that the meter was a very pronounced (and equal) ‘three.’ It was square enough that it could have been counted in six!
Here is a prototypical example of Leon Fleisher’s “secret of rhythmic playing” (discussed here, and in Soundpoint #5). The pianist’s rhythms provide an opportunity for both performers to project poise, elegance, and charm, by slightly compressing the shorter notes of the subgroups—by being as late as possible…but still in time:
Piano part mm. 53-56
I asked the violinist to play only the notes that corresponded with the pianist’s, with a gentle lilt, like so:
Skeleton of violin part mm. 53-56
Then I had him play the score as written, with this awareness of the formerly ‘hidden’ rhythm. What emerged had the sense of a larger ‘macro-rhythm,’ in one big pulse to a bar, or the sense of no accentuation on the second beat at all—such as “1; (2) 3-1; (etc.)” or “1; 3-and-a -1; (etc.)”
Complete violin part mm. 53-56
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when considering how to respond to notated rhythms. In addition to rhythm, musical phrasing comes to life via other elements such as harmony and form. But understanding metric placement, spoken and sung rhetoric, and how to uncover internal rhythms can provide students with tools to imaginatively conceive of their phrasing. This in turn supports better musical listening in all voices (e.g., melody, bass, and internal voices) and in harmonic relationships. These elements combine to allow the overall musical architecture to emerge organically.