Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Practice Time

Since talking about practicing the flute with the metronome at slightly different speeds so as to help feel the rhythm of the phrase itself, had the realization that what I was trying to get at has to do with that recent link to the article saying that we keep time in different ways in different parts of the brain. Just as music, our sense of time is not localized in a single area or two, as are most of our activities.

This is also what I was trying to get at saying Kyle Gann's The Planets refreshes our ears to rhythm shapes outside of repetitive triple and duple meters.

For me it's a given that music and physical gesture are deeply connected, and unless we're doing something like dancing, we don't count off to create a rigid time line when we nod, wink, use our hands when talking or any of the other thousands of physical gestures we make every day.

In ensemble playing we have to keep time in the metronome part of our brain so that we are, in fact, an ensemble. But for the music to trigger emotional responses in the audience, our sense of time needs to register in the other parts of the brain that perceive time as well.

photo - over in Echo Valley last year. John's wall; Kate's flowers.


  1. In ensemble playing we have to keep time in the metronome part of our brain so that we are, in fact, an ensemble.

    It's a bit more complicated than that. Very little music keeps absolutely strict metronomic time. The stuff which does is usually rather boring.

    When playing in an ensemble what you need is a common understanding and agreement as to what the variations in tempo will be.

    Some of this is worked out by agreement in rehearsal, e.g. how far you will slow down in a big rallentando, or what at speed you will start a piece. But far more of it is handled "on the fly" by the players listening to and instantaneously reacting to each other's variations.

    This is why in small groups everybody has to have an understanding of who is the leader at any point, and why it has to be understood that the leadership role gets passed from player to player depending on which part is prominent at any moment.

    If you are the leader-of-the-moment, you have license to use your creativity in how you manage phrasing - which includes minor speed changes to variations of where you place a note relative to the strict beat. This isn't an unlimited license - you do still have to work within the overall style of the piece and of the group.

    But if you are not leading, then you have to listen very carefully and go with what the leader does. After doing this a few times in rehearsal it stops being a matter of following the leader, instead, you know what he's going to do and and you start to anticipate. So the whole group coordinates these changes as if by magic.

    It's not magic, it is just practice and being "tuned in" to each other.

  2. Jonathan - Very well said, and I may steal the "leader-of -the-moment" phrase. It's one of those formulations that when I see it, it makes clear a process I might have only been subliminally aware of.

    I waited a couple of days to click this comment through because I wanted to see if I could better say what I was thinking about, but not sure I can.

    That article I linked to some time back said that we process time in different ways in different parts of the brain. The intense wood shedding on the flute made me aware that I was feeling phrases in at least two ways. One was "metronomic" in that all the subdivisions lined up correctly with the beat. Along with that, though, was what might be called a "gestural" sense of time, where the dynamics and ever so slight rubato gave the phrase more of a three dimensional shape.

    To go back to a previous discussion we had, I'm trying to talk about how the sense of time that is more than simply metronomic feeds into the musicality of our playing.

  3. Hi Lyle

    We have the sense of metronomic time - though if you have heard the machine-gun pizzicato of some amateur orchestral string sections, you'll realise that we don't all have it to quite the same degree of accuracy!

    An inaccurate sense of metronomic time is out of control. We can hear when somebody's rhythm is out of control, usually simply by noticing that they take the difficult bits slower without apparently realising it.

    Your "gestural" sense of time is an aspect of what I've described as "musicality", where under your deliberate control you pull the tempo about a bit. It is described in a variety of different ways, e.g. rubato, "placing the note", "phrasing" etc. How you vary the tempo is part of your decision-making process also involving articulation, tone color and dynamics, and they all contribute to the emotional effect you are trying to communicate.

    There is a complication here in that there is a distinction to be made between saying what you are going to do, and working out why you chose to do it that way.

    Deciding how you will shape a phrase is not something that you can devise a computer algorithm for. There's no single "right" way, but there are a range of appropriate ways that suit you, the piece, the ensemble, the location and the audience. You process all these, along with knowledge of all the music you have every heard and played, in order to decide how you are going to play that phrase today.

    Much of that processing is barely conscious, certainly most of it is below the level of verbal reasoning. You can describe to your colleagues what you intend to do, and that can be done either in words or more often by example. Explaining why is another matter altogether.

    It seems like you're trying to find words to describe non-verbal modes of thought. As such, the words will only be a faint reflection of what is really going on.

  4. Hi, Jonathan - As always, really appreciate your cogent and on point comments. This one could launch several independent posts! Just to hit a few high spots . . .

    That 1st paragraph made me think of my trying to hit the off beats in this thing called "A Bugler's Holiday" we've been working on. What's weird is that I can play a note on and off the beat just fine, but just the off beats and things go wonky and drag.

    My experience in teaching beginners has been that when the metronomic control is lost, it's almost always a speed up, even when the notes get harder. Their anxiety is altering their perception of time.

    The main thing, though, is to respond to your, "you're trying to find words to describe non-verbal modes of thought". You're absolutely right, but there's another component as well.

    A short hand image I came up with a while back to describe how music educators teach music is that for them the students in large ensemble are really just trained seals. They're told what they need to know to make a piece work in performance for their parents and administrators, but not given the tools to work on things themselves.

    Since average players have been triaged out of the system early and often, there's a higher percentage of natural players who are going to "get" what you're talking about and the rest will probably pick it up by a type of osmosis via paying attention to the leader of the moment (and knowing instinctively who that is at any given time).

    The people I want to reach are those thrown out of school music programs, people who want to have a fuller understanding of music making than what school programs left them with, and just plain people who want to learn music making in a humane environment that accepts varying skill levels and whose goals are much more modest than the groups you play with.

    Within that context, what this post is about is brain storming how to help people understand that clock ticking is one kind of time and musical time is something else. The empirical data that we process time in various ways in our brains seems to me a promising introduction to talking about this.

    If people understand that music making has as much to do with how they can physically and gesturally feel and mark the passage of time over and above the clicking of a clock, that might help them more quickly find the true nature of music making and not think of it as simply complicated mechanical physical movements ruled by clicks.