Is it me or does every darned group of young string musicians rush tempo like crazy? I know this: it is driving me crazy. I have definitely noticed in recent years that young string musicians at virtually every level rush tempo and particularly cut off the ends of phrases. In recent weeks, I have been trying to ascertain the reasons for this epidemic in rushing and to devise methods for correcting the problem as well and tools for ensembles to get back on track when it happens.
Let me be clear here. This happens in young groups and older groups. It happens with kids that are not very experienced and with very experienced kids. So, in this post, I will try to identify the problem and offer some solutions.
I have had several conversations with colleagues regarding this lately and I am thinking that I am particularly tuned into this because I so often play in a rock or pop setting with the steady undulation of a drum set as part of the ensemble. I often tell my orchestras that I sort of always hear a drum set accompanying the orchestra when I conduct. I think that many conductors do this - we hear the "inner rhythm of the piece at all times in the front of our mind. In other words, if the most common subdivision of the work is 16th notes, that subdivision of the time is always going through or head. It should be going through the instrumentalists mind as well. Playing with so many rock and jazz ensembles over the years has made this a natural thing for me. It is almost like playing with a metronome in many ways. In fact, just last week, ICO performed Take the A Train in a concert with a drummer and the rushing really was non-existent. But, the piece before and after it DID have a tendency to rush. The inner rhythm wasn't being beat into their ears and then the rushing came back. To me, this concept is critical to the concept of functional musicianship. And, it an element of musicianship that is lacking in, I am guessing based on my experience, the majority of high school and younger musicians of all ability and experience levels.
I often stop an ensemble that I am working with and say, "Are you going to conduct me, or am I going to conduct you?" I can't tell you the number of times I have watched ensembles perform where the conductor essentially gives up and follows the kids. I often notice young and old teacher/conductors clipping off the 4th beat of a measure in 4/4 time by as much as a 16th note value or even more!
Those of you that know me, know that I try to have a system for correcting pedagogical problems. The system must have the following criteria. It should be sequential, have a system of appropriate nomenclature, and must include harmonic underpinning or other related functional viability. so, later in this post, I will offer a system for correcting the rushing epidemic.
OK, so exactly what is the problem? Well, it is a combination of factors.
1. Musicians need to listen to and look for the inner rhythm.
My dear friend, Jung Ho Pak has taught me that musicians need to know who is the teacher and who is the student. And, no, the conductor is not always the teacher. In an ensemble setting, some voice is always the rhythmic teachers. That is the voice that is playing the inner rhythm or smallest subdivision of the pulse. The "students" or other musicians must key in on that subdivision with their listening and visual skills. (The beauty of string playing is that we can usually see the pulse or subdivision as well.) If the violins are the "teacher" then the other sections need to play the role of student and hear/see the subdivision. As soon as they clip off the end of a longer note value, all rhythmic heck breaks loose!! Encourage your students to know who has the inner rhythm at all times. If no section has the inner rhythm, then everyone needs to audiate it (in other words, think it) and that is the time that the conductor is the "teacher." The important information will come from the stick. Conductor/teachers: it is precisely at that moment that the pressure is on you to not clip off the end of the measure because you are afraid someone will beat you to pulse. That is what rehearsal is for! I always say that trust is a 2 way street. Instrumentalists have to trust the conductor, but the conductor also has to trust the instrumentalist. As soon as they realize that they are conducting, you have lost the battle!!
2. If the inner rhythm isn't audible, musicians must audiate the inner rhythm.
Everyone needs to do this; the conductor, the violins, the violas, the celli, and basses. Every member of the ensemble must audiate inner rhythm. I believe that in rehearsal, it is the conductor's job to teach the musicians how and when to do this. Remember, if it is audible, everyone needs to listen for it and permit the voice with that rhythm to play every note in its entirety. No exceptions. If it isn't audible, everyone needs to be thinking it.
3. Ensemble musicians must look for the downbeat and know exactly what/where the downbeat is.
In addition to thinking or audiating the inner rhythm, the orchestra members have to know when and where to look. How often have you noticed folks arriving at the downbeat at the top of your downward motion as a conductor, rather than at the ictus? It happens all the time. So, we, as teachers, need to clearly explain and reinforce this concept at every step in the process. Don't give up. the downbeat is not at the top of the downward motion, it is at the bottom. The VERY bottom. The also brings up another related point: be sure that you are giving clear visual information. If your downbeat is unclear, it isn't fair to ask them to be able to interpret it. And, if you are conducting subdivisions or backbeats, no one will ever know your intentions.
4. Students need to practice with a metronome more often and in a variety of ways.
Metronomes don't lie. Use them for fast practice. Use them for slow practice. Have the click on all pulses. Have the click on 1 and 3. Have the click on 2 and 4. Have it click an eighth note inner rhythm. Have it click a 16th note inner rhythm. Have it click on only the first beat of the measure. Have the click on only the fourth beat of the measure. Have the click on only the second beat of the measure. Encourage students to challenge themselves with the metronome. It is a magnificent tool for establishing consistent rhythm.
5. Ensemble musicians need tools for combating this in a performance setting.
Give your orchestra tips for correcting the problem when it starts. Not if it starts, because it will happen at some point. I always tell my ensembles that when a problem occurs, that is the time to lift up your eyes to the "teacher." Not always the conductor! Also, moments of static activity are always the time to look up: repeated eighth notes, whole notes, repeated ostinato passages, etc. Students need to lift up their eyes much more than they are inclined. Give them spots and ideas for this. and, you must look at them as well. Remember, if you aren't giving them important information, they will stop looking. Trust is a two way street.
6. Conductors must be dogmatic about all of this. They can't give up!!
I think you know what I mean. Think about it: if we give up on anything, it will end up being wrong. How often do we need to remind students about left hand position? (It never stops.) How often do we need to remind students about proper bow hold? (It never stops.) It is the same with inner rhythm. It is a daily process. They key is giving good tools for combating the problem. Simply telling students "don't rush," and "watch the conductor" is not enough.
The Solution: A System
So, as I stated earlier, I believe in crating a system for combating the problem. For me, this always involves getting the students' faces out of the music. Approach the problem by eliminating various factors that lead to the problem. So, I would start with scales. Create an exercise or etude where one section or even one student has the inner rhythm that the others must listen to in order to play the scale in time. Bounce that role around the orchestra. The voice with the inner rhythm is the "teacher." Then give the "teacher role" to the conductor. Create rhythmic patterns that involve a sustained note at the end. (Perhaps 4 eight notes and a half note on each step of the scale.) Don't let anyone clip off that last bit of the half note as they ascend and descent the scale.
I am also a strong advocate of "bumping" the pulse lightly in the left hand for violin and violists and in the head for cello and bassists. Simply showing that pulse, much like in chamber music is a great orchestral technique at certain points in the repertoire. it is a skill that can be developed outside of the music-reading. Do this will scales on whole notes. Have the 2nd violins conduct with the bump while the others watch them. This goes a long way toward getting their faces out of the music.
Then, take these concepts into the repertoire. Ask students to identify who is the teacher and who is the student at any given time. They won't know at first. they are too busy trying to figure out their own part. But, eventually, they will begin to think this way. It is so invigorating when an ensemble begins to internalize this concept. It is also amazing when they have tools for correcting the problem in performance and they actually do it. I have had this happen a couple of times this summer in performances already and was elated at the student response.
In the end, all of this comes down to aural and visual awareness in the ensemble. It is much more than right notes and rhythms. It is about communication. Build a system in your ensemble for strong visual and aural communication. Don't avoid it. Provide tools for your students to succeed in the difficult task of rhythmic stability in all facets of performance.
I hope that this provides you some food for thought with your ensemble or performing situation and I certainly welcome your ideas and reactions. I would love to hear from you. All my best and may you experience steady rhythm!!