In recent weeks, I've been thinking a great deal about the conflict between rhythmic accuracy and accurately placed rhythm. If this conflict title intrigues you, then I encourage you to read on. Let me explain the conflict as I see it and give you a few examples of my experiences.
About a month ago I was conducting an All County orchestra here in North Carolina. The group was fantastic and I couldn't have been happier with the students’ preparation and response to my work with them. On the second day of rehearsals, students were scheduled for a sectional rehearsal. For one reason or another, the person slated to work with the first violins was unable to be there. So, I grabbed my instrument and led the sectional rehearsal. As a violinist, it is always a pleasure for me to wear my “violinist hat” in the context of a conducting gig. Also, I really believe that in a sectional rehearsal, the leader should not be conducting. At its very best, the leader should be playing and offering insights into the mindset, technique, and performance of a violinist in the orchestral setting. I feel very fortunate that I have experience, and something to offer, both as a conductor and as a violinist in these and other educational settings. When I can use that experience to the advantage of an ensemble with whom I am working, it is all the better!
On this occasion, the orchestra was working on February: Carnival, by Tchaikovsky, arranged by Steven Brook. It is a piano piece that has been adapted for string orchestra and is perfect for this type of ensemble. We were working on a passage that had an ascending melodic line full of 16th notes , that finished with 1/8th note, 1/8th rest, 1/8th note, 1/8th rest and then a triple stop chord to end the phrase at the apex of the melodic line. I was playing the first violin part along with the students in the section. It quickly became apparent to me that had I put a metronome on during that rehearsal, the students would have been spot on in their rhythm. The passage in the peace really didn't call for spot on rhythm. Instead it called for a stronger placement of the individual notes of the passage based on the direction of the melodic line and the role that the rest of the ensemble was playing at that particular moment.
I had been aware of the tension in this passage as I was conducting it earlier in rehearsals. But the real issue at hand became much more apparent to me when my instrument was in my hands. I began to work with the students on this notion of getting past accurate rhythm and working very hard to understand the inflection and subtleties in the musical line. It wasn't that that they were playing it incorrectly. It was however that they were playing it inaccurately for the passage at hand and the placement that was needed.
I brought this concept up to my orchestra the following week when I returned to NCSSM. We are currently preparing Dvorak 8th symphony for a performance in mid-February. There are examples throughout this work of the need for instrumental musicians to be conscious of accurate placement as a priority over accurate rhythm. (By the way, there are also plenty of examples of spots that simply require rhythmic accuracy!! Perhaps this is the reason that young musicians struggle with this. When do I play with accurate rhythm and when do I accurately place notes in a passage??)
I mentioned the notion of inflection earlier in this post and I would like to expand on it just a bit. One might respond to my thoughts here by simply saying, “Watch the conductor!” But, I actually don’t think that will achieve the desired effect. Two of my students had the opportunity to attend a master class with Alexander Technique expert, William Conable this past week. Following their experience, I invited them to share some of their takeaways with our orchestra class. One of my violinists told of an example where another violinist was playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Professor Conable worked with that student, who was playing the piece magnificently, on more accurately placing his rhythms rather than being so metronomic in his performance. As my student was describing the experience, I thought to myself, “This is it! This is accurate rhythm versus accurate placement.” Later that same day, another student told of her experience in the master class and it was very similar. I was able to refer them back to this concept that I had mentioned earlier in rehearsals, and all agreed that it was the same concept. She is the one who offered this notion of musical inflection, which I grabbed onto immediately. You see, I really believe that strong musicianship is very much parallel to fluency and language. I use so many language and fluency references when describing my pedagogical approach or developing curriculum for orchestra, bowed strings, guitar, and piano. Of course, many of us do. Especially, those of us with a strong Suzuki background.
Suzuki, of course, coined the phrase the phrase Mother Tongue Method. And many of his pedagogical concepts and beliefs are built around ideas of how and when children learn to speak and understand language. The notion of inflection, fits right into this concept. By the way, much of Suzuki’s early pedagogy is built around rote learning and listening. I also believe that this notion of a deficit in inflection is a result of too little demonstration in a student’s musical training.
I have wrestled with how I might be able to articulate this issue to any ensemble I find myself in front of. You see, I find this issue to be universal. So many students today are focused on accuracy, and appropriately so. We must learn to play accurately in order to master any passage in music from the most simple to the most difficult. That being said accuracy without inflection is pretty boring. And, inflection is not just changes in the pitch of a voice. It is also changes in tempo and pace. So it is also with music. Those changes in inflection can be very subtle or not so subtle. But the dynamic that inflection creates in music is absolutely necessary to strong communication and performance.
I find a general shortcoming in inflection in the vast majority of student performers that I encounter each and every day. This includes not only the students that I see at NCSSM, but also those that I encounter in every musical environment in which I operate, including the All-County level, summer camps, music performance adjudications, All-State level, various private lessons and other encounters.
By the way, his is actually not a criticism of the students or teachers, but more of an observation of our culture. I believe that our children get very focused on “getting the right answer.” This is really systemic to every area of school and education and I find it to be pervasive in my orchestra and others. Students are so interested in playing the difficult repertoire and being correct in that performance that the notion of inflection, musicality, and tone is often left behind. Not only that, but also broad understandings of concepts in bowing, bow direction, phrasing, and other subtleties are never addressed. Or, perhaps if they are addressed by the instructor, they are not given priority by the student.
I would encourage each of you, as you are rehearsing your ensembles in the coming days and weeks, to consider this notion of accurate rhythm vs accurately placed rhythm. Do you feel the tension between these two ideas in your rehearsals and performances questions? Do you feel this tension differently when you play rather than conduct? And how might you address this with your students? What nomenclature works in this setting, what words can you use and what examples can you give to strongly create an understanding of this subtle difference? Please don't hesitate to respond to this post. I would love to hear your ideas. And, as always, best wishes in all of your musical endeavors.