Rhythmic pulse is spontaneous and visceral, straight from the mind of the body. Counting out loud feels forced and comes straight from the mind of words and concepts. A basic task for any student is to bring these two minds together to form the rhythmic unity which is the energy of music. Finding this unity is especially difficult for adult students.
I remember a talk given by George Moore at the last Biology of Music Making Conference. Moore, a neuro-scientist, presented a paper on the use of metronomes. In the question and answer period someone asked about the usefulness of tapping the foot. Moore’s answer stunned the audience.
He questioned why, if one were trying to do something with the hands, would one want to engage in an additional task with the foot. To do so would degrade the focus on the main task.
The quietness in the hall was impressive. Another timidly asked about counting out loud and Moore responded with essentially the same answer: why make one task into two tasks? The silence was now palpable. Moore apparently sensed he’d moved into troubled waters and said something like, “Clearly I’ve said something very wrong from your perspective, but from the neurological perspective, what I’m saying makes complete sense.”
What George Moore said shocked many of the music teachers in the audience but it echoed my students pleas: Playing piano is hard enough, why do you make me count?”
Counting, especially out loud, seems like the one thing I ask students to do that puts them over the edge. They don’t want to do it and, even when they seriously try, they only seem to remember to do it for a few measures.
Contrast this difficulty with the way children move to music. Movement is children’s first reaction to music, appearing before speech and even felt in utero occasionally. Their reaction is the same foot tapping, clapping, and swaying instinct adults feel listening to music. Why don’t adult piano students naturally move into these physical sensations when they sit at the piano?One reason they don’t is because they are distracted by the preoccupation with right notes. Unfortunately, adults seem to be mentally imprisoned by an overwhelming need to get the correct note. It’s very difficult to get them to shift their focus. I say to students, When is the last time you exclaimed at the end of a performance, ‘Ah! All the notes were right’? When was the last time you listened to a performance and counted the wrong notes?”
Of course, they never do either one.
I talk about the pitfalls of the dance pianist who screws up the rhythm and the resulting broken legs of the dancers. I talk about the pianist playing Happy Birthday who pauses to get the right notes resulting in pandemonium amongst the partygoers. All of this talking is to no avail. It’s not that students don’t comprehend what I’m saying. It’s not even that they disagree with me. Rather, they can’t let go of that preoccupation with notes.
Another problem is adults’ physical self-image at the piano. This image is a pair of hands and a head. The hands do the playing and the head evaluates, usually finding fault. This leaves no awareness of the physical connections to the large muscles of the arms, shoulders, and torso, and therefore, allows no pathway for the mind of the body to feel the sensations of the rhythmic pulse as they play. As a result they cut themselves off from the very physical sources of rhythmic pulse they experience when listening to the music of others.
Yet other reasons relate to the discussions in previous chapters where I talked about our elders telling us to sit still when we were kids listening to classical music and being taught that knowledge is in the head and not the body. Both these viewpoints distort adults’ approach to learning to play the piano. Their rhythmic, physical selves need to be revitalized in order for adults to become natural musicians.
Without the presence of the full physical self, what should be a spontaneous feeling of rhythmic pulse becomes an idea of the mind. When pulse becomes a concept, it is paralyzing and is so at odds with the physical sensation of pulse. The physical sense of pulse is the source of the energy of music. To lose one’s connection to the body is to lose this source and the loss is crippling.
The question becomes, how do we get students to regain the physical use of their rhythmic bodies when they play? As we’ve seen, understanding is not the issue. That’s done with the mind of concepts. Accomplishing the change is the problem. The solution is to just skip the whole conceptual mind entirely and go right to the mind of the body.
I ask students to walk around the studio and count out loud, one count for each step – 1,2,3,4, etc. It’s effortless for most everyone. I then ask, “Why should it be so hard to count out loud when playing the piano and so easy to count out loud when walking?”
The answer usually doesn’t solve anything but it raises the issue and provides a physical model for the sensation of pulse. Students get a sense that their counting is following the action of the body. These students are counting to their walk, to the motion of the large muscles of their legs. They don’t do it the other way around. They aren’t walking to their counting. When they try this, they frequently lose the naturalness of their gait. The mind of the body leads and the mind of the head goes along and labels by naming the beat. This is how the two minds come together to form the rhythmic vitality necessary when students play piano.
It is important for students to realize that the body’s large muscles fall into a stable rhythm more easily than small muscles of the hands for the small muscles are designed to change speed quickly. Adult students tend to obsess on the muscles of their fingers for they think music comes from the hands. They don’t understand or appreciate that most muscles that move the fingers are located in the forearm.
This walking demonstration can begin to help students realize that it’s the large muscles that enable them to establish the sense of pulse at the piano and moving the arms can awaken the same sensation “closer to home”.
Clapping can be an important step in this direction. Adults don’t like to do it. Even some kids feel like I’m “dumbing down” for them. It’s not true.
An important consideration, one that seldom occurs to those students always trying to get all right notes, is that habits begin the moment one begins work on a piece and that these habits are just as much rhythmic accuracy as note accuracy. All too frequently students begin trying to get the right notes and utterly disregard the right rhythms. They will pause as they hunt for the right key; they will hurry where it’s easier, and they will ignore the difference between quarter and eighth notes as long as they think the note will be right. Even if they get the right key, if the rhythm is wrong they are learning to play the piece incorrectly.
By clapping, students can get the rhythm correct without having to worry about notes. That’s one reason why it is so valuable. One can clap, get the right rhythm, and get no wrong notes. In other words, begin with no bad habits.
There are many ways to work this clapping. The student can count or sway to the pulse and clap the written rhythm of the melody line. With a familiar piece the student can clap the pulse and sing the melody. One can beat out the pulse with one hand and play the piano with the other hand. Some students have found it helpful to sing their piece when walking.
Sometimes I like to put students in a well-padded armchair and have them literally pound out the rhythm of each part with their fists, using their whole lower arms. Sometimes I have students use drums the same way.
There’s nothing original in these suggestions. The problem is getting adults to do it. They always seem to be embarrassed. After the initial resistance is overcome, they still resist. Even after they find that it improves their playing, they resist. This means the teacher has to constantly remind and listen to this clapping because it won’t happen much at home.
Watch students clap; the variety is amazing. I do not want students to pause in their clapping because I want the arms to be always moving like the motions of a conductor’s arms. Some students pause when they bring their hands together or when their hands are farthest apart. Stopping the flow of the motion interrupts the flow of the music when they play so I try to get them to use a flowing motion even in clapping. When they clap along while listening to someone else’s playing, the motion is less likely to be broken. Also, some students clap with very little movement. I always try to get large motions in their clapping unless the clapping is too fast. Small movements tend to make the clapping sound soft and tentative. I try to get students to have a large, confident sound.
Conducting also helps extend the rhythmic sense into the arms. Students can conduct music as they listen to others or they can conduct themselves as they play hands separately. Sometimes I play the student’s piece and have them conduct my playing.
I don’t worry about conducting patterns when I ask students to do this because that’s not the point. If they try to follow certain patterns, they worry about the patterns instead of the rhythmic feel in the arms, which is the real point of this exercise.
Conducting meets the most resistance and seems to be the most helpful. Students really don’t want to do this but after trying a few sets of each hand playing separately while conducting with the other, the rhythm is already more focused.
This conducting is not easy. Students will have difficulty with it at first and it takes time to feel comfortable. Both teacher and student need to be patient as the skill improves. It is well worth the time and effort for when the conducting skill is mastered the playing will already have improved.
All these actions must be done repeatedly. They all attempt to make the rhythm more physical than mental. They all try to create a physical feeling of pulse that then leads the music. When the pulse is felt in the large muscles, counting follows the body just like it does in walking. Then it’s the body that listens to the metronome, not just the ear and mind.
Please note that this is only about the pulse. One can have a perfect pulse and still be quite uneven in the sub-divisions of the pulse. Sometimes it’s a different problem and these suggestions are of limited use.