Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Ensemble That Plays Together...

In that critical first rehearsal, nothing can make or break quality of ensemble quite like how performers interact in keeping a steady beat. Alex Thio's Pulse or Bust: The Importance of Pulse in Collaborative Arts looks at musical pulse as something that performers can actually feel, especially through the aid of a metronome:
Why is pulse important in collaborating with another musicians? Because it SECURES alignment. Without a common pulse between solo performer and collaborative pianist, you can be sure that alignment is going to be a nightmare. And that’s an understatement.

It is one thing to FEEL a pulse within oneself: it is another to depend on the mechanical, stalwart beat of the metronome.
I agree completely, although I work with my own students to help them physicalize the beat at the same time that they check it with a metronome. After all, we're only a few millenia removed from our cave-dwelling ancestors who probably started the musical impulse in the first place by discovering the primal sensation of beating on a drum. 

I also keep a pair of bongos in my home studio (brought back from Jibacoa, Cuba) for pianists and singers to use in order to learn rhythms independently of their instruments. Another useful exercise is for the singer or instrumentalist to drum their solo line while I play the piano part. Once they separate the rhythm from the rest of the playing process it's much easier to keep the pulse when returning to their instrument.

How do you engage with ensemble partners in order to develop a common sense of pulse?

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:44 PM

    i find most often that issues between collaborators happen not because of a problem within one's part, but rather when we do not know something about each other's part. intra vs inter. sometimes i try the following two step practice tool.

    1- i ask them to speak the rhythm of their part while i speak the rhythm of my part-- on a syllable like "dah." this is usually pretty easy, but can also reveal problem spots. (conducting may be helpful, or a pat the leg sort of thing.)

    2- then the trick is that we switch! that is, i ask them to rhythmitize MY part while i do their part. that really checks our knowledge of the problem area. do we each know what is happening rhythmically in the other's part? this also gives us the experience of feeling how we each fit together rhythmically, but from the other's perspective.

    this might work depending on the spot as well as the number of musicians in the ensemble. for a very advanced ensemble and players, of course, sometimes just an intellectual discussion clears the air. maybe a reminder to keep listening to whoever plays the smallest division of the beat in this area. if it's bartok two pianos and percussion, maybe one of the percussionists can click drum sticks for every eighth note... if it is very slow like the last movement of the quartet for the end of time, maybe imagining duple or triple subdivisions of the beat helps... there is certainly not a one formula answer, but rather a chance to continually reinvent ourselves, problem solve, and grow as we work on music together.

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  2. Anonymous10:45 PM

    i find most often that issues between collaborators happen not because of a problem within one's part, but rather when we do not know something about each other's part. intra vs inter. sometimes i try the following two step practice tool.

    1- i ask them to speak the rhythm of their part while i speak the rhythm of my part-- on a syllable like "dah." this is usually pretty easy, but can also reveal problem spots. (conducting may be helpful, or a pat the leg sort of thing.)

    2- then the trick is that we switch! that is, i ask them to rhythmitize MY part while i do their part. that really checks our knowledge of the problem area. do we each know what is happening rhythmically in the other's part? this also gives us the experience of feeling how we each fit together rhythmically, but from the other's perspective.

    this might work depending on the spot as well as the number of musicians in the ensemble. for a very advanced ensemble and players, of course, sometimes just an intellectual discussion clears the air. maybe a reminder to keep listening to whoever plays the smallest division of the beat in this area. if it's bartok two pianos and percussion, maybe one of the percussionists can click drum sticks for every eighth note... if it is very slow like the last movement of the quartet for the end of time, maybe imagining duple or triple subdivisions of the beat helps... there is certainly not a one formula answer, but rather a chance to continually reinvent ourselves, problem solve, and grow as we work on music together.

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  3. Jennifer1:23 AM

    Practice with the metronome on the offbeat. Two people can do it together, or you can do it alone. The result is what you're talking about re. internalizing the pulse. Flutist Carol Wincenc (among others) teaches this technique; it's fantastic.

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  4. Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

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  5. Metronomes are certainly invaluable, although the ultimate goal is, as mentioned, to internalize the beat. Depending on the repertoire at hand, this of course can get tricky as tempo changes/rubato are put into use, so a rehearsal atmospher that is conducive to the free exchange of ideas is also very important.
    Varying practise tempos deliberately can be useful to get all players on the same page(ie slow mvts played more briskly, and, say, 'vivace' sections played comfortably moderato, etc)
    One surefire way to get especially the intermediate player more 'aligned' to the pulse is what I call the 'saunter technique', where I will ask a flute student to take a short section of music, or a scale pattern, and actually walk or waltz slowly around the studio as they play...their sound and rhythmic security changes immediately. This is a Dalcroze technique, I believe, although I've heard several flute teachers speak of this kind of approach. Movement can be coordianted to be in time with the beat, or even deliberately on the offbeats - akin to Carol's technique - as described in an earlier comment.
    Perhaps this is trickier for pianists(!), unless of course this 'sauntering technique' is used while they sing the melodic line and/or as they listen to a piano/bongo example provided by their teacher!?
    J

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  6. Thanks, Chris - for the mention! Ah, the bane of pulse. Yet, what a thrill it would be if we all had a strong grasp of it! Thanks, Chris - for ALL you contribute to the world of collaborative artistry.

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