Musicians must be able play easily with the metronome, which is one standard way to learn how to internalize a steady beat and develop the ability to play in time with others. For all ensemble playing, including solos with a collaborative pianist, and particularly for orchestral auditions, developing a steady pulse with accurate subdivisions is one of the most important skills for a performer.
Classical musicians also must be able to understand and perform complex and uneven subdivisions, preparing them on their own for ensemble and solo rehearsals. Additionally, musicians need to be able to inflect and weight music in a way that demonstrates clearly how it fits into the pulse, helping the music make sense in context.
2. Strategies for practicing rhythm
- Practice staying with the pulse above all else. In performance and rehearsal, musicians need to stay with the pulse, even at the expense of wrong notes or wrong internal rhythms. This is a skill that must be practiced, as many musicians mistakenly focus first on accurate notes above all else.
- Practice very frequently with the metronome, and be able to actually play with it. Use the metronome on the beat, on the subdivision, or on the off-beat.
- Practice placing subdivisions in exactly the correct place time-wise, even using the metronome on the smallest subdivision. Certain orchestral excerpts are traditionally performed with very exacting rhythm, such as the solo for the slow movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, where the placement of the 32nd after the dotted sixteenth must be very accurate.
- Understand the subdivisions. Know how the rhythms fit into the pulse. When the rhythms are complex, mark the subdivisions clearly to help comprehend how the beat is divided. Sometimes it may be appropriate to rewrite a passage in a different, more familiar meter.
- Understand how the individual parts fit together. To help comprehend how a part fits in a piece and to practice discerning the pulse of the piece (or any piece), try score study, i.e., listening to the piece while following just the oboe part and/or the whole score. Try counting along with the score on the beat or half beat. Conduct along with the score and play along with the recording. Practice being aware of other instruments and how the rhythms of their musical lines fit in even while playing.
- Break rhythms into smaller groups. For complex uneven meters and subdivisions, it may be helpful to break them down into smaller units to aid in comprehension. A septuplet (a beat divided by 7) can be more easily comprehended as four notes followed by three (or three by four). It may be important to mark this division visually in the music. Usually the brain perceives numerous smaller groups more easily than a small number of large ones.
- Become more familiar with less common meters. Unfamiliar meters can be difficult to comprehend, even when the rhythm is actually quite simple. Figure out what the beat and subdivisions are. Sometimes is it not obvious where the beat is in 12/4 or 4/16, when it would be in the related more common meters of 12/8 or 4/4.
- Allow the pulse to become more intuitive. To explore how to discern the pulse as well the form and meaning of the music, try moving with the beat or subdivision while playing. While continuous beating can break the melodic line, some rhythmic movement in practice can help internalize the pulse. Dalcroze Eurhythmics classes are excellent for this kind of learning.
- Practice effectively. Stress and unfamiliarity with the notes can get in the way of perceiving and expressing rhythm. The more comfortable a part is to play, and the more clear how it fits into the piece, the less stress is experienced, and the more it’s possible to be able to listen and respond to the rest of the ensemble while playing.
- Practice sight-reading. Especially with less comfortable meters and subdivisions, and in less familiar styles with different kinds of rhythms such as jazz. Having more familiarity with the notation of complex rhythms will make them easier to play.
- Play duets, and practice staying together regardless of the accuracy of the notes or internal rhythms.
Etudes and Duets