Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum - Part 4
The subject of rhythm is immense, but the rhythmic difficulties we encounter in sight-reading usually fall into one of three categories:
- difficulties in maintaining the pulse,
- difficulties in subdividing the pulse, or
- confusion about which rhythmic value to feel as the pulse.
The mistakes that arise from these difficulties are usually not the result of a deficient sense of rhythm in the player, but of the challenges of deciphering the sometimes confusing visual appearance of rhythmic notation. This is why it is so important to look for rhythmic difficulties before we start to play, and to rehearse these difficulties beforehand with gestures and singing. It does no good to “try out” a difficult rhythm at the piano, because we cannot play a rhythm unless we can first hear it inwardly.
Of the three difficulties listed above, the challenge of maintaining a regular pulse is actually not as much of a problem as one might think. When we encounter a rhythmic difficulty while sight-reading, it frequently manifests as a disruption to the regularity of the pulse, but the problem is usually elsewhere – in a rhythmic figure that has not yet been internalised, in the confusing visual appearance of the score, or in a technical difficulty. The eternal injunction to count out loud as we play is therefore not helpful because it doesn’t address the real problem. Nor is the metronome a solution, since metronomes can easily be ignored while we try to decipher an unfamiliar rhythm.
No one has difficulty feeling a pulse, since we all have one going on inside of us at all times. The difficulty lies in aligning what we see on the page with our innate sense of pulse. Rather than forcing ourselves to count out loud, come what may, it is far more beneficial to practise playing only what falls on the beats, leaving out for a moment what comes in between them. This technique of rhythmic outlining is described in detail in the article on Rhythm Practice Methods.
The second difficulty – of subdividing the pulse – is a very real challenge, and a source of frequent mistakes in sight-reading. With Dotted Rhythms in particular, we must continuously subdivide the beat in our minds in order to ensure that we play these rhythms accurately. Another common cause of rhythmic stumbling is Polyrhythms, which divide the beat in two different ways at the same time. The first two modules in this part are therefore devoted to these two rhythmic challenges.
The third rhythmic difficulty – confusion about which rhythmic value to feel as the pulse – stems from a bias that is unwittingly inculcated in many music students early on. Most of the pieces we play in the first years of study have a 4 as the lower number of the time signature, leading to the misconception, sometimes reinforced by teachers, that “the quarter note gets the beat.” We learn later, of course, that the beat can just as easily be given to the half note or eighth note, or even to the whole note or sixteenth note (not to mention dotted notes in compound meters).
Unfortunately, our early association of the quarter note with the beat often creates confusion later on when we read music that gives the beat to a different rhythmic value, with the result that, in sight-reading, we often find ourselves suddenly playing twice too fast, or twice too slow, because we have unconsciously reverted to our quarter-note-is-the-beat bias. Counteracting this bias requires reorienting ourselves to a different rhythmic value, and practising lots of pieces that use that rhythmic value as the beat. The modules on Meters with Half-Note Beats and Meters with Eighth-Note Beats provide plenty of practice in these meters.
Before starting to work on any of these modules, I strongly encourage you to read the article on Rhythm Practice Methods. In addition, each individual module contains an introduction that addresses issues related specifically to its particular challenges.
- Rhythm Practice Methods
- Dotted Rhythms and Syncopations
- Meters with Half-Note Beats
- Meters with Eighth-Note Beats
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