Monday, January 05, 2009

Temporary Notes (15)

Feet can't fail me now: Many years ago, I witnessed a Very Famous Choral Conductor destroy a performance of the St. Matthew Passion.  The choir had practiced beautifully together under the leadership of a local university choir director for several weeks.   They had good voices, were in tune and executed ensemble rhythms with real grace.  Then the Very Famous Choral Conductor arrived and insisted on re-rehearsing by singing to rhythmic syllables, One-ee-and-uh, two-ee-and-uh etc., under the slogan of "greater precision".  In the course of this precision drilling, the choruses inevitably began to drag and drag they did until all the life was sucked out of them.  By this over-attention to getting the smallest rhythmic level, all larger movement — and consequently, the music itself — was lost.


There is a time and place to count those smallest units, and to get them metronome-precise.  But that time and place is not rehearsing the St. Matthew Passion with a group of good musicians. Those musicians should have already internalised the body of rhythmic patterns that can happen at that level, so that practice, in an ensemble, is about putting these patterns together in musical ways, sometimes smoothly, sometimes sharply articulated.

Here are three pages from a worksheet I have used with young musicians.  There is nothing particularly profound here;  others can certainly make up more useful or elegant layouts of the same material.  It's just a collection of patterns within single metrical feet — notated here as quarters and dotted-quarters — followed by a number of metres composed by adding these quarter and dotted-quarter feet togther.  The idea here is to practice  performing each pattern so that they can be sight-read and played or sung precisely and fluently, and then to compose and/or improvise in each of the metres, substituting in the various single-foot patterns.  This is closer, methinks, to the way musicians really read and play music then the count-every-single-subdivision model used by the Very Famous Choral Conductor.  This worksheet goes up to five-fold divisions of a foot.  For less advanced students, one might well get along with stopping at division of the foot into four, so the quintuplet patterns have been somewhat segregated on the page.  More adventurous students will most likely find their way into more complex divisions and metres without outside assistance. 




Paul H. Muller said...

One of the best pieces of musical advice I ever received was: "At some point you have to stop looking so hard at all that stuff on the score and start making music."

Thomas D said...

Surely you're not at such risk of being blackballed that you can't name the V.F.C.C.? It's not as if you are going to get any works conducted by him.

I suppose there aren't enough V.F.C.C.'s in the world to create much uncertainty. If America, it's Robert Shaw with large probability. If Germany, it's Karl Richter (though he was before your time?) or Helmuth Rilling. Ah, but you said 'One-ee' not 'Eins-ee'.

How many other V.F.C.C.'s were there in the 20th century anyway? I can only think of Malcolm Sargent.