Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lesson #152G: Rhythm

I guestimated the amount of lessons I've had since I lost track. I haven't had many lessons recently though. :(


I honestly don't know how I got by 3 years (wow, has it been 3 years?!) of playing cello without learning how to play and read rhythm well. I know how to play and count whole, half and quarter notes, but anything smaller and it's kind of a shot in the dark for me!
I know some would say learning how to read rhythm should have been taught from the very beginning, but honestly, I don't think I was ready to learn it then, so it wouldn't have sunk in for me. ...maybe... 
Although I have met many beginning adult cellists who are in the same boat as I am. I also don't have a musical background and this is the first instrument I've played. ...yeah, yeah, excuses, excuses... 

I currently learn how to play music (and learn how to play rhythm) by listening to audios or other cellists and then mimic them, so ALL my rhythm comes from external sources. And, for the most part, I don't even count! ...yeah, I know, terrible! Although I have recently been working on trying to count more frequently.

So how did I get away with not learning rhythm for so long?
Well, when I'm playing with others, I typically try to find a "rhythm buddy" who is playing the same rhythm as I am and just match my rhythm with theirs. Or if there are other cellists playing my part, I just listen and follow them. Or I just "fake it," which typically takes me 2-3 tries (depending on tempo and notes) to figure out how my notes fit in with others and just get it that way. LOTS of ways to "fake" my way through reading rhythm, and all of them depend on finding external sources!

Anyway, it's getting more difficult to "fake" my way through music as it is steadily getting more complex, so I figured it's time to concentrate on learning to read rhythm - "for real" this time!

Lesson Notes:

My main focus this year is to improve playing and reading rhythm, so I asked Dr. G to spend the beginning half of our lessons on rhythm. We began with clapping out rhythms for 30mins.

Ironically I could have easily mimicked what Dr. G was doing (like I usually do!), but then I wouldn't be learning how to internalize rhythm, so I was trying very hard to shut off my brain (which wanted to mimic what he was doing) so I could FIND and internalize my own rhythm. ...still in the dark with a flashlight...

I have a fairly wonky rhythm in the first place and having an external source, which includes the use of a metronome, helps me A LOT!

Dr. G wrote down some rhythms so we could sight-read and work on it. Surprisingly, I thought I had gotten over being embarrassed about clapping out rhythms, but I was a teensie-weensie embarrassed to struggle through such "simple" rhythms. Being embarrassed made me tense up, which made me clap early for most of the beats too!, yeah, that's what it was - I'm blaming it on tensing up! Definitely not from my total lack of rhythmical abilities! ;)

He patiently went through the rhythms with me, but I could tell that he was really surprised that I was having trouble with them. I seriously could have faked my way through and sounded better, but I was really trying to internalize everything. ...I swear! :)

Clayton had once mentioned that he didn't count in his head, but instead heard "ticks" or "beats" like a steady metronome, and Dr. G mentioned that this is what he did as well. Dr. G explained that once I start to play much faster music it becomes very difficult to count aloud (or count internally), which is why it's extremely important to have a strong internal pulse.

We then went through some music to sightread, which I played better because it didn't have a bunch of weird rhythms that I was unfamiliar to me. We were also playing duets and he was my rhythm buddy (same rhythms as me) throughout the entire song, so it was really easy to figure out how to play all the rhythms.

I also learned that notes played on a beat are typically played "stronger," - but of course, that also depends on phrasing. He mentioned that learning how to play notes stronger on a beat will help me with my sight-reading abilities too because I will always know where the beat is located.

We went through some quick phrasing since I'm still making all of the notes sound "important" so it sounds too march-like. So we practiced on open strings so I could try to figure out how to make a note more or less important, but that didn't click for me during this lesson either. Whew, lots to work on! :)


  1. Going three years without addressing rhythm isn't so bad. Some of us go decades, and never quite get it. I am just now realizing that an accurate sense of timing, rhythm, and pulse are just as progressively nuanced and important as good intonation. It's just one of those things that you don't really realize how off you are without either years of rhythm focused metronome practice and/or instant feedback from a tuner or a good rhythm training app.

    1. I've always had issues with rhythm, but I didn't realize how EXTREMELY off I was until I discovered I was! ;)

      I'm discovering that using a metronome or some other external source like a rhythm app helps develop "timing" but not necessarily an internal pulse or rhythm?

      I think maybe timing is developed first, then pulse, then rhythm? I'll have to think about that more. It would be interesting to know how to develop each one and specific definitions for each as it applies to learning.

      Anyway, I think my "timing" is okay because I can clap to a metronome "on time," but as soon as it's turned off I'm in trouble!

      What I want is to feel the pulse in my body so if I were to clap to a metronome and then mute it suddenly, I'd still feel the pulse within my body and keep it going. Then be able to un-mute the metronome and still be in time.

    2. In my experience, metronomes are like tuning forks, and are limited by the development of the ear of the user. Which is why we use tuners until our ear develops sufficiently. Likewise rhythm apps are marvelous at showing us how wrong our sense of metronome accuracy can be. When we start, even our "accurate" claps can be off by large fractions of a second. These errors seem small, but they add up to being off by several seconds over only a few measures once the metronome goes away. At the moment I am in love with the iPad app called "Rhythm Sight Reading Trainer" because it not only tells how off each note is with visual feedback, it also tells you what your cumulative error for a given section is down the hundredth of a second so you can work on reducing your error rate to something manageable enough to play with others. It also highlights in "Orange" the note that you had the most issues with so you can work on it in subsequent attempts. The options menu is very rich and detailed enough to raise or lower the difficulty until you are given nothing but a single measure of intro beats. My girlfriend, who has been intimidated from learning an instrument because of difficulty reading rhythms is also very excited about this app. She has never been able to count, and suddenly she's as competent at reading rhythm as I was after years of playing instruments.

      I shy away from defining things too strictly because I still consider myself a beginner when it comes to rhythm. To me though, Timing is the most challenging of the three, because you need it generate a Pulse in the absence of a metronome, and also to overlay an abstract Rhythm over a given Pulse which composers often do to keep the music interesting for listeners.

    3. WOW - sounds like a great app!!! I'll check it out! Lots of great app recommendations lately! :)

      hmmm, I don't know... I'm applying my definitions of Timing, Pulse and Rhythm mostly to my dancing experience so I don't know if it relates similarly to music?

      I thought that Timing was in relation to an "event," so if I made a sound in a silent room, then that sound doesn't have much meaning. However, if I was to make a sound, then timed another sound in relation to that one, then there's meaning in the sounds - or at least our brain tries to create meaning! ;)
      Also, in my dancing experience (Lindy Hop/Swing & Blues dancing) it's better to "lag the beat" (be a little behind the beat) and not on "top of it" (when the beat occurs). So it's better to be "late" in those dances, but playing in a cello ensemble, it's not good to be late on a beat. Therefore, my Timing can be before, on top or after a beat. ....although I'm almost always usually late... ;)

      I think having a Pulse is an "event" that is reoccurring, which can also be sped up or slowed down. For me, I can't seem keep a steady consistent beat, which is why it's the most difficult for me.

      However Timing doesn't have to be reoccurring or rely on Pulse. "Abstract" modern music comes to mind... I've heard compositions that have "weird" sounds that also seem to be "random" - but it's the case that my newbie ear can't make sense of it since Timing should be in relation to another occurrence. my understanding of Rhythm is that it has to have both Timing and a Pulse. I guess if I were to draw a venn diagram, I would put Timing and Pulse in two separate circles because they can be independent of each other, and then Rhythm would overlap the two.

      I'm a newbie at rhythm too so my understanding of those terms may be incorrect.

    4. I am beginning to think it may just be one of those circular references where you can't define one without the other. Until now, I have always thought of note values (and therefore rhythm) as being abstract numbers and ratios that were only important in how the note lengths related to each other, and being somehow capable of existing independent of time like numbers on a page. But you're absolutely right, the note values aren't just relative. They always exist in a span of time. My propensity to make "everything" abstract is probably why I am decent at math, and also why I have terrible rhythm, and consequently am such a abysmal dancer! Its so strange how language can shape understanding and the learning process...

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