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A young boy plays with a toy drum that was given to him during Joint Task Force-Bravo’s visit to at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in Comayagua, Honduras, Jan. 25, 2015. The Sisters of Charity Orphanage is one of seven different orphanages from around the Comayagua Valley that the U.S. military personnel assigned to JTF-Bravo have supported over the past 17 years. In addition to spending time with interacting with children, members have also collected and donated much-needed supplies and food, as well as helped in minor construction work on the buildings in which the children live. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman). Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

A young boy plays with a toy drum that was given to him during Joint Task Force-Bravo’s visit to at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in Comayagua, Honduras, Jan. 25, 2015. The Sisters of Charity Orphanage is one of seven different orphanages from around the Comayagua Valley that the U.S. military personnel assigned to JTF-Bravo have supported over the past 17 years. In addition to spending time with interacting with children, members have also collected and donated much-needed supplies and food, as well as helped in minor construction work on the buildings in which the children live. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman). Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

Isn’t this a wonderful photograph?

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Background

A high school flutist and I performed the piece excerpted below on a recital in April. She plays quite well, but this piece was full of syncopation. Keep in mind that she was looking at the flute part only (top line). Pianists usually play from the complete score (solo line plus piano part).

Excerpt from "Allegretto" from Suite de trois morceaux, Op.116 by Benjamin Godard

Excerpt from “Allegretto” from Suite de trois morceaux, Op.116 by Benjamin Godard

First Run-through

The soloist knew her part securely. But the rhythm in the piano part, not surprisingly, threw her off. She took the right hand part (off-beat) to be the beat. So, for example, in the 3rd bar of the 2nd system, her quarter note was one beat late, played after the last chord in the piano part.

Second Try

I played my part as printed, counting out loud. We would stop along the way to correct rhythmic mistakes. She would look at the score when the rhythm threw her off.

That approach resulted in about 50% improvement in our brief rehearsal.

Taking a Closer Look

I continued to think about her that evening. How could this be a better experience for the student, with the performance in front of an audience only a few days away? Was it sink or swim? Or could I do something to help?

In Her Shoes

After considerable thought, I realized that the student was relying primarily on what she had heard during our brief rehearsal. She didn’t have the piano score, and told me she had not listened to recordings.

Going by sound alone complicates things in this case.

Try it! When you sing one low note followed by two higher notes at the same pitch, listen to the way the higher pitch is easier to hear. It would take a lot to make the low note take over as the anchor. Hearing the pitches without looking at the score can easily sound like the low note is an upbeat.

A singer, by contrast, would have the score to refer to. Instrumental parts are published separately, so only the solo line is available unless they keep a copy of the score (or someone provides it).

To add to the challenge, I learned the next day that the student has a cochlear implant. That would make it more difficult to hear anything, possibly also causing a delay in the perception of sound.

The Next Day

Fortunately, there was more rehearsal time available. I checked with the teacher to ask whether it would be acceptable for me to call the student’s parents with the goal of finding another time to get together. We found a time for the following evening.

Recording the Piano Part

I realized that we had only rehearsed the piece one way; as printed.

Since the off-beat is so easy to hear as the beat, I wanted to try something. The student had her phone with her, so we recorded the piano part twice:  the first time on the beat; the second as written.

The “on the beat” version went very well! We practiced the piece that way again. This time, the student tapped (stomped, really) her foot on the beat.

Then we practiced the piece as written. She was much closer.

The Core Problem

The student had been attempting to understand the syncopation without knowing where the beat was.  You can’t have an off-beat without feeling the beat first.

I encouraged her to march around the room, stamp her feet, and sing, play, clap… whatever would get the rhythm into her body. I suggestion that she count, tap, stamp, clap, or whatever else she wanted to do, louder than the piano part.

Her First Response

“I can’t tap my foot in the performance.”

I agreed, and went on to say that it’s OK to tap your toe inside your shoe, especially the first time you’ve ever done this. And you can do whatever you need to do in rehearsal. The audience doesn’t see you rehearsing, nor does it know what you’re thinking in performance.

Solo Flute Practice

She did it! She had two days left to experiment, and addressed the problem at home without my being there.

Performance

Wonderful! She played out, sounded secure, and was not particularly nervous.

Followup

Two or three weeks later, I ran into her at school. After we said hello, I asked how she felt about the performance. Her response: “It went better than I thought it would. I felt very comfortable.”

And that, of course, makes it all worth it.

Contrasting Performances of “Our” Piece


As good as it gets. Enjoy!


This performance is closer to our tempo.

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What do you do when a student is thrown by something new? Comments welcome!

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