Cross-Rhythms Without Fear?

This week I am wrestling with one of my personal pianistic bête noirs: the dread cross-rhythm (or ‘poly-rhythm’). I am ashamed to confess that at my time of life (mid-40s) and pianistic ability (advanced), I have never truly mastered playing a cross-rhythm (for example, triplets in right hand over duplet quavers in left hand). I suspect I was never taught how to do it properly by the teacher I had in my teens, though I do recall that one of my Grade 8 pieces, a Chopin Nocturne in D minor, had a few cross-rhythms, which were just skimmed over: I seemed to play them all right, and I passed my Grade 8 with a creditable mark. Unfortunately, for me, being able to play a cross-rhythm convincingly, and, more importantly, correctly, is a basic requirement for a pianist of my level of (so-called) expertise. It is also essential for the Debussy I am learning for my Diploma (the ‘Prelude’ from Pour le Piano), which contains a small section of triplets over semiquavers. For the uninitiated, playing a cross-rhythm is the pianistic equivalent of rubbing your stomach with one hand whilst patting your head with the other (or vice versa).

Over the years, my silly difficulty with the cross-rhythm has forced me to exclude a great deal of music from my repertoire: a good deal of Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev has, until recently, remained a mystery to me, because I only have to see a group of triplets against quavers, and I go cold with fear.

A few years ago, I taught myself the opening movement of Schubert’s great last sonata, the D960 in B-flat Major. (I also taught myself the rest of sonata, but the glorious first movement was my main preoccupation). In the development section, there are six, yes six, bars of triplets in the right hand over duplets (pairs of quavers) in the left hand. This section marks the climax of the movement, and, when played correctly, is extraordinarily dramatic, as the two strands of music come together. Whenever I encountered this section, I just “fudged” it, playing a rough approximation of what it should sound like and feeling relieved when I reached the end of the section. A brief encounter with a piano teacher (one who I quickly dropped like the proverbial hot potato when I discovered some rather unsavoury truths about him – but that’s another story) gave me a little ditty to help cope with the cross-rhythms in the Schubert. A quick trawl of the internet earlier today, while trying to find a proper exercise to help me with the Debussy, threw up a number of rhymes and suchlike for this purpose, the most popular being “Nice Cup of Tea” or the variant “Cold Cup of Tea” to cope with triplets against duplets. Rhythmically, it works like this:

Nice (both notes together) Cup (2nd triplet) of (2nd duplet) Tea (3rd triplet).

It helps to tap the rhythm out on alternate knees while saying the words a few times before attempting it at the keyboard. This ‘system’ works for very short passages of three against two, or better still, one triplet group against two quavers. But try saying Nice Cup of Tea over and over again for six bars – as for the Schubert – and it quickly becomes apparent that one needs a more rigorous approach.

When I played the Schubert for my current teacher, at my first lesson with her, she immediately picked up my difficulty with the cross-rhythms in the development section, and gave me a neat exercise, which forces one to keep a regular pulse going (essential to ensure the notes of the cross-rhythm fall in the right place). Take the simplest one-octave C major arpeggio in the right hand, in triplets, descending from the C above middle C (C-G-E, C-E-G etc), while the left hand plays crotchet C’s and G’s on the beat (say, in 2/4 time). Get a good sense of the pulse before dividing the left hand rhythm into quaver duplets, and allowing the second duplet to fall just after the second triplet of the group. Be careful not to allow the triplets to turn into a dotted rhythm. I found this exercise really helpful as it prevents one from playing too mechanically and does not interrupt the flow of the music.

Other people advocate a more mathematical approach, involving diagrams and numbers. This is for 3 against 4, pulled from an ABRSM forum on the subject:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2
x       x        x       x      (x falls on every third beat)
o          o          o     (o falls on every fourth beat)

Now, count aloud while patting alternate knees: 1(Both) 2 3 4(left) 5(right) 6 7(left) 8 9(right) 10(left) 11 12

Do this very slowly at first and build up speed, until you can ‘feel’ the rhythm and you won’t have to count it in your head.

Sounds simple? I will be trying this method tomorrow with the Debussy….. I suspect there will be a degree of “fudging” involved: the tempo of the piece means that one could wing it, but I am sure my teacher would notice it – and I want to play it correctly! Very slow practice, playing the notes from left to right in the order they are written and making sure to stress the strong beat where both hands fall together may help my poor brain (and fingers) from getting in a tangle! Knowing each hand’s part intimately (from memory, ideally) should help too. Expect a follow up post on this subject in a few weeks’ time!

Meanwhile, here are some resources which I found helpful.

The first of Brahms’s 51 Exercises is an exercise in cross-rhythm, rather than a fingering exercise. Download a PDF file Brahms 51 Exercises No. 1

PDF Worksheet on Cross-Rhythms

The Piano Survey

Last year, I participated in several surveys of piano teachers in the UK, aimed at gathering more information about how many piano teachers are active currently, and the mode and method of piano teaching, as well as other related areas such as fees, average age/gender of students, study books used, teacher qualifications and ongoing professional development.

This preliminary survey, conducted by Sally Cathcart of The Oxford Piano Group, contains some diverting statistics. I was particularly interested to learn that piano teaching in the UK is unregulated, though many of us belong to professional bodies such as EPTA (European Piano Teachers’ Association), or ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicans). What troubles me is the lack of protection for music teachers in the event of an ‘incident’ or difficulties between teacher and pupil, from simple issues such as collecting overdue fees, to more serious accusations of ‘inappropriate’ behaviour and child abuse.

The Piano Survey – Preliminary Analysis Report

The Oxford Piano Group

Play Mozart for Me

As BBC Radio 3’s Genius of Mozart season drew to a close, last night’s late night request programme, Play Mozart for Me, featured music from the last year of Mozart’s life, including my request to hear the Rondo in A minor, K511, a piece which I have written about previously on this blog.

You can hear the entire programme via this link. My comments on the K511 come at about 2’40” in (near the end). The performance is by Richard Goode, though I had requested Mitsuko Uchida’s recording, which, to me, is pure perfection, with a liquid clarity and some passages of truly heart-rending melancholy….

How Musical Are You?

This groundbreaking study aims to reveal the musical abilities of the nation and help redefine what it means to be musical. (BBC Lab UK site)

The test, which takes about 25 minutes to complete, comprises questions and listening exercises (for those who have been through the treadmill of graded exams, these will be quite familiar!). It is quite fun – in fact, it is very interesting – and at the end you are presented with a colourful pie-chart indicating your musical awareness, and your scores for the listening games. The test results are being analysed by a team from Goldsmiths’ College, University of London.

I was relieved to find that I scored highly, particularly in categories such as “Enthusiasm for Music”, “Musical Curiosity”, and “Social Creativity”. My aural tests were pretty secure too – a good score for a piano teacher!

To take the test, click on this link.

Less Ambitious Operas

There’s an amusing, silly season thread doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment called “Less Ambitious Operas” (search tag #lessambitiousoperas). Here are some of my favourites (and some of my own):

Boris Not Quite Good Enough

The Love of Two Pears

The Tweets of Hoffman

Flu in Venice

La Spinta Gentile del Destino (The Gentle Push of Destiny)

Dildo and Aeneas

Nixon in China Town

The Semi-Functional Flute

Einstein on the Couch

Infidelio

The Floor Sweeper of Seville

Orpheus in the Cupboard Under the Stairs

The Mild Embarrassment of Faust

The One-Penny Melody

The One Night Stand of Figaro

The Turn of the Corkscrew

I could go on (and on)……….but I won’t. Plenty more on Twitter, or add your own in the comments box.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

“I believe that the only excuse we have for being musicians is to make it differently” – Glenn Gould

Whatever you may think about Canadian pianist Glenn Gould – genius, nutcase, eccentric – his life remains fascinating, partly because he was at once both enigmatic and open. He was extremely articulate about his music, as well as many other subjects, including art, poetry and philosophy, yet his interior life remains clouded by his eccentricities: the pills,  the scarves, the funny chair his dad made for him. This new film attempts to go beyond all the myths and misconceptions, and, from what I can tell from the official trailer, will be as insightful, perhaps more so, as Bruno Monsaingeon’s wonderful 2006 film ‘Hereafter’.

For North American readers, you can access the film online until 11 January here. For the rest of us, for the time being there is the official trailer, and then the release of this award-winning and highly-praised film on DVD in the UK in late March (pre-order from Amazon).

Genius Within – official website of the film

Bruno Monsaingeon’s website

The 12 Days of Mozart

Radio 3 is currently revelling in a major Mozart-fest, by broadcasting “every note he wrote” between now and January 12th. It has been a pleasure to tune in intermittently during the day and hear excerpts from his operas, choral works, symphonies, piano music, chamber music, and much more, reminding us of his immense and varied output, and in yesterday’s Breakfast show (presented by Rob Cowan), listeners were treated to a truly wonderful live performance by the Heath Quartet of the Divertimento in D major, K.136, which surely is a first for the Breakfast programme. (You can find a full programme listing and listen again here)

Other delights include Play Mozart for Me, a late-night request programme presented by Sarah Mohr-Pietsch. Listeners are invited to send in their requests, and to write to Sarah with thoughts on their favourite Mozart pieces, or why Mozart is important to them, or indeed any other personal ‘Mozartiana’. There are lunchtime concerts, evening performances, blogs and forums – and there is even a Mozart Mash-up where you can download 20 Mozart fragments, and create your own 60 second “mash up” (I am downloading the material as I write – just for fun). The best clips will be broadcast (and if my own mash up is successful, I will add a soundclip to this blog).

All this Mozart-mania suggests that “Wolfie” remains perennially popular, and Radio 3’s plethora of programmes and related articles, videos, blogs, interviews seems a great way to encourage more people to discover him. Many of us had our first encounters with his music as young children or novice students. Some of his earliest, most youthful piano pieces (many of which were written before he’d reached his teens) appear in the syllabuses of the early graded music exams, and I am sure most of us can recall a Fantasia or Sonata or two which we learnt when we were more advanced pianists.

While Mozart may be master of the Classical period, Franz Liszt, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this year, is undoubtedly king of the Romantics. Let us hope Radio 3 finds a way to celebrate this all too-often misunderstood and under-represented composer with similar panache and enthusiasm.

For more on Radio 3’s Genius of Mozart season click here.

Beyond the Bar Lines

The holiday is over, and my students return next week for the start of the spring term – which means I must get organised! As I start to plan the upcoming term, with the usual emphasis on finessing pieces for exams later in the spring, and encouraging students to think “musically”, a quote from the pianist Artur Schnabel comes to mind, that bar lines – like children – should be seen and not heard.

When I introduce the way music is constructed and written to novice students, I explain that bar lines are there to “keep the music tidy”, and that each ‘measure’ of music is separated by a bar line. This immediately sets them up as notional hurdles to keep the unruly sheep of notes tethered in the right place. Quite soon after, students meet phrase marks, and are then presented with a conflict: bar lines forces the eye read music vertically, while phrase marks ask the eye to read horizontally.

Many novice students play music bar by bar,  literally “vertical” playing, since seeing the notes contained within each bar as a single entity that must not be allowed to stray along the stave seems to force the hand and fingers to adopt a piston-like up and down action, which can result in very chunky, “notey” and overly accented playing. Meanwhile, I try to encourage students to see music in terms of phrases, or “sentences”, as long strings of melody, and urge them to “read ahead” so that they are continually anticipating what is to come. Alongside this, I ask students to think about the movement of their hands, and to play with more relaxed, elliptical movements (“polishing” was one of the words I used with Bella to help her achieve a lovely fluidity in her Bach Prelude). This is one of the great conflicts of playing the piano: the mechanical action of the instrument requires an up-down movement to produce a sound, but to produce beautiful sound – which is what we all strive for, whether the quietest pianissimo or the most forceful fortissimo – one must free arms, hands and fingers to play with looser, more parallel movements, and learn how to distribute weight through the fingers or to allow the arms and back to draw weight away from the fingers.

With practice, one learns to read the music horizontally, and good keyboard geography will enable a student to stop checking their hand/finger position every bar. And so, from reading line by line, one goes on to take in the whole page in a single glance. I tell my adult students that reading music is like driving: one must look at the road ahead to anticipate hazards, speed markings, and stop signs. Anticipation is crucial, for it allows one to play fluently, and seeing beyond the bar lines helps to avoid placing unnecessary emphasis on the first beat of every bar. When looking at new music, I now ask all my students, children or adults, to point out phrase marks, tempo, dynamic and articulation markings, and any other signs or symbols which they need to be aware of in their journey through the score. Thus, the music becomes a map – and the job of the pianist is to navigate and interpret it.

Of course, it would be far easier, in many ways, if bar lines did not exist. Without these hurdles and dividers, our eyes would automatically take in the score horizontally and read along the stave rather than up and down it, and we would be able to achieve more nuanced phrasing and fluent playing. As it is, the majority of music we encounter will be divided into measures, and so we must train our eyes to see past the bar lines, to read the score as a whole rather than in small sections, and to strive for a coherent, fluid and well-shaped reading,

With all this in mind, I really should be practising…….

The End of the Year

My teaching term finished at 4.45pm today as I saw the last student, Tom, out of my warm, cosy home into the cold, dark, snowy evening. I pressed a giant chocolate coin from M&S into his gloved hand, and cheerily wished him and his mother a Happy Christmas, while also reminding him to practice over the holiday. Officially, my teaching term (which runs for 12 weeks) ended last week, but I had to cancel some lessons and carry them over from last week.

Now, I am afforded an opportunity to review the term just ended and look forward to the spring term. As always, it has been a busy term: there has been much music made, new pieces learnt, old ones revised and finessed. I’ve sat through hours of scales and other technical work, done a fair amount of pre-exam hand-holding (mostly of anxious parents rather than students), and talked endlessly about “telling the story” and “painting pictures” in music. The hugely successful Christmas concert marked the culmination of the term and was a wonderful tribute to my students’ hard work this term – and mine too! Three students took the Prep Test, a pre-Grade 1 “taster” exam, five are working towards Grade 1, including two of my adult students, and three are working on the Grade 2 syllabus. I am enjoying teaching the exam syllabuses, as the current crop of pieces are varied and interesting: why weren’t the exam lists this interesting when I was taking my music exams, way back when….?

Particular highlights include: Eli playing my adaptation of Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’, a piece he chose himself, and which he played with real panache and surprising depth for an 8 year old; Claire, a student who has really blossomed this term, playing ‘Walking In The Air’ at the Christmas concert; Harrison’s improvised ‘Vampire Blues’ (“but please don’t do that in your exam!” I warned), Bella’s lovely, measured reading of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C; Tom’s ‘Chinese Crackers’, one of his Prep Test pieces which utilises the piano’s harmonics in a clever way; and Marianne’s ‘Snowdrifts’, a piece which seems particularly appropriate given the current weather!

As for my own music, I have put to bed, for the time being at least, Debussy’s Prelude ‘Voiles’, after performing it in my Christmas concert. Listening to the recording was a mixed experience: despite all the plaudits I received from friends, parents, students and family on the day, I feel there is plenty of room for improvement. A pause from this piece will help me reappraise it and think about what else I need to do with it. Meanwhile, I am making interesting inroads into Messiaen’s 4th Vingt Regard, a deeply arresting piece which requires a huge amount of emotional input (the notes themselves are not so difficult), and the Toccata from Bach’s 6th Partita, which is cerebral and satisfying (the scores are in my suitcase to read in France, together with my fold-out keyboard to enable me to mark up the rest of the Messiaen properly). The Chopin Ballade continues to haunt me – in a good way – but it is on the backburner while I try to get as much Diploma repertoire into my fingers: 2011 could be the year I take the exam, or not, depending on how I get on….

The Spring term will see three students sit their Grade 1 exam, and at the end of the term I will attend my teacher’s advanced piano course again, where I hope present more of my diploma repertoire. I will also rise to my teacher’s challenge, and play Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 No. 3 at the end of course concert.

For the time being, I am looking forward to a couple of weeks “off” (though not off the piano, of course), and a chance to catch up on some reading and listening.

Merry Christmas to all my readers, some loyal and regular, others casual and occasional. The Cross-Eyed Pianist will return after the holiday.

Rejoice greatly: it’s Handel’s ‘Messiah’

During the opening measures of the famous chorus, members of the audience glanced around anxiously, checking to see who would be first to rise to their feet. Then someone in the balcony stood, and someone else, and suddenly the whole of the Cadogan Hall audience rose to its feet, as is traditional for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus.

The reasons for this tradition are somewhat apocryphal: one version is that at the first London performance in 1743, the audience “together with the King”, were so moved by the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus that they spontaneously rose to their feet. An alternative explanation is that King George II was so tone-deaf that he thought the performance had finished, and the orchestra was playing the National Anthem: once the King stood, everyone present was obliged to stand too. Whatever the reason, there is something really special about standing for such an uplifting and triumphant piece of music.

For me the ‘Messiah’ will forever be associated with the beginning of the Christmas season. When I was at school, it formed an integral part of the concert which ended the Autumn term, along with the service of nine lessons and carols at the church next to the school. I must have sung the ‘Messiah’ at least 10 times, for the tradition of performing it at Christmas continued when I joined the university choir.

It’s four years since I last heard the Messiah, also at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue close to London’s Sloane Square, which boasts a spacious crush bar where one can get a decent-sized glass of Prosecco. The audience is different to the Wigmore, being largely fully awake, alive and lively. People-watching is fun beforehand and I spotted a couple of “slebs” in the noisy bar as I waited for my friend to return from the cloakroom. The other benefit of Cadogan Hall is its generous, comfortable seats, and the gently raked auditorium which affords a good view wherever you sit. The hall itself is a converted Christian Science church, completed in 1907, though the interior suggests a more 18th century heritage. Much of the original interior has been retained including a fine wooden screen and balcony at the rear of the stage. Last night, a tall Christmas tree sparkled from the balcony.

The English Chamber Orchestra with the Rodolfus Choir and four soloists was under the baton of eminent and now very elderly conductor Raymond Leppard. I remember seeing him conduct when I was a child, and it was lovely to see he is still going strong, if a little more portly than I remember, and somewhat unsteady on his feet. Under his direction, orchestra and choir were impeccable: perfect timing, perfect cadences, perfect intonation. The soloists, two of whom I have seen before in the same roles, were very fine, offering just the right balance of acting and emotion, while also “telling the story” of the music very clearly. From row D, the closest I have sat to the stage at a concert for some time, we were afforded a wonderful view of the orchestra, soloists and choir. I loved the way the continuo player switched from harpsichord to chamber organ and back again, as the score required.

The Rodolfus Choir is made up of singers aged 16 to 25 and their youthful voices suited the music perfectly. The clarity and purity of their delivery was matched by the orchestra with an elegant symmetry.

I suppose the best thing about the Messiah is all the memorable ‘tunes’ – from ‘Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted’ to ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, ‘I Know My Redeemer Liveth’ to the charming duet between tenor and alto ‘O Death Where is Thy Sting’. Then there are the choruses: ‘And the Glory of the Lord’, ‘All We Like Sheep’, ‘For Unto Us a Child is Born, ‘Hallelujah’, and the wonderful, life-affirming fugue of the final chorus. In between all this are some beautiful solos, and orchestral interludes. Handel brings the text, drawn from the King James Bible, to life with light and shade, storms and sunshine, fugue and counterpoint, and a huge variety of textures and “word painting”, the technique of having the melody mimic the literal meaning of the libretto.

It was a wonderful evening and a lovely start to the festive season. I felt very Christmassy as I left the hall with my friend, and we drove around Sloane Square, which was beautifully decorated, with great bunches of fairy lights in the trees, and a shimmering curtain of lights all down the main frontage of Peter Jones.

Cadogan Hall

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture