Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Musical Coordination

There are many challenges in playing the piano – playing fast, playing octaves, playing big chords with many notes; but playing a different rhythm in your left hand from what is going on in your right hand is something that simply defies the way our brains work.

When I was probably about 12, I first encountered this in Franz Schubert’s Serenade, which is just full of 2 against 3. I just learned from Google that this is called a polyrhythm. This means that while your left hand is playing two notes, your right hand is playing a triplet or three notes. This is infinitely harder than playing 2 notes or even 3 notes for every one in the other hand.

Way back when, I resorted to using fractions to teach myself how to play this because it really is counterintuitive to your brain. If you think of this in terms of 6 beats, you play the left hand on 1 and 4 and the right hand on 1, 3, and 5. I tried to explain this to my piano teacher, Mr. Lightburn, who I learned years later was an alcoholic. He came to my house at 8:30 a.m. every Saturday morning, after a long night playing jazz at the Elk’s Club. He always smelled of after-shave lotion, which was probably to cover up the stale smell of alcohol. Anyway, when I offered up my mathematical approach to 2 against 3, he looked at me like I was from outer space and just wrote the word “slow” in the music. But you see slow really doesn’t work, so I just counted my 6 beats and nodded my 12-year-old head at him.

I have a new version of this now in Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu that is much worse for my poor befuddled brain: 3 against 4, more like what is in the picture above. Mathematically I now have to think in 12 beats, with the left hand playing on 1, 5, and 9 and the right hand on 1, 4, 7, and 10. This does become somewhat more intuitive with practice, but it is a slow process to make our brains think in two speeds at the same time.

Now that I have time to practice, I hope to really learn this difficult piece that I have loved so much since the first time I heard it. It will take a lot of work. I have no delusion that I will ever play it up to tempo.

I’m wondering how they teach polyrhythms at a musical conservatory. There must be a standard approach to this sort of thing.

You are probably saying to yourself, if this is what I had to do in retirement, I would just keep working forever. But 3 against 4 is actually keeping me quite busy as it challenges my brain to think in a new way.


Blogger Kristin said...

I wonder if playing music is as good for your mental faculties as doing a puzzle. It seems that it must be, at least in your approach.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- Brave soul that you are to leave me a comment when all my other readers are shaking their heads and saying I've gone off the deep end!

4:06 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

I sent the text of this post to my friend Jen who graduated from Julliard and has a MFA degree in double bass performance. Here is her response:

For enrichment,
Exercise by tapping:
L.H. taps on 1, 4, 7, 10 while R.H. taps 1, 5, 9.
Do it at your desk, do it in the car, do it while waiting at the doc's office or dmv. Get real good at it. Then, see if you can change tempos. Then see if you can switch hands to R.H. 1,4,7,10 L.H. 1, 5, 9

In ear training class at Juilliard we used to cheat on 4:3 by using the phrase "Pass the goddamn butter". Each syllable corresponds to 1 45 7 910

1 Pass L+R
2 -
3 -
4 the L
5 god R
6 -
7 damn L
8 -
9 but R
10 ter L
11 -
12 -

So I wasn't so crazy after all! Thanks to Jen for spelling this out so nicely.

4:07 PM  
Blogger steve said...

yEAH, MUSIC IS MATH AND THATS WHY IT TOOK ME SOOOO LOOONG TO LEARN (excuse me) the "Penguin Polka"....but after 40 years I can still play ity and "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes".

4:41 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve -- If I ever meet you, you will have to give me a demo! (No math required.)

5:26 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I always admire those who are able to play different patterns with both hands. It defeintely takes learning. However, I think that it is also a good way to expand your mind.

I do not play the piano (though, I can tap out simple enough pieces if I have time to practice - one hand only please!). Mt daughteris taking piano and seems to be quite natural at it. Jason, is ... ehm ... another matter - he just like flirting with the piano teacher.

6:18 AM  

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