Pianist

Piano Teacher Help Desk

Rhythm is arguably the most important element in music making, says Kathryn Page

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As a breed, we pianists tend to be pitch-obsessed. We probably stress over dropped notes when we play – more than anything else – and this is a great shame, because nine times out of ten the odd pitch fluff here and there matters far less than inaccurate rhythm. As teachers we owe it to our pupils to tell them the truth: listeners are far less concerned about wrong notes than an inconsiste­nt pulse, a lack of rhythmic control or a sense of rhythmic instabilit­y.

We must do all we can to stop pupils from tackling new repertoire as though they are decoding a mysterious message. Notes on the page in isolation matter for very little. It is an excellent ploy to start lessons on new material completely away from the instrument. Try a clapping, dancing, and conducting session on a piece.

Piano-free rhythmic sessions can be useful for familiar repertoire too. It is never too late for a rhythmic MOT on pieces that have been studied for many months. Once the notes are assimilate­d, the temptation to simply play through without ever checking the text may prove too strong, leading to tiny inaccuraci­es that can increase with time if not checked.

But of course, it is best to instil pulse priorities from the first lesson and avoid any danger of rhythmic corruption or neglect. It is extremely beneficial to insist in the early stages that students do their sight-reading exercises with the metronome on. If they can play an exercise at crotchet equals 80, try it also at quaver equals 160, and minim equals 40. The speed may be the same, but the pupil needs to feel and hold the subtle difference­s in energy that unquestion­ably are evident between these three metronomic perspectiv­es.

Rhythmic vibrancy can and should be encouraged in technical work too. So many mechanical problems of facility and coordinati­on can be solved when the pupil feels a sense of order and space in what is being attempted. Scales and arpeggios unquestion­ably benefit from the metronome ticking for every single note, then for every other note and finally for every group of four notes. This can also be applied to Czerny and Hanon, where the ticks can synchronis­e firstly with semiquaver­s, then quavers, crotchets and finally minims.

Tummy talk

With repertoire, rhythmic conviction comes from an inner sense of pulse. Students can develop this by practising literally bouncing on the stool! Get them to move their tummies in time to the waltz rhythm they may be playing, or to stamp their feet on the strong beats in their polkas and marches. Long flowing lines can be captured with inner authority via lots of circular upper-body movements mirroring four broad crotchet beats in each bar. Get them to hold their feet firmly on the ground whilst their torsos move round the piano stool as though imitating the movement of hands going around a clock face. If they can do this in both clockwise and anti-clockwise movements as they play, they will be supporting their intellectu­al rhythmic awareness with physical strength. Other physical movements that can help in practice are moving from side to side along the piano, feeling that you are moving up and down in time to the music, and moving your entire body forwards then backwards as a means of emphasisin­g moves towards and away from the peaks in phrases.

Ultimately, it is excellent to get students to sublimate their physical gestures so that they can feel the musical intentions without necessaril­y showing everything in a literal way – rhythmic control will be all the stronger for a sense of inner composure and understate­ment. This will not happen overnight, of course: rhythmic mastery takes a musical lifetime to develop and is extremely challengin­g... but it is vital to start off in lesson one with an insistence from you the teacher that rhythm is, arguably, the most important element in music making. Keep this as the top priority for pupils at every level.

 ??  ?? Kathryn Page has appeared in concert and on television as a soloist and in chamber music. She is a teacher, adjudicato­r and administra­tor for Chetham’s Internatio­nal Summer School and Festival for Pianists, as well as the Manchester Internatio­nal Concerto Competitio­n for young pianists. She lives in Cheshire and has five children.
Kathryn Page has appeared in concert and on television as a soloist and in chamber music. She is a teacher, adjudicato­r and administra­tor for Chetham’s Internatio­nal Summer School and Festival for Pianists, as well as the Manchester Internatio­nal Concerto Competitio­n for young pianists. She lives in Cheshire and has five children.

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