Developing Rhythm

Kyle Hayes, editor of the International Horn Society’s Horn Zone and a graduate student in Switzerland, recently wrote in with the following question.

Have you written anything on your blog with advice/aids in developing rock-solid timing?…Timing as in accuracy in rhythm, subdivision, and the like. Basically seeing the music and having the subdivision just happen naturally so there’s no guessing when it comes to the rhythm.

Kyle’s question prompted me to go back through my materials, and I discovered that while the topic comes up several times, I’ve never really covered it directly. Here is an attempt (or at least the beginning of one) to address the issue. A teacher once told me that rhythm was one of the most difficult things to teach, and in my experience there are plenty of students who can play the notes, but far fewer who can play the notes with correct rhythm. For me, there wasn’t really a breakthrough moment when rhythm just seemed to click; rather developing an internal pulse and subdivisions happened slowly over several years. I still work on rhythmic accuracy every day, particularly as it applies to the timing of attacks. I find that my pitch accuracy (especially on first attacks) is directly related to how well the attack is set up rhythmically. Here are a few ways I work on rhythm.

1. Use a metronome 80-90% of the time. This may seem like an excessive amount, but it really makes a difference, especially with orchestral excerpts. Use the subdivision feature on your metronome to hear exactly how triplets, eighths, and sixteenths sound, especially in slower tempos. Often rhythms are learned as approximates, rather than mathematical divisions. One of the biggest offenders is the quarter-note triplet, where the final quarter is played too short. Only by hearing the internal subdivision can this rhythm be felt (and played) correctly.

2. Play the subdivisions. This is a particularly effective technique for developing accuracy on the dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythm and its variants. By taking this extra step in the process, this rhythm becomes much more precise.

3. Subdivide before an entrance. We all know we’re supposed to subdivide while playing, but it really helps to get the subdivisions going several measures before an entrance. One excerpt that I struggle with beginning is the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. My tendency – especially when playing the lower octave – is to scoop or stutter into the first note, which is not the desired effect. The entrance must be solid and forte from the very beginning. Just thinking simple eighth-notes, or even sixteenths, wasn’t really that helpful, and what ended up working was thinking of a “real” rhythm as in the example below.

For whatever reason this made all the difference in timing the breath and tongue for the first note.

4. Metronome on, metronome off. I’ll often practice a difficult rhythm or entrance by alternating practice with and without the metronome in a short period of time. I play it several times with the metronome, then turn it off and immediately play the passage again, striving to keep the feel going internally. This kind of practice seems to help bridge the gap between following the metronome and developing an internal pulse.

5. Rhythm is physical. It may seem like a no-brainer, but rhythm is built right into our bodies. Tapping a foot (as in Caruso exercises) and other kinds of movement are critical to understanding rhythm. Marching around the practice room or studio while singing an excerpt can do wonders for your approach, or for other kinds of passages creating a dance of some kind might be more appropriate.

This is just a start, and feel free to alter and/or create your own exercises for working on rhythm. Here are a few resources with particularly good sections on rhythm.

Robert Starer, Rhythmic Training Hal Leonard, 1969 A staple in sight-singing classes, this book contains progressive rhythmic exercises.

Nicholas Smith, Don’t Miss: Ideas, Concepts, and Exercises Designed to Increase Accuracy on an Inaccurate Instrument Hornsmith Publishing, 2010 (See p. 56-57 for exercises to help correct a hesitation or stutter attack.)

Milan Yancich, A Practical Guide to French Horn Playing Wind Music Inc., 1971 (See p. 46 for another exercise for stutter attacks.)

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