Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rhythm's and the Roof

Have you ever read through a new piece of music and while playing you just ‘knew’ that it didn’t sound very good? May be you aren’t familiar with the tune. Maybe your Sight Playing/Reading skills aren’t that great. As you’re playing you struggle with the rhythms and embellishments and then say to yourself: “I’m just trying to get the notes right!” What exactly does it mean to “get the notes right” and why is this statement a major trap?

In the last issue of The Voice (Fall 2010) we explored building a good foundation by learning to keep the beat. The next layer is playing rhythms accurately and this equates to the Roof of a house. Wait a moment, don’t we have to build the build the Frame BEFORE we put on a roof? Absolutely and here lies the problem with “getting the notes right”.

Each “note” in a piece of music provides 2 pieces of information: Pitch and Duration. When we need to “get the notes right’ we are referring to Hand Position to sound the correct Pitch. If your Sight Reading/Playing skills are at a slow level you may get bogged down struggling with Pitch (Hand Position) as well as Embellishments. Rhythm is ALWAYS sacrificed. If you play a wrong pitch, in most cases, you will know immediately that an error has occurred. You will hear the wrong pitch or you will feel the wrong pitch. How often have you played rhythms inaccurately, known it, but blew it off? More often than we care to admit, which is why “getting the notes right” is a trap.

A roof serves two purposes: it provides protection AND it binds the frame together. Accurate Rhythm, laid over a steady beat, ties pitch together to create melody. Without rhythm there can’t be melody, which is the combination of pitch AND rhythm.


A more productive method would address rhythm FIRST. This can be done through a Monotone version of the tune. All rhythmic values are placed at one pitch and thus melody is not shown. Tap Out the rhythm of the tune. Count it out! Make sure the quarter notes are held their full value, that even eighth notes are in fact even, and that ‘dot/cuts’ are dotted and cut appropriately.

There are several methods for counting rhythm and it doesn’t matter which you use (numbers method (1 e + a), Kodaly (ti-ka-ti-ka), Gordon (du-ta-de-ta)). When you can tap the beat with your foot, tap the rhythms of the tune with a pencil, and say the rhythms out loud, then you will be well on your way to understanding the tune and will not need constant correction by a teacher! Check out the following web-site for help on counting subdivisions (and rhythms):

Drummers—this applies to you too! The notes on the page give you Sticking and Duration. When you can “sing” the score or count out the rhythms while tapping your foot, you will be able to understand how the score fits into the melody of the tune.


Andrew Douglas introduced this method to the Scotia-Glenville Pipe Band (Grade 5) two years ago. The pipers have solid understanding of rhythm because of this method and rarely alter rhythms to ‘fit it’ embellishments. Now, two years later it is making all the difference in their ability to play more complicated tunes.

IF you’ve done your homework on the Monotone version, this should be fairly simple—even with the 4 note groups. A Prelude setting has only G Gracenotes or less!!! Take the embellishments out of a tune and focus on the Rhythmic Figures. The Prelude setting is NOT a destination and I’ve learned that the more ‘ingrained’ you make it, the more difficult the next step will be. Use the Prelude Version to understand the dot/cut note values. Make sure that the beat notes are actually starting on the beat and that you can play AND tap your foot. Once you can play this, then you are ready for the Full version.

Full Tune

The Full Version has all the embellishments placed back into the score. Note where the D-throws are and make sure you are not adding a High G gracenote before the D-throw. As you play through the Full Version it is imperative that you NOT alter any rhythms to fit in embellishments. IF you’ve paid careful attention to the rhythm of the melody notes in the Prelude version you will hear if you make an alterations. This usually means extending a cut note (never ‘think’ on a cut note!)

What if you do alter a rhythm or extend a cut note because of an embellishment? This will be a “Hot Spot” and you will need to isolate the beginning of the embellishment. As you do this, pay attention to how simple it is to isolate and maintain rhythmic accuracy. For example: Measure 8 starts with a D-throw and is preceded by a cut C.

1. Play the 4-note group in measure 7 and STOP on the first Low G of the D-throw. Repeat this until you can play it 10x in a row accurately (The Power of Ten!!!)

2. Add the D-throw back in and alternate stopping on the first Low G and playing the full D-throw. Again to The Power of Ten

3. Play the full D-throw---to The Power of Ten.

4. Do this until you can’t play it wrong!! (This maybe result in many Powers of Ten)

You will find that the more focused attention you pay to rhythms before trying to play the tune, the more you will be able to maintain rhythmic accuracy throughout the tune and the less you will struggle with constantly trying ‘fix a problem’ or “Get the notes right”. Your Pipe Major and Teacher will thank you for your efforts!

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