June 23, 2011

It's Not the Notes, It's the Rests

Some things in music seem obvious to me now but took a long time to figure out. A prime example is that students have much more trouble NOT playing than playing. When they have a measure with a three beat note followed by a rest, the rest becomes hard because it’s a place that you’re not supposed to play, but you still have to count it. It seems difficult for students to feel the concept of a space being as important as a note, so I encourage them to think of rests as “notes of silence.” In addition, long notes are harder than short notes. The method books all had us play whole notes first, then we played half notes, then quarter notes, then the “fast” notes like eighth notes. As kids learn to play more notes per beat, the concept of “faster” becomes a problem, because eighth notes are not necessarily fast. But that’s how they start to think of them — they’re faster notes so they try to play them as fast as they can. Consequently, the long notes become harder to play because they require too much time. We get lazy and cut them short. It comes back to being able to feel and keep a pulse inside you while you’re playing and while you’re not playing. And so long notes become hard, and long rests are next to impossible.

It’s doubly hard for students to play eighth or sixteenth notes and then arrive at half notes, or — God forbid — whole notes, and not completely cheat on the proper number of beats. Thus the long notes become harder than the short notes, and similarly, the slower the tempo the more difficult it all becomes.

Fast music requires a certain finger dexterity that has to be learned along with articulation and hand-eye coordination. Of course this can be difficult to learn. But once you master that, suddenly the slow passages become hard as we become impatient and we can’t seem to relax and feel the beat. It’s easier to feel a fast beat; a slow beat challenges our short attention spans. I find myself writing “PLAY THE RESTS” in my boldest pen in a hopeful attempt to remind students to keep this concept in their head when practicing at home.

You might think this counting issue only applies to young musicians, but I have heard adult working musicians who also have not learned this. I have heard and have played with pianists who drop rests or shorten long notes in an apparent attempt to keep the song moving forward. Take this example for clarification: think of the first two measures in the song “Yesterday.” The time-challenged piano player may play this phrase and on the syllable “day” almost immediately skip to the note for the word “all.” Not only have they cheated on the length of the long note for the syllable “day” but they also ignore the rest that occurs on beat 1 before the word “all.” The majority of listeners in the room may not notice the hiccup in time, but those who do may feel inclined to fling their drink at the pianist, who obviously would not be aware of the time faux pas.

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