Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The end of the measure

Quarter notes at the end of a measure are often the "problem" in rhythmic reading of syncopation. We get all the tricky stuff right and then play the quarter note at the wrong time. Why does this happen? The brain can generally hold 7 things in current attention of conscious memory, at most. When you introduce an 8th thing, the first thing falls off the other end of your brain. So trying to read all the notes and rests in a measure individually, rather than reading groups and patterns, can lead to a form of "brain clog" that causes rhythmic errors. (Processing time is also involved here, and it slows down as we get older, so it's even more important to read in groups as we age.) That's why it is important to see the quarter note that follows a syncopated pattern in a jazz, rock, pop, or broadway type piece in relationship to the bar line at the end of the measure. See the quarter note on 4 or the quarter note on 3 followed by a rest as a "pattern". The pattern is "a quarter note before a bar line is on the last beat of the bar, and is a pickup to the next bar." A good friend of mine who is a versatile player of many instruments...trumpet, saxophone, guitar, bass, banjo and many more... and in all genres of music from classical to bluegrass.... once commented "I practice licks, and then just string them together." The more "licks" or patterns you know and have played many times... the more automatic the technical (key pushing, breathing, articulation, etc.) parts of your playing become.

In summary.... read the measure from both ends. See the simple pattern at the end if it is there. See the complex pattern not as individual notes but as a pattern that you have already learned to play. Learn a lot of patterns, and you can sight read many pieces of music with accuracy. Remember that you can only "attend to" a maximum of 7 things at a time. Included in those seven things could be tone, dynamics, breathing, tempo, following the director, accents, key signature, time signature.... hey we're past seven. So how in the world can anybody play an instrument? Simple.... automatic performance controlled by the subconscious mind. If you learn the basic skills to the point of automatic performance... then you can attend to the things that are not automatic. And you can attend to the things that make music art.

Learn your rhythmic patterns so you recognize them automatically. Mark the tricky spots on your music so you will remember to read them. Have you ever been playing a piece and suddenly lost your place for no apparent reason? It happens to all of us and is usually because we have been on auto-pilot for a while and suddenly we are in unfamiliar territory and didn't make the switch in our attention. The admonition "read ahead" really means "scope out the territory."

So... when on auto-pilot, be sure to pay attention to where you are. Learn patterns. Read patterns. Play patterns. Use the bar lines as "mile posts on the interstate." Constantly redirect your attention and focus.

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