Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Fast pieces and difficult rhythms

Some pieces are just plain hard to play. Too many notes! Too many awkward rhythms.

Amongst amateur players, it is (incorrectly) assumed that you have to try and play all the notes in your part in orchestra, and (equally incorrectly) that the thing which distinguishes professionals from amateurs is that the professionals can and do play all the notes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, professionals will play a higher proportion of the notes, but in this context what really distinguishes them is an absolute ruthlessness in cutting notes that are unplayable so that they can keep together.

When you play a fast passage, if it isn't a solo it often doesn't matter that you don't play all the notes. What does matter is that you keep up with everybody else, and that the notes you do play are in time.

Most important of all is that whatever is on the first beat of the bar must be strictly in time, and any entries must be strictly in time. You drop out or modify whatever you need to do in order to make sure you stay with the rhythm.

Is this cheating? If you choose to call it that. But if you do this in rehearsal, and even in performance, there is a good chance that nobody will notice. Probably not the conductor, and certainly not the audience. But they will all notice if you are struggling behind the beat because you can't play all the notes fast enough.

The score is not holy writ. It does not have to be rigidly adhered to. The performance is what matters, the performance is the work of art. The sound you produce is what the audience has paid to come and hear. Give them the best you can - which means amongst other things making sure that everything you play is in time with the rest of the group.

This concept is really strange to a surprising number of amateur musicians. I've given some thought to why this is. It seems to me that a number of factors are at play here.
  • Amateurs generally haven't had a musical education that has gone quite as far as that which professionals have undergone.
  • The art of cheating is only taught at a fairly advanced level, so as not to encourage people at too early a stage to abandon attempts at improving their technique.
  • So, the art of cheating is not really taught to people who occupy most places in amateur orchestras.
  • When professional come in and supplement the ranks of an amateur orchestra, they are usually technically so advanced that the amateurs don't even notice when a bit of cheating goes on. They are so bowled over at what the professionals can do.
So this is directed a bit to conductors of amateur groups. Where necessary, explain to your players that cheating is OK, that if there is a choice between playing all the notes late and keeping time while playing only some of them, that you really want them to choose keeping time.

It will take time to get them used to the idea that by dropping notes they are actually playing better. But the overall result will be worth it.


  1. Excellent article, Jonathan! I've printed it & will pass it out to my section mates. There's no such thing as the right note at the wrong time. Any note that's played at the wrong time is WRONG! :o)

  2. Hi Valerie

    Thanks! I'd be fascinated to hear what they made of it!