This article originally appeared in the April 1974 issue of The Instrumentalist.
Almost every instrumental piece (including a few from the "easier" grade levels) has at least one nasty passage that eludes control, even after one has cleared all the other technical hurdles of the composition.
Our usual approach to such a thorny passage is by direct frontal assault, hammering it with wave after wave of repetitions, each one faster or slower, louder or softer, slurred or tongued, with perhaps some inventive rhythmic variations thrown in for good measure. When success finally rewards our heroic struggle, alas — it may prove to be short-lived. The old battle plan then has to be laboriously revived once again.
Is there anything else that can be done? Well, one useful approach (though certainly not the final answer for every technical problem) is to turn the passage inside out through the process of rhythmic transposition. That is, shifting the position of the beat so that you experience fresh accents on formerly unstressed notes, thereby revealing some new and fascinating phrase groupings. It’s really a kind of psychological trick that takes advantage of our natural attraction for newness and novelty but does not lose touch with the old and familiar.
A good example of the type of problem passage that resists taming — and is also a good candidate for the rhythmic transposition approach — is one that uses chromatically ascending minor thirds crossing the register break.
One little mistep here and the domino effect becomes an embarrassing reality. Jacques Ibert was especially fond of taunting us with this house-of-cards progression, using it in extended form in both his flute concerto and the Piece for unaccompanied flute. Let’s analyze its latent phrasing possibilities by transposing the rhythmic structure.
In this version the notes are the same, but the added sixteenth rest shifts the beat. Now the higher note of each minor third is in an accented position, exposing the previously "hidden" inverted major second. Many flutists would prefer this inverted grouping, claiming that it lies better for the fingers and settles into a more flowing pattern. Obviously the fingering pattern doesn’t change — only the mental image of it. The alternate intervallic framework (both seen and heard) gives the player a strong impression of a new and more comfortable sequence of fingerings.
This feeling for the inverted seconds can usually be obtained without having to rewrite the phrase (as we have done here), but simply by mentally bracketing the major seconds, being careful not to accent them sonically. In fact, feeling these major seconds against the beat after you’ve practiced them on the beat will reinforce your overall control, much like a cross-stitching that keeps the fabric of the phrase from unravelling.
However, in a long progression such as the one in the Ibert Piece (from low E to high E), one is still likely to feel an almost irresistible urge to rush. A good way to control this — although it is confusing and a little difficult at first — is to employ a diversionary tactic: divide the notes into groups of three.
It is surprising how often the mind seems to embrace three-note patterns in preference to two-note groups in a rapid passage, especially when it consists of such a long string of repetitious couplets. Perhaps the mind tires of too much repetition and, given the chance, prefers to camouflage such tedium by superimposing congruent triple groups. These groups can be started from any note, as shown in the following rhythmic transpositions.
It is helpful to practice all three versions, but the one shown in Figure 3 may be the most effective since it gives a subtle emphasis to the C# — a vulnerable note for rushing (when it follows A#). And it is still a good idea to heed conventional wisdom and practice these rhythmic transpositions slowly — at least some of the time. Then, go on to some other task. This will allow your subconscious mind to do some of the work for you by sifting out and digesting your most recent practice experience while your conscious mind is busy elsewhere. Rest and diversion are just as important to the learning process as highly concentrated practice sessions.
Regrouping also helps to improve evenness. For example, the tremolo type of phrase shown in Figure 6 is difficult to play cleanly. This is because each measure contains a two-note motive which must be played six times; and after so many repetitions, the contrary fingering motion between left and right hand tends to deteriorate. However, if we mentally regroup the notes into threes, we feel only one repetition of a six-note motive. Almost as if by magic, our fingers coordinate more smoothly and confidently. Although this approach is suggested mainly as a practice method, it can sometimes be carried over into performance, but one has to be very careful to avoid revealing these mental groupings through audible accents.
There are innumerable instances in the solo and orchestral literature for applying this "secret triplet" practice technique. Almost every running passage in compound meter has a potential for regrouping (four-note combinations are sometimes possible too). Figure 7 shows an example from the last movement of the Nielsen flute concerto (bars 239-242). Figure 8 is the practice version. Other such passages in the same concerto occur in bar 155 of the first movement, the last phrase of the main cadenza, and in the second movement, bars 162-174 and 255-262.
The following is a two-bar excerpt from the Griffes Poem (11th bar after letter L).
Its regrouped counterpart is especially helpful because it stabilizes the G# and keeps it from rushing.
But again, a reminder that it is a secret accent. Other trouble spots in the Griffes which can be treated in this way occur 6 bars after E, 15 after G, and 3 before J.
Figures 6 through 10 are all examples of internal regrouping without changing the position of the beat (as was done in Figures 2-5), and they can be practiced rather easily without any rewriting. In some music the beat can also be shifted conveniently without rewriting. Bars 97-102 of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel is a famous (and difficult) example. (See Fig. 11.) The composer’s precise notation shows clearly the unique displaced hemiola structure. It can be practiced as shown in Figures 12, 13, and 14. Each version makes a distinct contribution to strengthening technical control.
A more conventional hemiola is found in the opening bars of the flute part in the Scherzo movement of the Prokofieff D Major Sonata.
Practicing the following variation gives a good check on the evenness of the eighth notes.
In too many performances the three-note motive is played with a "cute" sounding diminuendo that spoils the rhythmic definition of the C. Here is a good antidote for such affectation.
Problems in Mozart
There are many passages in Mozart that tend to be rushed, uneven, or just plain difficult. One example is in bars 86-88 of the first movement of the D Major Concerto. (See Fig. 18.) The two-note slurs are often clipped, uneven, and over-accented. The two staccato sixteenths, on the other hand, are likely to be too soft and vague. (The bracket overlapping bars 87 and 88 calls attention to a special fingering designed for more smoothness. Keep the right third finger down and the fourth finger up for the duration of the bracket.)
A sampling of some conventional practice variations is shown in Figures 19, 20, and 21. By contrast, Figures 22 through 28 show that rhythmic transpositions make it possible to probe all the technical weak spots. Of course, the ultimate test of your control is to be able to play any of these transpositions and make your listener believe you are performing the original phrase — and doing it well!
The kinds of transpositions illustrated in these Mozart examples would be very difficult to practice without actually writing them out. And if writing out such transpositions for other problem passages seems to be a waste of time, consider the enormous amount of unnecessary and wasteful practice time that can be saved. Besides, I firmly believe that the very act of copying music helps one learn it better — think of all the great composers who developed their craft (at least in part) by copying in manuscript some of the admired works of their masters.
As composing technique, rhythmic transposition is of course nothing new. Along with the more familiar techniques of imitation, diminution, augmentation, and modulation, it is used by many composers (especially since 1900) to develop and vary their thematic material. Strauss, for one, is a master of rhythmic transposition, and abundant proof can be found in Till Eulenspiegel. Its first striking appearance is in the opening horn call. If your familiarity with this famous solo comes only from hearing it in concert or on records, you will be very surprised at the way it is notated. Here is indeed a tour de force of rhythmic transposition! (see Figure 29). A careful study of the entire score will reveal many other fascinating examples of this device.