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Solving the Problem of Rests

Patricia George | December 2018

    One of the hardest aspects of playing orchestral or chamber music is rests. Students might find this odd because they spend so much time working on technique, phrasing, tone and other aspects of playing the flute. The places where they do not play should be easy. However, rests figure heavily into ensemble performance mistakes. The main reason lies in counting errors, but the other problem is that what happens during the rest is out of a player’s control. 

Counting Rests
    One of the first things I teach at summer orchestral festivals is counting rests. I want the entire section to count in the same way so they can work as a team. When counting rests, I suggest putting the flute vertically on the right leg with the right hand on the right-hand keys. This ensures any moisture collected in the instrument flows onto the leg. If the flute is across the lap, there is a chance that the condensation will get into the keys and which can be disastrous. 
    Students should use the left hand to count measures. Put the left hand on the left leg and shape it as if holding a small ball. Count each measure by pushing down a finger (from the pinkie to the thumb). Only the fingers move, and the hand is stationary. When a rehearsal or letter number appears, everyone in the section (all flutes and oboes in orchestra) should slightly lift the whole left hand. If everyone lifts their hand at the same time, then all of the flutes (and oboes if in orchestra) know they are in the same place. Orchestral brass players, who have the most numbers of rests to count in orchestra, should count in a similar fashion to work as a team. 

Letters and Measure Numbers
    Works in the Classic and Romantic Eras placed rehearsal numbers at structural places in the composition. These might be at the beginning of the second theme in the exposition, again at the development, the beginning of the recapitulation, and again at the coda. The idea was to place the rehearsal letters at places where it would be easy to start rehearsing. Many modern composers number the bars and place rehearsal numbers every ten bars or so. I have always found this to be unmusical especially if the rehearsal number comes in the middle of a phrase. I once asked a composer why he did not follow the custom of earlier composers and put the rehearsal marks to match the structure of the music, and he said his composition teacher told him to be creative. 

Extended Number of Rests
    There are places in the repertoire where the rests are longer than a few bars. In these places there is a greater danger of making a counting mistake. When practicing the music for the first time, listen carefully to what happens in each measure (or check the score or a recording before the rehearsal). When you hear something that is memorable (i.e. the cellos enter), write that measure number in a small circle above the measure rest with the notation cellos beside it. 

Then you can check your counting against the handwritten reminder. Many books for musicals have these reminders already written in because the arrangers know that there is little rehearsal time for most pit groups and accuracy from the beginning is needed. 
    If the second flute part enters before the first flute, make a notation in the music. Flutists are used to entering together, so when one part takes the lead, a reminder is helpful. 
    Since much of the music flutists perform is in eight-bar phrases (or less commonly in six-bar phrases), students can count in phrases as a check to measure counting. This is especially useful with Classical symphonic minuet and trio movements. While there are many ways to count rests, the important thing is to pick one and have the discipline to do it the same way every time. 

When Something Goes Wrong
    Inevitably there are times when a player is resting, and someone else makes a mistake while playing. If the player does not know the music well, and especially if there is not a conductor, it can be very difficult to know where to enter. The previously mentioned reminders, as well as writing in the rhythmic notation played by the other instruments during a rest, can help resting players re-enter even though mathematically it is not the right place. Players get nervous. They skip beats or rush or drag. All of which can make counting rests more difficult. 
    In the less usual time signatures such as 5/8, 7/8 etc., it is helpful to make a notation above the measure as a reminder to whether the 5/8 will be a 2+3 or a 3+2. Periodically I have seen flute parts where the mixed meters were not indicated in a 17-measure rest. Without this information, there is no way to count this part accurately. You have to know where the mixed meters appear in the duration of the 17 bars. Composers should take care of this, but sometimes they don’t. Check the score to remedy this issue. 

A Few Examples of Trick Spots
    Take a look at a couple of bars from John Adams’ Chamber Symphony. The beam connects the stems of notes and helps players quickly see where the principal beats are in a measure. However, at the tempo indicated in this example, by the time you have figured out which beat you are on and the correct subdivision, it is too late. The rests will slow you down. This place is not one to sightread.
    Writing the counting 1 + 2 + 3 + 4+ helps you play with accuracy. Another way to indicate the beats is the telephone pole method where a straight line is drawn on each beat. 

John Adams Chamber Symphony,
I. Mongrel Airs, quarter note = 120-124, mm. 93-94

    Notice how the lines aid in placing the notes correctly in the example below. 

John Adams Chamber Symphony,
III. Roadrunner, quarter note = 152, mm. 1-3

The Simple Rests
    As many a great musician has said: if it can be subdivided, it must be subdivided. Look at the following accompaniment passage. It looks quite simple on the page. You play on one and then again on three. However, notice the tempo of quarter note = 40. Most players cannot keep a steady beat at 40 but can if they subdivide to 80. 
    This beat is much easier for most people to keep steady because it is closer to the rhythm of a heartbeat. Subdivision is the key to playing this accompaniment rhythm accurately and sensitively. In fact, most good musicians will subdivide when counting the eighth notes at 80 to be sure the attack is on the beat and not before. 

On Counting

    Nadia Boulanger, the brilliant composition teacher of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland among others, wrote, “To live you have to count. One who counts best lives best. One should be a saint to be a true teacher. The eyes give food to the hands.” Teachers often feel they spend an inordinate time teaching and correcting counting. It is one of the most noble things they do because without this skill students will never be able to play well with others.