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Playing for ballet class tips day 19: read the feet, divide the beat

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There’s nae luck aboot the hoose, Good King Wenceslas, and a sample of a step rhythm. It all fits, but the top one is better.

In petit allegro, it’s a useful rule of thumb to listen to the rhythm of the exercise as the teacher sets it, and look very carefully at the feet as it’s being marked. Work out what the rhythm is that they make, and then divide it by half in the melody line.  If it’s a bit slow, swing or dot the melody.

So for example, let’s say that the rhythm the feet make is roughly like the bottom line in the example above (except that perhaps you wouldn’t have a step on every quaver beat), then you’d play something like the top line, There’s nae luck aboot the hooseThere are dozens of slightly different versions of this tune, depending on what it’s for and who’s playing it, but the main thing is, you can see that the tune divides the rhythm of the step, it doesn’t copy it.

Merely copying the rhythm of the step creates a beat that is effectively half the speed of the exercise.  It’s not that this beat isn’t present somewhere in There’s nae luck, but this tune also has subsidiary beat levels, and most importantly, all those semiquavers give you room to slightly stretch the beat, therefore making space (that subject again) for dance. This breathing space and contingency is the reason that fiddle tunes, quadrilles and rags work so well for petit allegro. With Good King Wenceslas, you have none of that. You can also see that the difference betweeen time signature, perceived beat, the rhythm of the step and the rhythm of the music illustrate that you might as well forget about time signature and focus on rhythm instead.

I haven’t got a name for the concept, but the principle is explained partly by the psychology of beat induction. When you hear two evenly spaced sounds in succession, your brain predicts when the third one will come, and if it does indeed fall there, then your brain goes ‘aha’ and begins to build a picture of a beat-framework where the beats you just heard are organized by another layer of  beats at half this speed . Thus, in the carol Good King Wenceslas, the middle line of the example above, the beat that you feel is at the level of the quarter note, because the repeated quavers predict it. Conversely,  whatever constitutes the beat-level of the exercise your teacher has set, you need to help your dancers to perceive that beat by subdividing it in some way. There’s Nae Luck Aboot the Hoose  does this, and the dotted rhythm (which you can take or leave, depending on the speed of the exercise) uses the additional factor of length to create the feeling of a beat at the quaver level (the actual note values are immaterial here, it’s the proportion of the durations that matters).

If you look the musical problem set out in those three lines above, you’ll see that we’re back to Riepel and his zweyers and vierers.  The rhythm of the exercise consists of two zweyers and a vierer, and that’s reflected in the fiddle tune, whereas Good King Wenceslas is two zweyers, but at half the speed of the exercise. If you merely copy the rhythm of the exercise with the melody of your music, then you may well end up playing music that perceptually speaking is half speed. This is often what dancers mean when they say that music is ‘heavy’ for an allegro exercise. it’s not that it’s entirely wrong – it fits, after all – but the perceived pace of the music as at a higher (slower) hypermetrical level, so it doesn’t support the dance well.

For petit allegro, the tip I’ve shown usually works like a dream, but there are cases at the barre where you might want to avoid it and do the opposite – but more on that tomorrow.