Rhythm and ‘rhythm’

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RhythmFunny how you can be blinded by your own prejudices. I’m afraid I probably am the kind of person who says “I don’t use that button”, pointing to the drum rhythm pattern selector on my electronic keyboard.

What a dumbo. For ages, I’d struggled with the problem of using a metronome when you’re wearing headphones, not to mention struggling with the boredom induced by practising pages of arpeggiated semiquavers where only endless repetition and gradual increase of speed works.

It was only because I’d been working with a producer who advocated making rhythm tracks to record to rather than simple metronome clicks, that it occurred to me that I could use the rhythm selector on the keyboard as a metronome, notes & rhythm all coming through headphones at the same time.

And of course, it works like a dream. Not only is it much, much easier to practise to something that has a pattern and push to it, it’s a lot more fun. And most importantly, rhythm patterns also mark out the beginnings of bars, and frequently have a bit of a turnaround in them too. And depending on the music, and the beat you’ve selected, you might get a little pattern all to itself for each quarter-note, which gives extra life to a single note – something a metronome will never do.

And then there’s the fact that you’ve got about 200 rhythms to choose from, and an easy way to push the tempo up a beat at a time. When you’re a bit out of practice (as I am), it’s really annoying to play through stuff when you know that you’re being unrhythmical, so I decided to treat myself to a rhythm pattern while I played through one of my favourite pieces, Bach’s Italian Concerto (I happened to love Jacques Loussier’s Bach albums, so it was great fun). To my astonishment, with the benefit of a rhythm pattern, I discovered that I’d completely misconceived the rhythm of two bars in the first movement, because I’d misplaced the beginning of the bar in my head. A metronome click, ironically, doesn’t tell you anything about metre.

But just as some people think that you can only possibly practice ballet to piano music that sounds like something Hummel would have written when he was 12, there must be an invisible Berlin Wall in the minds of classical musicians that divides ‘rhythm’ (metronomes) from ‘rhythm’ (in the sense of ‘I got rhythm’), otherwise why would anyone want a simple metronome?


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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist