Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Delayed continuity

I've been looking some piano literature lately, reading an old book called Practising the Piano (British spelling) by Frank Merrick. You can get it on Scribd without having to pay anyone but Scribd. Another site giving away a lot of content, making sure they get paid, if nobody else does. Let's talk about a thing Merrick calls delayed continuity— it's a useful phrase, whether or not we decide to practice the way he suggests: 

Some music is very easy to play phrase by phrase with pauses in between:  


If the pauses are so long that each phrase is mentally or actually sung a tempo before it is played, the player will benefit by this forethought and often excel previous efforts on the spot. If each phrase is also followed by a further pause for reflection and self-criticism the successful playing can be noted as worthy of retention and the unsuccessful as models of what to avoid. The threefold ritual can be abbreviated into three verbs, "plan, play, judge"[...]

Remember that the pause must always be at least as long as the phrase to come. The following shows the minimum length of pauses for Ex. 1:  


This leaves no extra time for criticising your efforts and if the thinking is a really expressive mental rehearsal of what is to come (rather than an apathetic conning over of the mere notes) it will be preferable to add a breathing space to the minimum pause. When the time is also taken for self-criticism, all sorts of practical questions like “Did the fingering, pedaling, etc, all conduce to give me a recognizable copy of  that mental rehearsal?” can be seriously faced. 

Sometimes the desire to try the phrase over and over again is irresistible, but think it through again first. Do not play twice on one mental rehearsal if you can withstand the violent temptation to do so which comes from an over-eager spirit. In this emulate not a hockey player but a golfer. When the latter misses the ball he repeats a very solemn and impressive ceremony known as “addressing the ball” before carrying out a second attempt. 

It's very similar to the way I teach independence/coordination on the drums— except I don't use the word “conduce” in my inner monologue. I use added stops or fermatas to group complex coordination items into manageable bits, and give time to think about what is the next thing. Drumming practice is usually very repetitive, so we'll often just be adding pauses to a single measure of a pattern. Like in my “skiplet” method*, I'll put a fermata on the 1 and 3. When teaching a Mozambique, I'll put a fermata on the rests, or quarter notes. The thinking-ahead phase takes the form of counting the rhythm of the upcoming part, and thinking through the four-way sticking. The criticism phase is instantaneous, and almost unnecessary. If you're doing it right, there will be no mistakes— you go slow enough, with small enough chunks of the overall pattern,  that you can do it perfectly. 

* - I'm too embarrassed to actually say that dumb word skiplet now. I just say spangalang for that little chunk of pattern. 

Playing the drums as a jazz musician is very different from being a concert pianist; Their job is deep learning of lengthy, very involved composed pieces, to be performed perfectly, note for note; there's a serious mental discipline involved with that, which Merrick's method serves— it should also be useful in concert percussion, when learning and memorizing a piece. 

A jazz drummer's job is to improvise a developing texture, with huge latitude for what exact notes are acceptable, if they're played in time. For a concert pianist unplanned notes are mistakes; for drummers unplanned notes are virtually the plan. But this tactic of suspending the time in logical places— usually by making a long note longer— to give yourself a chance to think through the upcoming coordination and count the rhythm, is very useful. 

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