Violin Technique: Converting a Dry Beat into a Musical Pulse

May 31, 2022, 6:32 PM · Learning to play the violin expressively involves a great deal of listening and absorbing the emotions swirling around the music. The central component that organizes all of this is rhythm, but dry, matter-of-fact beats can produce one-dimensional music. When you can hear the fullness of a beat, the part that seems to expand when duplets become triplets, then the beat has been transformed into a pulse. You’ll be less likely to rush because the pulse has the context of the music.

musical pulse

If you tend to rush, develop your ability to fill each beat with the music’s potential, or its various components. We have names for these components, for example: subdividing the beats, warming up the sound, and using bow distribution. These add up to an unlimited palette of possibilities. While it may be daunting to consider all the choices, start by focusing on one component, and if you accomplish two, consider it a major accomplishment.

Thoughts About Feeling the Pulse

  1. Imagine the pulse, before even beginning to play. As an exercise, try playing any melody and observe if you start with a well-thought out beat, or a random, generic one. If you give yourself a pick-up beat and proceed to play too quickly, it’s most likely that you’ll keep building up speed. Change your perspective, preferably before you start playing. First observe the mood of the melody, then let the rhythmic subdivisions unfold rather than feel pre-determined. You’ll notice that the music will remain steady and inevitable, while your mind navigates the subtle terrain. The interplay of voices makes rhythm tricky; instead of pushing your particular pulse, find the one that the group is playing with.

  2. A strong pulse can help keep the tempo steady. Slowing down has many causes: fatigue, uncertainty about the notes, and not hearing the music in its finished state. A strong pulse can help because it always has an element of propulsion inside of it. A pulse also has the benefit of making itself felt. A beat can disappear, or worse, drift sideways and pull others down with it. It takes a lot of thinking to keep the pulse even. Melodies may stretch a little and a sustained note may savor the moment, but a timely reminder to yourself keeps the tempo alive and assertive.
  3. A pulse has vigor and direction. It encompasses all the music, dynamics, and subdivisions within its shape. An orchestra, paired with its conductor, packages this phenomenon so that knowing where the beat is almost a foregone conclusion. Take away the conductor, stand partners, and the percussion section, and you’re left with your knowledge of the pulse.

To develop your inner resources and rhythmic strength, play a phrase, then ask yourself what the beat is. Say the beats out loud with shape and decisiveness. Don't let fast notes trick you into thinking the beat is faster. Also, avoid being overly influenced by dynamics; soft doesn’t necessarily mean slow, and loud shouldn’t make you think you’re going faster.

Forging a Relationship With a Metronome

A beat from a metronome is not the same thing as a musical pulse. No doubt a metronome fills the vast void of supplying beats and structure. However, at best it serves as an entry point, leaving lots of vulnerability for being off the target. My experience with it was that it partially organized my rhythmic thinking while I played. I was "in the ballpark," as they say, when I entered my first youth orchestra at age 8, and I’m grateful for having that feeling of fitting. My bow arm and left hand generally coordinated with the musical fabric, but the question remained - how do I keep up with the subdivisions within subdivisions and dynamic curveballs? I wish someone had told me that this would be a lifetime project.

With 20-20 hindsight, here are three bits of advice I would have given myself to bridge the gap between being in the ballpark and playing with more precision:

  1. Pick one other instrument in the orchestra to match up with. Start with one you’re playing unison with, then add one which is playing a different rhythm than you.
  2. Know that the pulse will fluctuate. Beats are very evenly paced, but there is an illusion, or feeling, that some move faster or slower than they appear. This shouldn’t be a surprise because music is both flexible and consistent. Phrasing and rhythm are organic phenomena, and they will push us a little at one moment, and linger at another. Fortunately, we have ample warning that some adjustment needs to be made if we listen and observe.
  3. Tune in to the subdivisions. The subdivisions in a measure not only divide the music mathematically, but they show the direction in which the music is leaning. We unconsciously hear how music has gentle contours. We feel the shifting sands in which the music’s character changes with a syncopation or a hairpin dynamic. However, it takes more than subtle awareness to make the bow and fingers move with the rhythmic subtleties.

Carve out one or two minutes in your practicing to highlight the inter-connecting techniques that allow you to subdivide beats and feel the pulse, techniques such as subdividing the beats, bow distribution, and timely finger placement. Take a moment to make the left hand and right hand fit with the pulse. In this short, designated period of time, I’ve come to appreciate the pulse’s ability to organize and inspire these technical details. I also marvel at how long two minutes can feel.

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June 2, 2022 at 08:40 PM · Useful blog, Paul. The music that I'm most tempted (eager) to practice with a metronome are quartet parts. The metronome helps me learn where I'm most inclined to rush or drag. Subtle timing errors are most easily smoothed away with the ensemble. I find the metronome even more important for the piano parts that I'm learning for my newly-formed trio. We're doing Mozart and whenever I play the piano in a trio, I feel that I'm expected to provide a kind of time foundation.

June 2, 2022 at 09:22 PM · Paul, playing the piano reminds me of the rhythmic limitations that are often identified with playing the violin. Pianists by nature must make two hands fit together. A melody in one hand and an accompaniment in another create a more deliberate rhythmic structure. Violinists have to develop the skill of finding a sympathetic and exact rhythm to go along with the left hand. You can’t take anything for granted with the bow. Even holding a note for three beats is a rhythmic feat.

June 3, 2022 at 02:06 PM · Paul that is an excellent point.

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