Counting rhythms with a non-quarter-note pulse

January 28, 2015

Sometimes my students are stymied by rhythms like this:

subdivisions

These rhythms are really not at all difficult to play—to actually execute—for an intermediate-level student. The problem is just one of unfamiliar notation. It is usually related to the all-too-common misconception that the rhythmic pulse is always equal to a quarter note. If you approach this example with a quarter-note pulse in mind, the rhythms are indeed rather complex.

But even an intermediate student should be quite at ease playing subdivisions of a beat into twos, threes, and fours. For a student with the pulse-is-always-a-quarter-note mentality, that means this specifically:

subdivisions-1

So the key is to reframe the “difficult” rhythm so that it breaks down into subdivisions of two, three, and four. One way would be to rewrite it like this, using more familiar notation:

subdivisions-2

But often it’s enough for my students just to mark up the original to show an eighth-note rhythmic pulse:

subdivisions-3

If I walk them through marking the first few measures, they can often finish the project without much additional help. At that point, they are surprised to discover that the rhythms are really much simpler than they first appeared (and that 32nd notes are not necessarily “fast”).

For me this issue comes up most often in the Romantic-period etudes I have my students play, most especially the oboe etudes by Ferling (which my saxophonists also play) and the 32 clarinet etudes by Rose (which are mostly based on the Ferling etudes), but also some of the Milde bassoon etudes and Andersen flute etudes.

In each of these cases, by far the most common occurrence of a non-quarter pulse is the eighth note pulse, and some editions of these indicate an eighth-note based metronome marking (which should be a big hint to a student). In general, my students handle this less-familiar notation with ease once they learn to watch out for etudes or repertoire movements that have 32nd-note rhythms, and to count those with an eighth-note pulse. (The clarinetists run into this early in the Rose 32, as the first and third etudes begin with seeming quarter-note-pulse rhythms, then surprise the student with 32nd-note passages later.)

A 16th-note pulse is also not unheard of (I run across this most often in Baroque repertoire), and certainly others are possible. “Cut time” (2/2) time signatures also fall into this category, though they seem to alarm my students less because they are generally easy enough to count in 4/4; they do sound much more poised if I can convince them to use a true half-note pulse.

In summary:

  • If an etude or repertoire piece has 32nd-note rhythms, try counting with an eighth-note pulse. If it has 64th notes, try a sixteenth-note pulse, and so on.
  • If the composer or editor provides a metronome marking, notice what note duration is suggested (for ♩ = 50, count in quarters, but for ♪ = 100, count in eighths).
  • If it helps, mark in the pulse to reveal the familar two, three, and four subdivisions.
  • Don’t panic!