5 Top Tips for Keeping Time

My column for the latest bi-monthly newsletter for Pianist Magazine contains tips and suggestions for how to keep a rhythmic pulse. Accuracy in this respect is an incredibly important component when learning to play any instrument, and many of you have written asking about the best ways of doing this. So here are my ideas – I hope they are of interest.

Keeping time (or playing rhythmically) can be a challenge for many, and particularly for pianists, as they are often playing alone and therefore have the opportunity to change the tempo as often as they wish! For those who feel they need to curb any tendency to rush or linger, here are a few ideas to implement at your practice sessions.

  1. To create the best tempo in any work (for you), locate what you feel is the most taxing area of the piece being studied and decide what speed is most comfortable in order to achieve clarity, fluency and a musically coherent performance.
  2. Once you’ve instigated a speed (when learning a new piece), go through the piece and tap the rhythm of the right hand part with your right hand (on the lid of the piano), and the left hand part with the left hand (also on the piano lid). You could do this hands separately at first, then both hands together. Ensure you count as you do this, so you establish a firm, steady beat. It’s easier to attain rhythmic precision (at the start of the learning process) when notes are separated from the rhythm.
  3. For fluency and rhythmic accuracy, consider using a metronome at the beginning of the learning process. Listen to the ‘tick’; both the speed of the tick and the ‘space’ in between. One of the most useful methods to attain accurate pulse keeping, is learning to ‘sit’ on the metronome tick. This skill can be acquired by playing exactly with the tick every time it occurs, as opposed to just before or after; both of which can happen with alarming regularity if you’re not used to attuning your ear and mind to decisively following a pulse. To do this effectively, it’s best if notes are securely learned, so you’re free to focus on time-keeping.
  4. Once the metronome has been used for a period of time and you’ve got used to playing along to an omnipresent beat, aim to count out loud as you play, or count along to the beat you have established. It can be a good idea to sub-divide the beat for this purpose. If your piece is in crotchets, count in quavers, and if it is in quavers, count in semiquavers, and so on. It may be exhausting, but by playing along to your verbal counting, you’ll quickly become accustomed to where you are in the bar and should eventually be able to ‘feel’ the pulse. As a general rule, the smaller the sub-division, the more accurate your pulse keeping.
  5. Finally, curb any sense of rushing (or slowing down), and encourage excellent articulation (or touch) by paying attention to the ends of notes; experiment by employing ‘active’, strong fingers, placing every finger precisely, producing a full, rich tone, paying special attention to the fourth and fifth fingers. Each note (or chord) must ideally be in its rightful place at any time, and shouldn’t be ‘cut’ or brushed over.

As with many facets of piano playing, listening will prove to be a vital element when learning to play in time. If you can train your ears to be really aware of what is being played, then you’re on your way to honing rhythmically sound performances.

Image: Nathan Nelson/Flickr

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Rhythmic Precision in the First Movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No. 1

Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas are a musical autobiography, charting the Master’s  development from a young man up to his death in 1827. The early sonatas are more typical of the traditional Classical style, akin to those written by Mozart and Haydn, whereas the last six, which are possibly the greatest in this genre ever written for the instrument, show Beethoven pushing the boundaries of sonata form as never before, producing esoteric, ecclesiastical and deeply personal music.

Most piano students at some time or other learn a Beethoven sonata, partly because they have such an exalted place in piano literature. They are also beautiful, very satisfying to play and are extremely instructive to learn. Rather like studying works by J. S. Bach, their structure (particularly the early sonatas) encourages students to digest Sonata Form as well as chordal writing (a predominant feature of the Classical Style) and get to grips with rhythmic precision.

A popular choice is Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No 1. Written in 1797, first published in 1798 and dedicated to Anna Margarete von Browne, the wife of one of Beethoven’s patrons, a Russian diplomat living in Vienna. All three sonatas of his Opus 10 are dedicated to Countess von Browne.  This work is the fifth in Beethoven’s entire sonata output and it’s interesting that he chose the key of C minor. Many of the composer’s most important pieces were conceived in this key, including Symphony N0. 5 Op. 67, Piano Concerto No. 3 Op 37, and Piano Sonata No. 8 Op. 13 (Pathétique).

Sonata in C Minor Op. 10 No. 1 is an exam board favourite. Currently, the first movement is on the ABRSM Grade 8 Syllabus (List B) and the whole work can be played as part of the DipABRSM programme. I played it for my entrance audition into the Royal College of Music Junior Department, so it has special memories for me and no doubt, for many others too.

A particularly Beethovenian feature in the first movement, Allegro molto e con brio, are the dramatic contrasts of sound and emotion. Before negotiating anything at the piano, it’s worth taking some time to examine this movement carefully. Notice the structure (Sonata Form), how the thematic material is employed, where the development section occurs (different material) and how the recapitulation and coda are both handled. This also makes learning easier because there is much repetition. Beethoven asks for a myriad of different dynamic levels and touches, and observance of these is vital to the overall success of a performance.

Possibly the main technical element to be assimilated is the necessary rhythmic precision required to play this movement effectively. The Classical style generally commands a crisp, articulated rhythmic drive, quite different from that found in Romantic works (that’s not to say that the latter genre doesn’t demand rhythmic clarity, but there is more freedom in terms of rubato here).  Without attention to rhythmic detail, a rendition will not sound ‘professional’ or accurate. This aspect is often one of the most taxing to master because it’s not merely a matter of playing along to a metronome (although this helps!), but more importantly it all hangs on whether the beat has been successfully broken down (or subdivided) for total accuracy and absorbed by the pupil, the pulse becoming fundamental.

The work begins with a thunderous C minor chord (requiring proper arm-weight so as to create the appropriate rich, warm sound) followed by an arresting C minor arpeggio figure which is a dotted quaver declamation followed by a quiet answering phrase;

Beethoven Sonata 3

This rhythmic figure becomes crucial to the thematic material, so perhaps a good place to start is to mentally embed this rhythm. It’s all too easy to rush, losing the drama and sense of direction.  If this dotted rhythm is placed correctly from the beginning, it bodes well for the movement as a whole.

So what is the most convincing way of articulating a group of dotted quavers followed by  semi-quavers in this context? Start by deciding how best to sub-divide the beat and then take a very slow speed. Why not try keeping time in semi-quavers? Be sure to account for all four (in each crotchet beat), placing the dotted quaver on beat one and the semi-quaver on beat four respectively. It doesn’t matter how they are ‘counted’. Counting aloud is good; vocal counting can really help with this type of precision, encouraging the pupil to immediately understand where to place the note. Setting the metronome to accommodate semi-quavers (or quavers if you prefer) is a good idea. Play extremely slowly to start with.

Another important element to consider is the regularity of the beat. I have written about this in a past post (which you can read here). ‘Sitting’ on the pulse is vital. In a sense, it’s not really about counting; it’s the regularity that counts, or the evenness of time between each beat. Decide on the best fingering first (there are some suggestions in the example above). Good fingering coupled with free rotational hand movements used between each interval, will be vital to the rhythmic success here (rotational movement in passages like these is another whole blog topic, so I won’t go into that here!); if fingerings are awkward or haphazard then playing the note ‘on time’ will be difficult, similarly ‘stiffness’ when playing this motion will also cause problems with the timing again, which is why freedom in all hand and arm movement is imperative. The example below provides an idea of beat sub-division;

Beethoven right hand

Admittedly, the semi-quaver beats look a little distorted written out under each note in this way, but if they are adhered to rhythmically i.e. evenly, then the dotted notes will be accurately placed. It’s most effective if the semi-quavers are played swiftly in a ‘snappy’ forthright way, so that each phrase is clean, clear and dynamic.

Once the dotted quaver passage has been dealt with, it must ‘fit in’ rhythmically with the rest of the phrase, so keep up the sub-division of the  beat throughout each phrase and indeed the entire movement, at least for a while. After which, set the metronome to beat in crotchets when the dotted patterns have been assimilated and then gradually increase the speed. It’s essential to place the dotted quavers correctly in order to articulate the many triplet passages which also inhabit this movement. These triplet figures benefit from total differentiation to the dotted notes. Work at them similarly, keeping time with and without the metronome.

Aside from the dotted quaver passages, there are also many ‘Alberti-Bass’ figurations. Whilst they appear fairly straightforward in terms of technical difficulty, pupils can become surprisingly unstuck here. This is where technical issues merge with rhythmic ones (as so often in piano playing). As mentioned earlier, a free rotational arm movement is paramount to the success of the rhythmic regularity (as is good fingering). Try to tackle these passages slowly, working with a heavy touch and free wrist. It can be helpful to accentuate (or emphasize) the melodic line in each phrase here, which is the lower part in this case. The example below illustrates this point; the first beat of each crotchet provides melodic interest and the second quaver (middle C in this case) is of less interest and consequently needs to be ‘lighter’:

Beethoven Left hand 2

Focusing in this way will balance the hand therefore aiding rhythmic playing, it will also illuminate the musical line and the importance of giving each note its full value.

Chordal passages need proper placing too. If they are precise rhythmically, the effect is both dramatic and exciting. To work at this issue, set the metronome to a quaver beat and practice moving in time slowly from one chord to the next, always allowing the melodic line to ‘sing out’ at the top of the chord and try to keep a free wrist too, encouraging sufficient movement and a good sound. Observe the articulation; crisp staccato chords will further emphasize excellent rhythmic accuracy, for example.

Another rhythmical conundrum is the importance of rests. Silences can be easily ignored in piano playing, especially by students who are often nervous and eager to get onto the next section. However, it’s the silences that make the music, as Debussy remarked, “music is the silence between the notes”. So with this in mind, be sure to give each rest its full value; not just for dramatic effect, but also to allow the music to ‘breath’. It’s worth mentioning too, that it provides the pianist with more time to think, which can be of optimal value!

By working on the rhythm meticulously in this movement (or any other Classical sonata movement) from the outset, you will be on the way to giving an accurate account. The metronome is always a good way to start regarding rhythm particularly with a work such as this one (although I know many who don’t agree here), but once the pulse has been fully mastered, then pupils must learn to keep time independently. As with all piano playing, success is in the preparation and, in my opinion, the best way to approach any work is by breaking it all down. Good luck!

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Pulse Perfection

Over the past few weeks I have been coaching several Grade 8 and diploma candidates; pianists who have come to me to play through  their set pieces and other aspects of their respective exams. It’s the time of year for cramming, studying and practising way beyond the norm in order to achieve that coveted high mark. There have, however, been recurring issues in many performances and perhaps these are fairly common place amongst those preparing for exams so, as a good blogger, I am going to write about them!

All advanced exams follow a similar format, irrespective of the exam board you have selected for your grade or diploma. Graded exams are slightly more restricting than diplomas due to the more limiting choice of repertoire. One aspect of critical importance in all musical forms, but especially the Baroque and Classical style, is rhythm. This may seem an obvious observation, but not adhering strictly to the pulse is a very easy mistake to make.

I’m not referring to basic rhythmic errors because these generally don’t occur in more advanced playing (well they may happen occasionally). However, some pianists are so locked into their performance or interpretation of a work, that they have become immune to the pulse or tempo.

I have been guilty of this crime in the past. When I developed my cabaret show, I had to learn to play with a live band and use a ‘click track’; an electronic beat similar to the sound of a  metronome which runs throughout an entire piece usually via a pair of ear phones. A click track makes no allowance for even the slightest tempo deviation, and I quickly realised just how un-rhythmical my playing could be. As soloists, pianists are at free will to play as they please, which encourages the habit of copious rubato (or taking time) everywhere. Some works do suit this type of playing, but it isn’t a requirement for whole swathes of twentieth century and popular music.

The best way to solve tempo problems initially is to work with a metronome; use it every time you practice for several weeks before an exam or concert, making quite sure you are playing on the beat all the time (this requires careful listening). However, that is only addressing half the problem; pulse deviation can be the result of many shortcomings including uneven playing, lack of concentration or even basic rhythmical awareness.

Uneven playing is a common culprit. Take a group of four semi-quavers like those below in Example A. If these notes have awkward fingerings or are difficult to place accurately for whatever reason, then this may lead to uneven articulation, thus throwing out the pulse completely. The second example (B) demonstrates what can often be heard in place of rhythmical semi-quavers (this is slightly exaggerated but you get the idea).

Uneven rhythm copy

A metronome can help to develop a sense of pulse, but it is the ‘inner-pulse’ that needs be cultivated for long-term rhythmical success. The ‘inner-pulse’ generally refers to a musician’s own sense or natural sense of rhythm, where pulse has become internalized; but when applied to playing, if sub-divisions of the beat are un-rhythmical then this can all be challenging to say the least.

One solution to this problem is for pupils to count fastidiously in small denominations; dividing the beat, counting 1,2,3 and 4 very evenly as suggested (in the example below), at the same time as playing the notes (this example is taken from the opening of Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 by J S Bach):

Bach Prelude Example copy

If your piece contains many semi-quaver passages such as those frequently found in works from the Baroque or Classical eras, then in order to ensure ‘even’ playing, it can be really useful to count every single semi-quaver beat accurately and separately. If you account for each semi-quaver beat vocally, then you really do have to concentrate and play with your mouth literally! (success also depends on your vocal counting being absolutely exactly in time). If you are unable to count rhythmically and play at the same time, then another way of addressing the problem is to set your metronome to beat on every single  semi-quaver (it can be done although needs to be on a very fast setting and the passages must be practised slowly too). Beware, this is exhausting. Start slowly building up speed gradually.

Once you have practised in this way for a while, you will find you are then totally ‘tuned in’ to the necessary precision required for rhythmical accuracy because you will be focussing on the beat inside the main crotchet beat (in this case). A steady ‘beat’ or ‘pulse’ is effortlessly achieved as a result, and it is much easier to play along with the metronome too. Sufficient regular practice in this way encourages the development of that elusive ‘inner-pulse’. If you work at this you will find that you never, ever rush or play un-rhythmically and your piano playing will definitely sound more professional.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.