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Delicious “smoothies” for rhythmic practice



A healthy recipe for better speed and intonation – a Violinorum practice tip

There are some things you have to hear several times before they stick with you, and this was certainly the case when it came to one very helpful pointer I want to share with you today. Even though I was fortunate enough to have very good cello teachers, it wasn’t until many years later that I understood how useful this one method was. I came across it while browsing through the excellent blog written by Stefan Maus, the outstanding violin teacher from Hamburg. Sadly, his website has been dormant since 2009, but it’s still one of my favorite places to read up online because of its practical usefulness and quality.

One suggestion that has been helpful on a long-term basis was his tip (link in German) about practicing complicated runs of sixteenth notes and, above all, restructuring passages into rhythmic variations. In other words, he suggests that you even them out by running them through a figurative “smoothie maker”  ― iron them out until you have a smooth and fluid passage. This trick helps you solve a number of problems, especially if you are a Baroque junkie like me. The idea is to create new and different rhythmic patterns out of the chaos of semiquavers.

I’ll give you an example, and for personal reasons I’ll work with a piece from cello literature instead of the violin repertoire.

One standard piece which is very useful in playing these rhythmic “games” is BWV 1028, Bach’s second sonata for gamba (cello) and harpischord (or whatever you have at hand …), particularly the tricky 4th movement. The movement looks quite innocuous at first glance with its comparatively benign tempo of “Allegro.”

Anyone who has ever given this piece a shot, however, knows that the sixteenth notes here

are full of challenges, even though a passage like this in the third measure looks quite harmless at first glance. And it’s not just the cadence where things get difficult. By the time you shift positions from measure 32 onward, you quickly end up struggling your way through some forced and cramped noodling, and for many people, the situation doesn’t improve even after you have the intonation down properly.

So what to do? Try this, for example:

Or this:

Or to liven things up, play it like this:

Or this, of course:

Give it a try!

With a bit of rhythmic imagination, you can think of your own patterns, Alternatively, you can also consult Ivan Galamian’s standard classic “Contemporary Violin Technique,” whom we owe thanks for this approach.

You may ask yourself: isn’t this just fiddling around? (Pardon the pun.) Of course it is. But it’s very useful for many reasons.

Obviously the main goals here are coordinating the left and right hand, fluidity and speed. Practicing this method automatically focuses your attention synchronizing on the many moving parts and resolves the problem. Getting everything balanced and smooth can drive you crazy if you only every practice these passages in the context you see on the sheet music.

But I also like to use this technique to “proofread my intonation.” When I modify the rhythm like this, all of a sudden, wobbly passages and errors crop up that I just noodled through before. I then realize that these notes are not solidly rooted yet, even though I may have played them a thousand times already without incident. So if you are being honest with yourself and “make a smoothie” at even the slightest hint of an intonation problem, you can quickly refine the passage. This exercise will help you eliminate the last little sloppy passages in your piece.

Last but certainly not least, playing rhythmic variations on a theme is good exercise for your brain, which is also an important key to practicing successfully! That means this little trick is good for both fast and slow passages alike. By taking a step back from the rhythmic structure in the sheet music and the sequences you have in your ear, you will boost your brain as it tries to figure out the details of these patterns more effectively.


Nils-Christian Engel ist begeisterter Amateur-Cellist

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