The game of inner pulse

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has published a series of innovative marketing videos on social media, recently. The kind I’m referring to is where the written music for an instrumental part in a piece moves along to a recording of the orchestra playing, highlighting the importance of the part, or perhaps the technical difficulty of that particular passage. There’s a good one for the timpani at the end of the first movement of Sibelius’s fifth symphony – but you can hear that passage live on the 18th May, if you’re reading this beforehand!

I find one video particularly good: the Rite of Spring Clap-along – Sacrificial Dance – GAME, video. This mimics video games that became fashionable in the early noughties, where you could ‘strum’ along with a mock guitar, with buttons on the fret board, to mimic the pattern on the screen’s moving track and thus play the music. Similar games existed for dancing with the help of movement directors. The LPO’s video is a great way of engaging with those familiar with those types of games, but also very good at showing the tremendous skill of the musicians playing, to not just interpret the dots on the page, but to play them with the necessary articulation and together! More on this below.

Pieces like The Rite of Spring take a lot of learning, even for professional musicians. I remember someone saying that conducting with it with professional musicians who’ve already learned and played it several times is not all that difficult (assuming you put the beats in the right place!), but that probably the most difficult task there a conductor could face is trying to help an orchestra of players who’ve never played the piece to learn it. For non-professional musicians, difficulty with rhythm and non-standard time signatures can be found on a relatively basic level. Most of us relate to music in ‘simple’ time. In very simplistic terms (no pun intended), this is where the smaller parts of each beat are divided by 2, such as 2/4 (two crotchet beats that can be divided into two quavers each) – like almost any march. We’re generally taught pieces in those sorts of time signatures first, as children. ‘Compound’ time, where the smaller parts of each beat are divided by 3, such as 6/8 (two dotted quaver beats that can be divided into the 3 quavers each) – think of ‘Morning Mood’ from Peer Gynt – is usually learned later. Maybe this is the reason why even in music where playing the notes is not technically difficult, I often notice that players find it more difficult to sight read in compound time than simple time.

Given this phenomenon, playing together in compound time can be more challenging, while you’re getting to know the notes when, inevitably, more of your concentration goes to working out what notes to play rather than the parts of concentration that enable many musicians to play together. The harder the notes and rhythms, the longer it takes to be able to apportion more grey matter to listening and watching. And when the music is as complex as The Rite of Spring, it takes a great deal longer to enable this concentration shift. Professional musicians can do this faster, but not only because they are masters of their instruments – it’s because they have a more ingrained ‘inner pulse’. This is a term I first heard used by the recently-departed and much-missed Patsy Moore, long-time conductor of the Da Capo Orchestra (for adult learners, beginners and those returning to music or wishing to learn a new instrument) and wife of APO bassist, Ken. Even after many years of musical training, I had never been formally taught it as a concept, in any guise. I guess I had picked it up – I had been conducting for a few years at this point and it’s pretty important!

Inner pulse is the way your mind internalises the beats of the music, particularly the smaller, sub-divided parts of beats. If you have a good inner pulse, you barely need a conductor, just your ears and lots of other players whose inner pulse is as good as yours. Naturally, the more non-standard a time signature (or time signatures, if in a piece where it changes pretty much every bar, like The Rite of Spring), the more the inner pulse is discombobulated. So, whereas it’s quite easy to cope with six quick pulses grouped into two beats, what do you do with seven?

If those pulses are quavers, you’re a 7/8 time signature, and this is how Alice Knight chose to write the bustling body of her piece, Interwoven. It’s not that unusual a time signature. I remember reading how former APO Young Composer Award winner, Jenni Pinnock, is quite partial to a bit of 7/8. The first time I came across it was in the finale of Shostakovich’s second piano concerto. That, in common with Interwoven groups the smaller quaver beats into three bigger beats, in the grouping 2+2+3. So, from a conducting perspective, you just make the third beat slightly longer to accommodate the third quaver. It’s perfectly possible to group the quavers in any way you like – in Stravinsky’s Petrushka, a passage in 5/8 is interchangeably grouped in combinations of 3+2 and 2+3 – requiring some serious concentration from the conductor to get them in the right order! You can also elect to somehow show the extra quaver in the longer beat, with a little flick of the stick, but whilst my conducting teacher was very good at this in the Shostakovich, my stick technique wasn’t really up to it. You can even just beat the three quavers out, but if they’re quick like in ‘Interwoven’ it doesn’t make it very clear (and it’s tiring!).

There’s another problem with any attempts to ‘show’ the third quaver in the hope of helping the ensemble play together: it often has the opposite effect. One of the trickiest things I find when conducting is realising when through trying to help, I’m getting in the way. And it’s not just with the stick, but in other ways. When we first performed Interwoven, at Reading station in 2017, we gave two performances. Notwithstanding the challenges of performing in the station environment, with all its noises off, I remember finding it difficult to make the 7/8 section ‘flow’ and stay together. Some of the notes are tricky, but certainly not unplayable. In rehearsals last weekend, I came to two conclusions: a) that the 7/8 pattern was getting stuck due to players – especially those coming in after not playing for a bar or two – spending two long waiting for the longer final beat of each bar, and b) that the solution was to go faster. In a way, this worked. The music was certainly exciting and dynamic. It flowed better and players were getting off that seventh quaver beat onto the next downbeat better. But it was at the expense of tidy playing. The ensemble was messy. Tricky notes had been made much harder to play accurately. When this happens, the extra excitement generated by the quicker tempo is dissipated by the lack of ensemble. In accented, funky music like this, excitement comes from playing together.

My sense that I’d got the strategy wrong was confirmed when leader Mel and I checked the metronome speed Alice had indicated, after the rehearsal. We were surprised to find that we had ended up going a lot faster than she had intended. So, during this week, I’ve been thinking about a different strategy for realising Alice’s intentions and doing a much better job of this particular section of her fantastic piece. And I came back to inner pulse. Can we do something that gets my beat out of the way, stops us all getting faster, whilst simultaneously stopping those with rests from dragging? I’ve come up with this, inspired by the LPO’s ‘gamification’ and shamelessly ripping off I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue‘s ‘Pick up song’ round.

Here’s a little excerpt from ‘Interwoven’ scored on the piano. It’s useful for two reasons: a) because it gives us a clue as to the composer’s desired tempo (quaver = 240) – much slower than we ended up at last Sunday’s rehearsal and b) because it will hopefully inspire the violins to practise the tricky semiquavers in the middle of the passage!

Interwoven exercise – full clip

Now, here’s a version with every other bar missing. Try two things:

  1. Sing along to it, filling in the missing bars.
  2. Sing along to it in your head, filling in the missing bars.
Interwoven exercise – one bar at a time missing

This is a good basic text of your inner pulse. Be really honest – when the music came back in each time, were you exactly with it?

Now the big test (with a hat-tip to ISIHAC). I’m going to cut out some bars in the middle. Can you repeat the exercise above but with a longer gap. Can you get back in time? Can you do it several times? Are you ahead or behind? (I should add that if you’re within a Knat’s crotchet when the music comes back in, I’ll be awarding prizes…)

Interwoven exercise – pick up song

How did you get on? It’s really difficult, isn’t it? The good news is, I believe you can train your brain to have a better inner pulse. When you were in the silent bars and singing along in your head, what were you ‘singing’? Was it the music, or was it a kind of metronome beat. If it was the latter, it could correspond to my conducting beats like this.

Interwoven conductor beats

But we know that a good inner pulse should correspond to the shorter beats within each beat (perhaps even the next shortest within those, if possible). That would sound like this.

Interwoven inner pulse beats

But they’re really hard to keep track of, in terms of which beat of the bar you’re on. You could look at the conductor, of course, if their beat is clear and you can tell immediately which part of the bar they’re on (!). However, that’s not the point of inner pulse. The best solution is therefore to be able to count (actively or automatically, depending on how good you are at it or what you need at any point) the conductor’s beats while still having the smaller beats in your head. I’ve used pitches to represent the three beats of the bar here, but that’s not necessary if you’re counting them. And I’ve used accents on the conductor’s beats (useful for this exercise, though if a composer puts syncopated accents off the main beats, your inner pulse gets even more tested!)

Interwoven inner pulse with beat pitches and accents

Now, having listened to each of those, maybe a few times, have you strengthened your inner pulse? Go back and have a go at the pick up song exercise, but instead of singing along to the music you heard in the very top clip (which obviously members of the orchestra learning the piece will be able to do better than others reading this post who aren’t familiar with it), use your choice of inner pulse ‘metronome’.

Maybe you improved a little, perhaps even imperceptibly? One blog post won’t have cemented a professional inner pulse – it takes many years to develop and strengthen it to a level where you can cope with The Rite of Spring. And, of course, you’ll need other skills and tricks to help – simple stuff like marking where the beats (large and small) are within a bar, if it’s a complex one (something you don’t get to do with the LPO game!). It’s not just about inner pulse during rests, either. There’s the small matter of staying in time whilst playing your instrument, with all the technical challenges that entails.

I’m interested to know others’ ideas for inner pulse development. What works for you? And if you’re a non-musician reading this, I hope I’ve been able to make it an interesting insight into the challenges we face! Fingers crossed it makes a positive difference!