Playing With Wolfgang: Bach’s Groove
“I just can’t get the beats to this song. Where is the groove?”, said one of my college class piano students. I had a moment of panic. My eyes must have glazed over because he said, “I’m sorry my question is irritating but I really don’t understand.” “No,” I said, “I’m not upset with you, I’m just trying to figure out how to help you!”
This was classical music not pop or jazz. This was a simple Bach dance. He was counting the meter fairly well. And then, suddenly all was clear. He couldn’t feel that the vitality of the rhythmic motive extended throughout the piece. I had to help him find the underlying pattern (aka “the beats” or “the groove”). I had to teach him to imagine that pattern all through the piece.
Since we were in the piano lab, I went to another piano and switched on the percussion sounds. I played the “groove” as he played the piece. Then we switched. His face lit up as he started to feel an underlying (mostly unwritten) energy in the piece. “I’ve played trombone for 12 years and I never thought of music this way!”, he said.
One of my adult students recently worked on The Gavotte from French Suite #5. She complained, “This sounds heavy and flat.” We spent a large part of the lesson working on a feeling of 2 upbeats leading to a heavier downbeat. I used Nelita True’s “Go to here.” We gestured with circles to get the feeling of up, up, down in her core.
At the next lesson, things were a little better. Whenever the upbeats were in the melodic motive, there was a real feeling of lift before the downbeat. But there was no feeling that the motive was central to the vitality of the piece. We went through the piece more carefully, discovering hidden instances of the motive. We marked them with staccatos and tenuto ( . . _ ). I clapped the upbeat pattern throughout as she played the piece.
It took a few more lessons for her to truly understand and demonstrate the underlying groove in her playing. When she started out, if it wasn’t in the melody, it just wasn’t there. Once she could imagine . . _ throughout, the piece came together. All the little things that she had formerly felt didn’t belong became cohesive parts of her interpretation.
I’m not really sure where and when I learned this rhythmic lesson or even if there was a specific aha moment for me. I feel as if I have always felt rhythmic vitality and motive as distinct from, yet related to meter. I know that my undergraduate teacher played rhythmic accompaniments along with me to help me hear and feel where music was headed and why (with special attention to upbeats).
I had a chamber coach one summer who talked a lot about the McNamara rhythm in Beethoven’s music. I was working on the Appassionata at the time and found it to be very entertaining. One of my graduate teachers helped me discover how to use pedal to highlight rhythmic groove and add spunk and sparkle to virtuosic pieces.
I think my students find the whole concept to be very much akin to a giant musical game of Where’s Waldo?: aka Where’s The Groove?