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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

GRAM Variations - Part 3 (and 4)

This entry is a followup to  GRAM Variations Part 1, and Part 2.  Having dealt with Groupings and Rhythms, try changing up the Articulations.  I find it very helpful to take a difficult passage of more or less slurred notes and to temporarily practice it as staccato.  This type of articulation gives extra clarity and purpose to the individual notes.  As with the other variations, the sky is the limit.  The added benefit to this type of practice is that it is likely to improve your articulation, while working on something else.

The "M" in GRAM is for Metronome.  If you are a serious musician, you need a Dr. Beat-style metronome.  The flexibility that this little machine provides makes it well worth the price.  For extra audibility, I run mine through the stereo system in my studio.  At any rate, a cheap metronome simply won't allow you to do some of the things that I am about to recommend.

The traditional approach to using the metronome has the click on the pulse, so quarter notes in 4/4 time, for example.  Especially at slower tempos, an extra level of subdivision can help you stay in time.  Try having the metronome click 16th notes while you play 8th notes.  When this is comfortable, set the metronome to click only on the syncopated 16th subdivisions, so that you play the 8th notes into silence, while listening for the internal backbeat.

As you work through a complex passage, experiment with different ways of using the metronome.  I like to set the metronome to click at very wide intervals, to test how well I can stay in tempo with only occasional assistance.  In a measure of 16th notes, set the metronome to only click on beat 1.  What if you set the metronome to only click on beat 1 of every other measure?  Try the metronome only on beat 2, or on second subdivision of alternating beats.  Use the loop function on the metronome to set up all kinds of crazy situations.

By starting with a lot of subdivision, and slowly reducing towards the vanishing point, we develop rhythmic independence and stability.  I have heard the argument that the metronome is a crutch, and while I generally disagree with this assertion, the type of practice outlined above easily moves in the opposite direction.  Rather than leaning on the metronome, you can use it like the training wheels on a bicycle, progressively relying more on your internal clock.

The next time you are stuck on a difficult piece of music, and you can feel the Practice Monster rising, take a breath, center yourself, and try some GRAM variations!

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