Syncopation

Syncopation (even earlier etymology here - as daft as that sounds) is the root of most rhythmic excitement – and trouble. The trouble is that, often, the only suitable counterpoint to a syncopated rhythm is another opposing one. How can pupils in an ensemble survive that? You can switch off to surrounding parts and concentrate on your own one but this means missing out on much of the enjoyment. Even if you manage to switch off to the distracting parts and get in the groove of your own part, even its patterns break off into different syncopations in order to avoid monotony. And some of them could turn out to be helpful if only you could single them out.

Take these 32 bars of samba – extracted from a new piece introduced at today’s East Lothian Guitar Ensemble rehearsal. There are six parts with six or seven people to a part. samba-full-ensemble

Closer inspection reveals that the six parts really fall into three teams – each with its own rhythmic patterns and breaks:

  1. melody

  2. four harmony parts

  3. bass line

The trouble is that the pitch of the melody part falls more or less in the middle of the four harmony parts.

So we remove the tune in the hope of hearing how the bass interacts with the harmony parts: samba-bass-harmony-only

Then you can’t help feeling that it might be helpful to hear how the harmony parts bond: samba-harmony-only

In order that the pupils can practice with or against each of these combos – at a variety of speeds – I’ve posted 15 versions of the piece on the Guitar Group Midis page.

While preparing the play-along files I recalled how, around 10 years ago, I was struck to notice a school guitar group incorporating quite detailed articulation* into a medley of Burns tunes – even although there was none written in the music. It occurred to me that years of aural exposure allowed them intuitively to include what the written parts had omitted. I determined thereafter to be as fussy about the articulation as possible. The resulting paradox is that using a completely unmusical tool (a computer) has resulted in more expressive articulation than leaving it to chance and feeling. The pupils can afford to be intuitive but I can’t.

* articulation = the way in which the notes overlap, join up or separate; whether the transition between any two adjacent notes is elided with slides and slurs; the way notes are perceived to be grouped together through combinations of heavy or light touch

Treachery & Isolation

Imagine you’d been allocated one of the four inner-harmony parts in this six-part arrangement. Would the sea of syncopations, rests and fussy articulation seem daunting? one-note-samba-all-in

How about if you could play along to just those parts in class? one-note-samba-harmony-only

…before trying it against the contrasting – and therefore off-putting – bass line one-note-samba-harmony-bass

…and then trying it with the treacherous tune present – I say treacherous as its rhythms are similar to those of the harmonies but not identical – and therefore untrustworthy: one-note-samba-all-in

One of the things I love about Sibelius is that you can mute some lines, allowing pupils to hear others in isolation – before re-introducing rival lines, when familiarity and confidence build. If there are lessons in life to be extrapolated from musical situations, might one be that problems can be as much about context as substance?

 

Evidence

Do I have any evidence of emerging technologies improving ensemble skills? Nobody has ever asked me this but I found myself reflecting upon the topic recently as a result of gradual changes in practice. In days gone by, I always began secondary school guitar ensemble rehearsals in Week 1. Increasingly, the result of this was that pieces peaked too soon and so, more recently, I’ve tended to start in week 3 or 4.

The single biggest factor has been pupils being able to access play-along midi files on this blog, facilitating more meaningful home practice. This year I hope to experiment by producing mp3s which pupils can import into their mp3 players. I don’t imagine that they’ll listen for pleasure, but they’ll probably drive their families not quite so far up the wall in households where the family computer is in the living room.

Freed from the rush to begin rehearsals, we have spent a little lesson time trying out a few ensemble pieces for size – playing along with Sibelius scores on a laptop with external speakers attached. This allows pupils to try out not only varied pieces, but different parts within the same piece – with some surprising results. Some pupils have bid for parts more difficult than they would have been allocated – the appeal of the part sweetening the extra practice required. Another surprise is that arrangements, shelved a few years ago as too ambitious for school use, are beginning to seem possible. Pieces with syncopations* and cross rhythms** intended to wrong-foot the listener can have a frighteningly similar effect on some players if sufficient familiarity does not materialise. As most instructors spend only one day in each secondary school, today’s technologies create a space where that familiarisation can take place.

* Int 1 concept                       ** Int 2 concept