Grouping notes to help play semi-quavers easily and musically

It is a common experience of the improving player to feel anxious about trickier music – the more notes on the page, the more worried we feel! But there are strategies for improving the way we can approach ‘note-heavy’ sections of music so that we can play them without feeling concerned. We can apply practice techniques to get the semi-quavers under our fingers, and we can work on grouping notes so that they sound beautiful while still being relatively easy to play.

Last time we talked about strategies for learning the notes. This week we’re going to look at how to use note groupings as a way of making notes easier to play, even as you work on getting them to sound musically interesting. Let’s get started.

Grouping notes…

For my last Biber Duo concert, I played the second line of a Quantz sonata. Here are some bars from the opening movement:

A passage from a Quantz duet that I’ll use to show how grouping notes works.

When faced with a passage like this, I start off by noticing where the tricky parts are, and working on those using the techniques that I wrote about in the previous post. Once the notes seem a little more under control, I begin to look at note groupings. I try to find which notes seem to belong as a mini-phrase: which ones feel like they fit as a little group?

In the Quantz passage, I could group the notes in groups in simple groups of 8:

The Quantz passage with a basic way of grouping notes.

Or I could make a different choice. I could, for example, choose to group in 7, and have the eighth note become part of the next mini-phrase:

The Quantz passage with a different way of grouping notes - for interest and ease of learning.

Why group them like that?

  • If I play this grouping, I do a number of useful things:
  • I break the notes up into memorable phrases, so I am more likely to learn them
  • I break up the tendency for lots of semi-quavers to rattle through completely equally. This can sound scarily machine-gun-like in intensity!
  • I give the audience a point of interest. An interesting phrasing is a bit like using an unexpected word in a sentence – it gives the listener a hook so they can engage more easily.
  • I provide the other musician(s) something to bounce off. If I play that phrasing in this piece, my duet partner can choose to copy my phrasing, or even embellish it.

The notation is not the music

As amateur musicians, sometimes we become too wedded to what we see on the page. We see semi-quavers divided into groups of four, and then play them as they are written. But the written music is just a convenient symbol system – it isn’t the whole story. We need to look beyond the notational groupings and find ways of grouping notes that are based on meaning and feeling. When we do that, we make the music, and we make it memorable for everyone.

Some ideas on playing semi-quavers easily (and musically)

It is a common experience of the improving player to feel anxious about trickier music – the more notes on the page, the more worried we feel! But there are strategies for improving the way we can approach ‘note-heavy’ sections of music so that we can play them without feeling concerned. We can apply practice techniques to get the semi-quavers under our fingers, and we can work on grouping notes so that they sound beautiful while still being relatively easy to play.

This week we’ll talk about strategies for learning the notes. Let’s get started.

Learning the notes, AKA taming the semi-quavers!

The first challenge with tricky passages is learning to play them! There are a number of practice strategies that you can use to help you become familiar with fast or tricky passages. The ideas below are the ones that I and my colleagues use most frequently to help learn the tricky bits.

Playing slowly

I’ve talked about this before in a previous blog, but it’s so important that I’m going to mention it again. The best way to learn to play things that need to be fast is to start by playing them slowly. In the words of YouTuber and bassist Adam Neely, you should begin by playing glacially slow.

I know that this takes a degree of discipline. Particularly when you know the work, it is really tempting to try to play at something approaching concert speed. The trouble with doing this is that you are likely to ‘fall off’, make mistakes, or find ways of ‘fudging’ your way through the passage and never really learn how to play it properly. Whenever you come up to that section, you’ll become tense because you’re not quite sure whether you’ll manage it today. It is SO much better in the long run to do the work playing slowly – and even more slowly than you think is reasonable – until you have developed the procedural memory to be able to play the passage more quickly.

Working backwards and ‘chunking’

In combination with playing slowly, you could try this technique – one of my personal favourites for learning a passage. You start with the final few notes and work on playing those well. Once you feel you have that final ‘chunk’ under control, you work on the few notes that come immediately before it, and work on playing them securely. This is your second ‘chunk’. When you can play the penultimate chunk well, you can try to join it and the final chunk together. Keep on working in this way until you’ve ‘chunked’ the whole of the passage you are trying to learn.

Why work backwards? For the simple reason that you will have repeated the end of the passage more often. Typically, when a player works from the beginning, they learn the beginning of the run very successfully, but their knowledge tails off towards the final sections of the run. This is problematic, because their concentration is likely to become harder to sustain as the run continues. So by the end of the tricky passage, they are at the limit of their concentration just as the security of their knowledge is also lessened!

If you work in the way I suggest, you actually know the semi-quaver run more securely as it goes along, meaning that you won’t have to worry about taxing your concentration.

Playing with rhythms

This is a favourite strategy of my duo colleague. Basically, if you have straight semi-quavers in front of you, try playing them in a dotted rhythm. Then try playing them with the dotted rhythm reversed. Be creative, and try to find other ways of breaking up the notes into different rhythms and patterns.

This strategy helps because it encourages you to loosen your ‘tunnel vision’ focus on the phrasing as it stands in the music. You are spending extra time on half the notes, giving you time to think about what note comes next. It seems likely that it also helps to formulate stronger and broader traces in your procedural memory. This will help later if you need to change your interpretation in order to fit with other players/accompanists.

Alternate fingerings

I and my colleagues are firm believers in using alternate fingerings to make life easier. The principle I follow is to try to keep at least one finger still on the instrument to help keep it steady while all the others are flying about! So if I have the following pattern in a passage for treble recorder:

Using alternate fingering to play notes like these helps make fast semi-quavers easier.

I will be using the 0 34 fingering for the E rather than 0 1, as it entails fewer finger movements.

Go through your passage, and if you come across something involving a lot of finger movement, see if you can find an alternate fingering that will make it easier.

Playing with articulation

Sometimes you’ll run across a passage with semi-quavers all slurred, or in groups of 2 or 4. If a passage has a lot of slurs, work on learning the notes without the slurring, or by changing the slurs to every 2 or 4 notes. Sometimes just playing with the articulation is enough to make the notes easier.

You may also find that if you have difficult jumps that the notes sound more clearly; at this point you may even consider whether the articulation in the printed music is playable for you. As a rule, I would rather the note sounded well and clearly than get the articulation score-perfect and have notes not come out clearly.

Little and often

When learning difficult passages, working on them in small concentrated bursts tends to be more effective than devoting a long practice session to just a few bars. There is a limit to what our powers of concentration can manage, and current advice from learning experts is that you will do a better job of strengthening the memory traces if you come back to the passage after a break.

Even 5 or 10 minutes can be enough to make progress on a chunk or two. Do that three or four times in a day, and you will have made significant progress on your tricky passage.

If you don’t have the time or it isn’t practical to keep coming back to your instrument over the course of a day, then do 5 minutes on the tricky passage, change to a different piece and work on it, and then come back to the tricky passage. Interleaving your practice in this way is a tried and tested practice technique.

I hope these practice ideas come in useful! Next time I’ll talk about the concept of grouping semi-quavers so we can make them both more musical AND more playable.

Problems playing bass clef? Try this…

Perhaps you’ve just recently bought a bass recorder. You want to become proficient at playing bass clef, but it sometimes feels really tricky. How can you improve your bass recorder and bass clef skills in a way that’s fun, but doesn’t necessarily involve spending a lot of money on books specifically for bass recorder?

Why playing bass clef matters

Students usually start learning on a soprano recorder, and after a little while move on to a treble. After gaining proficiency on these two instruments, it’s completely reasonable for players to want to branch out into consort playing – because it’s fun – and they start wanting to learn to play tenor and bass recorders. Tenor functions like a very large soprano and so is relatively easy to learn. Bass recorder, however, for many players involves learning a whole new clef. Even if the player has bass clef skills from keyboard or another bass instrument, it can still be a challenge to link bass recorder fingerings to the notes on the stave.

But it’s really important to learn, for two reasons. First of all, it vastly increases the amount of music you can play, and your versatility as a consort player. And because of this, you’ll have so much more fun. That, by the way, is the second and most important reason for working on your bass skills: you’ll have so much more fun!

Playing bass clef…

Once you’ve started to get used to the bass recorder and you can (mostly) reliably get your fingers around the notes, I suggest this. Instead of buying lots of expensive books where music is adapted for bass recorder, try taking advantage of some of the music you probably have hanging around already. For example, if you’ve been doing grade exams, you may have started collecting editions of sonatas by Handel and other Baroque composers. These usually come with a keyboard part and a part for basso continuo. This part, usually for a cello or viol, is a great practice ground for the novice bass recorder player.

Take a look through the basso parts you have, and try and find one where most of the notes fit the range of the bass recorder. Then work on learning the basso part. A good example is Handel’s sonata for recorder in B flat major, HWV 377 (also known as Fitzwilliam Sonata no.1).

Handel sonatas like these Fitzwilliam Sonatas are great for playing bass clef from basso continuo parts.

This sonata has a lovely cello line that is almost entirely playable on the bass recorder. Not only that, but it uses notes that are quite high up on the instrument in places: this will help you to learn how to play high notes on the bass and not be afraid of them! If you don’t have any sonatas lying around the house, try searching IMSLP, using a search term like ‘Handel recorder sonata’, and see what you find. There are plenty of good sonatas out there.

The advantage of this approach is twofold. You get practice playing bass clef, and on parts that can be relatively easy. But you also get to hear Baroque bass lines, which will be really useful for your solo line playing; you learn what the cadence points sound like, and the sorts of harmonies that composers like Handel used regularly.

And bonus practice on the treble…

The other advantage of playing the basso continuo part of a recorder sonata is that you can double up by working on the solo treble recorder line, too. You could even try recording yourself playing one of the parts, and then play along to your own recording. 

Working like this will sharpen up your bass recorder and bass clef skills, and get you to a point where no intermediate level consort bass recorder part should be a problem. You’ll be able to join a group and know that you’ll hold your own. And then you can have tons of fun.

Choosing a new recorder – more tips and hints

Looking for a new recorder? Lots to choose from at Open Recorder Days Amsterdam.

You’re choosing a new recorder. After last week’s post, you’ve decided whether you want to go for plastic, wood, or even plastic-and-wood. But what do you do now? You could go to a shop. You could buy online. Or you could have some fun! Seeing as the London International Festival of Early Music is coming up, and also Open Recorder Days Amsterdam, you could well decide to go to an exhibition and see lots of sellers and makers all in one place.

Whichever option you choose, you need to think about the following things. These are my tips for making sure that you end up buying the instrument that suits you, your physique, and your playing style, so that you can have many happy hours of playing ahead.

Set your budget

Exhibitions are full of pretty things, and many of them are very expensive. Decide beforehand how much you are prepared to spend, and try to stick to it. Choosing a new recorder can be a little like attending an auction – if you don’t decide your limit, you can easily spend more than you intended!

Shop around.

The great thing about exhibitions is that there are a large number of shops and makers in one place. Talk to everyone; try as many instruments as possible. Even try instruments that are well outside your price range. I know this is a dangerous suggestion, but it means that you’ll have a sense of what a top-quality instrument is like. You can then use this as a kind of benchmark when you start to try out other instruments.

Try out instruments.

Be prepared to play. Scales and arpeggios will tell you if the instrument is in tune, and will give you an idea of the tone of each note up and down the registers. But also take along (or memorise) a fragment of a couple of things that you are playing at the moment. This will give you a sense of what each instrument is like to play in the repertoire that you are working on. Your new recorder will need to feel and sound comfortable in the repertoire you most often play.

It also needs to feel comfortable in your hands. Are you having to stretch a little more than is comfortable? Is this an instrument you’re going to play often? Unless there are really good reasons to do otherwise, I would tell you not to buy it, no matter how good the sound. You will always be struggling to play and won’t enjoy it as you should.

Try to find somewhere quiet

This is a tall order, particularly in the London International Early Music Festival home at Blackheath Halls, but if you can find a spot that is slightly quieter, you will have more of a chance of hearing the tone of the instrument you are trying out.

Take a friend

When you play, you are effectively behind the instrument, so you don’t really hear what it actually sounds like to an audience. Take a friend along (preferably someone who also plays recorder) so that you can ask their opinion on the tone.

(If you’re not at an exhibition) Order more than one instrument to try.

Shops like the Early Music Shop will send you more than one instrument, so that you can try different models at home. This is great because it gives you a little more time to decide, and you can ask friends you play with – or your teacher – what their opinion is of each instrument.

Take your time

If you find one or two instruments you like at an exhibition, ask the seller to put them to one side for you. Walk away. Have a cup of tea. Let yourself have a moment or three to reflect. It can be very easy to get caught up in the moment, and sometimes it’s a great idea to give yourself some space to decide if you want to go ahead with the purchase.

Then go back to the seller, and try the instrument one more time. If you still love it, buy it.

The most important thing is that you choose a new recorder that you enjoy playing. It should be comfortable in your hands, and make a nice sound for you. And you should take pleasure in the way it looks and feels. If it does all these things, you’ll be happy playing. And that is the most important thing of all.

Photo of Open Recorder Days Amsterdam 2017 by Jennifer Mackerras

Choosing a new recorder – wood or plastic?

The London International Festival of Early Music is coming up in early November, and before that Open Recorder Days Amsterdam. And then Christmas is nearly upon us! This means it’s the time of the year that lots of us start feeling the urge to buy a new recorder. But if you’re quite new to playing, you might not know what to look for, or how to go about it. This week and next I want to give you my tips for getting the instrument that best suits your needs.

The week I want to discuss the issue that often torments people when they are thinking of upgrading to a new recorder – wood or plastic?

New recorder – Wood or plastic?

Wooden instruments look very pretty, and it is tempting to assume that a wooden instrument will always be better than a plastic one. This is not necessarily the case. There has always been a bit of a bias towards wood; people tend to think of plastic instruments as only good for learners. I disagree – there are some really top notch plastic instruments out there. Yamaha, Aulos and Zen-on all make very high quality plastic instruments. Zen-on have even partnered with the Takeyama Workshop to produce a very good alto – a Bressan copy with proper Baroque bore and finger holes.

Similarly, one needs to be careful in one’s attitude to the wooden recorders. It used to be true that cheap wooden instruments were often poorly finished and of very variable quality. I’m not so sure that this is true now – I think production techniques have improved in the last decade or two – but I would still carefully consider my options before buying a bottom-of-the-range wooden instrument.

So here is my suggestion. Rather than getting into the whole ‘wood or plastic’ debate, how about choosing your new recorder by deciding how you are going to use it. 

Questions to ask before starting to look for a new recorder

Are you a new-ish player? A good plastic instrument may be more stable and a more cost-effective option.

Do you play every week? It might be worth spending the extra for a really nice wooden instrument.

Is this going to be your main instrument, or a spare? A good plastic instrument makes a great spare for those times when you are doing a weekend course and you risk your wooden instrument getting sodden with condensation.

Do you actually pinch high notes? You can ruin the thumbhole on a wooden recorder by pinching. You will either need to spend extra on getting the thumbhole bushed (an extra bit of plastic inserted around the hole), or choose plastic for safety.

Do you have time to look after a wooden recorder? They do need oiling on a regular basis – some quite frequently. If you are short on spare time, this might be a good reason to stick to plastic.

Wood AND plastic

Just as a side point, Mollenhauer make a very decent Prima range that have a plastic head joint and a pear wood body. They are relatively inexpensive, have the stability of a plastic head joint, but the lovely extra resonance in the tone that comes with a wooden recorder. I have a couple of these; my Prima soprano is actually my soprano of choice. Here’s a picture of me holding it just before a concert (yes, I am wearing a scarf and coat – the church was cold!).

Recorder - wood or plastic? How about both! Me with my recorder and soprano Hayley Guest pre-concert.

Next time I’ll give you come more top tips about how to choose the instrument that suits you and your playing style to perfection.