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.