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Teaching/Learning Cross-rhythms?

  • Jennifer
    Jennifer Ellis

    I am working on writing about teaching cross-rhythms to beginning harpists and I am interested in your stories. There is such a wealth of knowledge (and variety of opinions!) on this forum. I would love any antidotes you could provide and will keep your responses anonymous if requested.


    1. What is the first piece you remember playing with rhythmic elements you found challenging?


    2. In your experience, what is the piece with the most challenging cross-rhythms (two against three, seven against twelve, etc.)?


    3. How did your teacher first introduce you to cross-rhythms (two against three, etc.)?


    4. How do you teach your students cross-rhythms?


    5. How do you feel about your metronome? How much of one’s time practicing should be done with a metronome?

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    replies to "Teaching/Learning Cross-rhythms?"
    • Patricia
      Patricia Jaeger

      Just a few ideas: In the Henriette Renie Complete Method of the Harp, Volume 2, page 189 and following pages, you'll see examples  of differing rhythms in the two hands such as 4 against 6, 8 against 12, 12 against 16, and so on. These can be learned slowly with your two hands arriving palms down to represent each note, on your lap or a table. Put the slower note value in the left hand and do it alone for awhile, counting out loud according to what is in the time signature. Then the hand that has the quicker note value, such as triplets or groups of six, joins into the exercise once you have figured out  when the two hands must arrive together, and when they alternate. These examples do not go as far as explaining seven against twelve as in your No. 2 above, however!                                                                                    Sometimes with a metronome on some steady beat try to speak butterscotchstrawberrycoconutapple or other fruits or flavors with the first letter of each item timed to come directly on a metronome beat. It is interesting to find that the different foods have such different syllables stressed. Pineappleblackberryorangebananapumpernickel-- you and your students could say these groups into the subdivisions of the metronome, and clap them and then write out the rhythms you just used. Fun and learning is going on! At Conservatory our conductor  was leading us in a rehearsal of a symphony by Tschaikowsky, I forget which one. In a pause he sang one of the main  themes to the words: "I'm going to go to Paris, and my wife's going to stay at home!" Can you guess the melody? We loved that!  I hope you finish writing that useful book, Jennifer!

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    • Alison
      Alison P

      To learn three against two, it's easier to sit down and tap on the top of your thighs with a finger from each hand. This develops the motor skills. I picked this tip up from another classmate. The first piece. I remember distinctly, was in Grandjany's Arabesque, probably with 3 in the right hand, and whenever I come up against a challenging one, or 3 against 4, I still use my legs to tap on. Your ears need to be able to listen to each hand seperately. A metronome can be useful to set one rhythm to think against , or if necessary, set two metronomes going and focus on each hand...!! However I reach for the metronome only very occasionally when I realise I am struggling, or need to check how slow I am against a marked tempo.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      I think the first piece that most harpists encounter with tricky cross rhythms is of course Debussy's first arabesque. The piece that I had the hardest time with was Parish-Alvars Serenade, where there are several melismatic passages in which the right hand plays 23 or 27 or 29 notes against 6 in the left hand. To learn those passages, I had to first sit down at the kitchen table with the music and draw lines from the left hand note heads up to where the right hand should be at that point. Then I went to the harp and played both hands from the first left hand note(the downbeat of the measure) to the second left hand note. When that was comfortable, I'd play both hands from the second left hand note to the third, and so on, one beat at a time until I had gotten the whole sequence. I would also play the entire sequence with both hands, stopping every time I played a left hand note, just to make sure the right hand ended up in the right place as I played the left hand note. Once I had it learned, and when I go back to relearn it now, I can just play it with no counting and no effort at keeping the two hands in sync. But it took a lot of work to get there!

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      I recently purchased a Dr. Beat metronome that can play cross-rhythms, and it extremely helpful. I think it might make learning cross-rhythms much easier.

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    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth Volpé Bligh

      Hello, Jennifer!

      1. I started learning cross-rhythms when I studied piano.

      2. I believe it was a Beethoven piano piece that introduced me to 4 against 3 and many French pieces use 3 against 2.

      3. A lot of contemporary composers write really challenging cross-rhythms in orchestra harp parts, sometimes doubling what other single-line instruments are doing, just to increase the fun.

      4. I learned to think of cross-rhythms as fractions. For example, quarter note "two against three" is just six eighth notes divided differently.

      5. The metronome is every musician's best friend and should be used every day. I play through sections of pieces with the metronome to check that my rhythms and tempi are on track. Then I turn it off, so that I can work on phrasing and breathing. I think of it as a "reality check".

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