Organic Rhythm

I used to play in a woodwind quintet, the wind equivalent of a string quartet. It was a pretty decent group made up of successful freelancers from around town in Washington, DC.

During one rehearsal, we had trouble playing some passages together. The oboist complained we needed to practice with a metronome. I countered with the idea that we needed to feel the rhythm together, regardless of the metronome. We were both right. Metronomes help, but "live" rhythm is rarely ever metronomic. Like tuning, "scientific" correctness is not necessarily what sounds best. She never conceded my point.

I know a lot of musicians like her. Their goal is to play more or less like a machine: perfectly in tune with a tuner and in rhythm with the metronome. But music played like that puts me to sleep. Why have humans play at all when a computer program would be more efficient?

Great musicians can play a phrase of music with incredible rhythmic accuracy, and yet never quite match up with a metronome. Great chamber groups and even whole orchestras can do the same. It's obviously a lot harder for the latter, but with years of experience and trust among players, a larger group can be free and stay together rhythmically.

One form of freedom is called "rubato", which means "to steal or borrow" time from one part of the phrase to add to another. The total sum of time is the same as the metronomic phrase, but with much greater freedom. That kind of phrasing says keeps the listener interested with its unpredictable freedom. The player can then emphasize the natural tension and relaxation and explore the infinite possibilities with each repeated phrase or section of music.

Played by a great artist, a fairly conservative phrase of music, which may sound completely rhythmic to the listener, will still have subtle freedom. The allure of a great performance is how it floats and flirts with with stodgy rhythm without committing to any predictability.

In the case of chamber music, each player still has the freedom of a soloist, but has to interact conversationally with the other players.

A good orchestra will have a rigorous system of trust and hierarchy, starting with the conductors interpretation and freedom, trickling down through the various leaders of each section and on down to the lower ranks. Unfortunately, this means the lower ranks do have have much freedom at all, and have to be content following their leaders. But even in this case, each player has the responsibility to commit wholeheartedly to recreating the freedom and direction of phrasing set up by the conductor.

Knowing what rhythmic freedom to take and where to take it is the sign of a master musician. It can only be taught to a degree. The rest is experience, talent and intuition.

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10 comments for “Organic Rhythm

  1. January 19, 2008 at

    I’ve posted this to my clarinet and sax friends. I’ve even sent pointers to my various professors. For a late bloomer like me who doesn’t do classic much, this is still a fabulous read.

  2. January 8, 2007 at

    Jennifer- The metronome is a valuable tool. Hopefully, though, each player will learn to trust and maintain his/her own sense of rhythm. If one is always wondering or doubting the integrity or evenness of the rhythm at hand, it can create a lack of focus and hamper the innate sense of rhythm of the player.

    I try to learn to see rhythm as gestures, and use word-like utterances to master it. For example, “daay-ya daay-ya daay-ya” might help a student play a dotted rhythm better than trying to intellectualizing the math of it.

  3. January 8, 2007 at

    Cassie, thank you for you comment. Perhaps you intended it to go after my post about tuning, but the meaning of what you wrote is still intact.

    Tuning is a balancing act, between “objective” tuning and adjusting to what is around you at the time.

    I also love the English Horn. The famous solo in the last movement of Pines of Rome is a great representation of the instrument’s haunting abilities.

  4. January 8, 2007 at

    I like to use the metronome as a diagnostic tool in chamber music. It can be very enlightening in pointing out large-scale discrepencies in tempo, since that seems to be a common issue in groups I play in. We might play together, and have a steady rhythm in any particular measure, but not realize that our tempo keeps getting slower and slower throughout the movement, or that it rushes when we get to a passage with lots of fast notes. It’s kind of hard to hear a metronome over the sound of several instruments, though. So sometimes we hook it up to some speakers.

  5. January 3, 2007 at

    I definitely agree with you analysis. When I was still an active player, I remember one member of our orchestra who always claimed that she was in tune and it was the rest of us that were out of tune. Truth be known, she probably was exactly in tune with her tuner, but unfortunately the reality is that the oboe (or clarinet or violin) player whose job it is to tune the group is the one who chooses what “in tune” means. Now, mind you, obviously you don’t want to be tuning the group a half pitch off, that would cause mayhem. But, if you’re talking about a fraction of a fraction of a pitch, you need to play with the group, not your tuner.

    Oh man, I need to start playing again. If I could only afford an english horn… my Oboe is great and all, but I much prefer the tone of the EH.

  6. January 1, 2007 at


    My husband is a bassoonist in the National Orchestra in Porto, I showed him your blog and he/we feel your comments are very interesting your. We laughed a couple of times too, because it is so true what you write.

    Happy New Year!

    p.s. By the way my husband is an American musican too.

  7. January 1, 2007 at

    patty- your fulfillment has little to do with the quality of orchestra you play in. Many musicians become jaded, no matter where they play. Your attitude is a greater gift than any worldly success.


  8. January 1, 2007 at

    David, probably the best way to be understood in this would be to be heard! 🙂 Ah well … doubtful that will happen considering the distance. But thanks for listening to me babble in my rather rambling way.

    I’m not sure I am at all successful; I play in a “B” orchestra. I play in a small opera orchestra. I do the musical theatre thing. But no “A” groups. And yet I’m very happy, and I can’t complain!

  9. December 30, 2006 at

    patty- thanks for your honest and clear explanation. I meant to clarify this post a bit, and still may. I think good rhythm, metronomic rhythm, is like painting a still life before creating something abstract. I tell this to my students, who think rubato and expression is just taking liberty anywhere and anyhow. Freedom comes within the structure of clear rhythm.

    However, too much emphasis on rhythm can stilt a natural phrase from happening. I encourage students to really listen to great players, violinists, singers, pianists, and notice the subtle ways they direct a phrase and shape it.

    I sincerely appreciate your stopping by and commenting. I’m sure you have found a natural balance of freedom within structure in your playing. You wouldn’t have the success you do without it.


  10. December 29, 2006 at

    I love the metronome. I make my students use it. If they can’t play in time I am not a happy camper.

    But I don’t play “more or less like a machine” as I’m sure my colleagues would tell you. (I’m one of the more expressive players in the groups I work with, or so I’ve been told … and so I like to think.) The metronome is only a ruler I use when learning something. Once I’ve got something (technically) in the fingers I feel quite free to break the metronome rules. Most of the time. (You wouldn’t catch me breaking any rhythm rules at the beginning of Tombeau!) So I’m not sure that everyone who uses a metronome is thinking that the machine-like playing is their great desire or goal.

    Not to be argumentative … just explaining where I’m coming from.

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