The teacher I needed

Be the rhythmic change you want to see in the world

By Miranda Wilson

I saw a great quote the other day: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I don’t think any of us is single-handedly capable of bringing about world peace, or an end to climate change — we’d need the systematic and institutional support of a huge number of unanimous people for that to happen — but we can all do something within our own particular skill set to improve one or two things, can’t we?

As well as teaching cello, string methods, chamber music, and string pedagogy at the University of Idaho, I also teach a class in musicianship. We call it Aural Skills III and IV, and break it down into the mutually interdependent categories of ear training and sight singing, but I like to think of it as a class in musicianship. Or, more specifically, a class in the DIY of what makes music work so that we can figure out how to be better at it.

Everyone loves to hate their aural skills professor — carping, nit-picking tyrants that we are — but I enjoy teaching the subject even if I lose all the popularity contests around here, because it’s a chance for me to help students with a few things that I struggled mightily with and that took me years to figure out on my own.

I was very lucky to have teachers in all my music subjects who were brilliant musicians and pedagogues, but I did have a rough time when it came to a couple of things, specifically sightreading — especially when it came to rhythm and counting and so on.

That’s where I’ve had to learn to be the kind of teacher that I needed when I was an undergraduate.

Back in the day, one thing I really had a hard time with was the concept of polyrhythms such as “two against three,” “three against four,” and so on. Sometimes we got given an orchestra piece with lots of this hard counting and it felt like being thrown in the deep end with an imperfect understanding of how to swim. It was a game to which I hadn’t been let in on the rules. I felt completely adrift — and one day I almost burst into tears when a conductor told me I was doing two against three wrong — i.e. I was swinging them long-long-short instead of three equal notes. This happened because I was subdividing, wrongly, in four instead of the three that would have permitted me to understand how to get the triplet even.

You’d think that as a 17-year-old who could play a lot of advanced cello repertoire, I might have figured this relatively simple rhythm out on my own, but to my embarrassment, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for the thing that two and three have in common — that is, six. One and a two and a… vs. one-and-two-and-three-and…

These rhythmic concepts are taught a lot more systematically to pre-college woodwind, brass, and percussion players than they are to string players, perhaps because so much wind ensemble and concert band music is more modern and therefore more rhythmically complicated than the string orchestra music that’s typically used in pre-college settings. So I decided that maybe we string teacher types just need to be a bit stricter about really making sure our students understand how to figure out unfamiliar rhythmic concepts independently.

So these days when I teach rhythm, I break it down in what I hope is a readily understandable way — because I’m being the person I wish I’d had back then in the university orchestra rehearsal room when I didn’t understand two against three.

And, because I’m a tyrannical cello teacher as well, I combine the concepts with scales. Because two birds, one stone, right?

Click on the links to read my posts on learning rhythm through scales:

The Multifaceted Gift of Scales Part One, Part Two, Part Three


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