Barlines. We musicians love them and we hate them.
Some students get stuck on every one of them, or seem to perceive that visible beginning of the measure as THE place to breathe over and over.
Blow OVER the barline, I cry – THROUGH the barline! Don’t stop there, the line doesn’t mean stop! When you walk across the gym floor, do you trip on the lines painted there? THESE aren’t real, either!
And I stand by that message. Music doesn’t communicate in four-beat chunks, but in phrases that last multiple measures. Even the squarest, dullest piece wants you to play four bars at a time in one arc. SOMETIMES the barline is an appropriate place to stop your air, or your line, but FAR more often it is not. At least 75% of the time even in boring music, the barline is a thing to IGNORE.
But on Monday, as I taught my long day, I found myself arguing the opposite to people. Advanced students. Over and over. Six out of eight lessons focused primarily or partially on playing and acknowledging the barlines.
Lofstrom Concertino – these syncopations are only interesting as they relate to the real meter of the piece. Make sure you show me very clearly which notes are on the click and which are not, and whenever you get to play a real note on beat One, it’s a relief to your brain AND ours. Use the barlines and show them to us.
Higdon Concerto – you’re playing all of these rhythms perfectly correctly, but as a listener I don’t understand you. Use the meter the composer writes in to structure the line. She could easily have written all of these notes within the context of 4/4 – if she’s taking the time to change to 3/4 and 2/4 and 5/4, she’s trying to tell you how to interpret the melody. Now, show it to us.
Grant Still Incantation and Dance – This sounds so choppy. Notice that your first bar starts OFF the beat. The second bar also starts OFF, but then it drives to the third bar which is the first DOWNBEAT you’ve had in this passage. Use that energy, of CRAVING the stability of the downbeat, to motivate the phrase.
Ewazen Down a River of Time – I get that this is a sad piece and you want to emote this section- but as a listener I need structure. Give me the big beats, show me the barlines at the time I expect them, and THEN you’ll be allowed to mess around inside the beats.
Marcello Concerto – This sounds too labored. Instead of playing ALL SIX 16th notes in each bar, can you just travel from barline to barline? Let’s simplify and just do the articulation on a single note – do you feel how easy that is? Let the first note in each bar be relevant and every other note just take you toward the next downbeat.
Handel F Major – I can hear that these three 16th note pickups are giving you a lot of grief. Can you just aim for the downbeat, instead of obsessing over four EE AND AH? Have the subdivision in your head, but just allow these three to travel to the barline instead of being an end in themselves.
I teach individual students individually, right? I don’t have a lesson plan for the day, I just meet each person where she is and try to move to the next level every time we work together. So when practically every lesson seems to have the same focus, that feels like a message I should pay attention to.
Is it just that I need more barlines in my own oboe playing? Often in lessons I give advice that benefits me just as much as my student. I don’t think so here, though – my rhythm is fine. I prefer to look at the bigger picture and see how structuring my time, and subdividing it in a predictable way, might help me.
Accordingly, this week I’ve been working by the clock much more than usual. I set pomodoro timers over and over, and – this is the key – I FORCE myself to stop what I’m doing when the timer goes off. To stand up, stretch, accomplish a few small useful things (brushing teeth, tidying my desk, responding to emails) and take deep breaths before I return to my main task.
No, this isn’t a lot like a musical barline. But LIKE a barline, it reminds me that time is passing, and that I have a lot of choices in how I use that time. I’m working hard this week – a big surge in reed orders and a lot of late night rehearsing and driving – but I’m using the clock to help me set limits. To remind me that I can choose to move from one thing to another.
By the end of my long teaching day I was laughing at myself over this new-found obsession – but it was never the wrong thing to work on. The meter of the piece DOES outweigh most other elements. It’s the skeleton on which everything else is built. It’s the way we understand HOW to move through time, how to let repetitive patterns drive us forward and ALLOW us to bring out the changes.
We need the bar lines.