Volume 17, June 2023
Learning Strategies for Complex Rhythms: Approaching Richard Barrett's splinter for contrabass solo (2018-2022)

by Kathryn Schulmeister

8. The method of creating and practicing with customized click tracks

Once I had a designed a system for understanding the rhythmic material of splinter not only intellectually, but also potentially in way that I could attempt to perform on my instrument, it became clear that building a click track would be necessary to have a metronomic tool to practice with. Although a traditional metronome could produce close to all the tempi that I need for this piece, there are two major problems with using a traditional metronome: 1. A standard metronome would not be able to represent the fractional nature of the tempi calculated as translations of rhythmic ratios and 2. A standard metronome would have to be manually adjusted to change the tempo, therefore it would be impossible to practice the entire third measure, or any significant passage of the piece with a standard metronomic reference for accuracy. Although it could be argued that it isn't necessary to have a metronomic reference in order to memorize these tempi and put together an interpretation, given the accessibility of technology today, the hyper-precise nature of the notation, and the knowledge that Barrett intends for the tempi of individual notes, beats, and measures to be perceptibly varied,  I decided to build a customized click track to help me learn the rhythms of splinter with the most precise and objectively measurable tools possible.

I realize that this approach of creating a click track may seem counterintuitive to the spirit of freedom and imaginative horizons that inspires Barrett's music, but I do not think the two ideas are mutually exclusive. In the same way that it is common to use a metronome for training a performer's understanding of a common pulse or as a tool to develop rhythmic accuracy, I too need to use an external resource to aid in my intellectual and physical training in my learning process of splinter.25

I made the decision to build my own click tracks for splinter as a tool not only for learning to intellectualize and technically perform the rhythmic material of this work, but also as a means for assessing my precision along the way. Given that Barrett intends to create perceivable changes in tempi in his creation of flexible rhythmic grids, I believe that my approach of translating complex rhythmic material into specific tempi applied locally to the measures, partial measures, or even single beats, is appropriate and effective for realizing the complex nature of this piece. Not only did my method of making a comprehensive click track for this work apply to creating the fully realized performance of the piece, but it also helped me design a practice strategy in which I could use the click tracks at various speeds to slowly intellectualize, embody, and learn the rhythmic material of the piece in small chunks. I then continued with a process of gradually stringing together larger segments of material and gradually increasing the tempo of the click track as I practiced bringing smaller sections up to the performance tempo.

I generated the click tracks by working with version 3.1.3 of Audacity®26 recording and editing software. There are several advantages to using a digital audio workstation to create a personal click track for practice purposes. The first is that you can easily manipulate and edit aspects of the click track, from determining the number of preparatory beats in a track to the frequencies27 of the downbeats (first beats) of individual measures vs the remaining beats. The second is that you can create rhythm tracks with fractional values, meaning that I could build a metronomic track for myself which included the details of my calculated solutions for rhythmic challenges, down to the 10th of a bpm. The third and most important advantage of this method is that it's possible to create a compilation of all the changing tempi and meters of the work; there is no technical limitation to creating a specific metronomic track for the entire work. In other words, with the combination of my rhythmic translation strategies and the computer technology of digital audio workstations, I could create a tool that could help me precisely gauge my understanding and performance of every rhythmic challenge posed in splinter. Some musicians might argue that this method seems to exert hyper rigid control over learning the rhythms of a score that was never intended to be performed by a computer. I, however, feel an immense relief and sense of empowerment in knowing that I have a method that will undoubtedly train my mind and body to precisely understand and perform the rhythmic material of splinter to the best of my ability. I am confident that the creativity in interpretation and performance is not sacrificed with the use of this learning strategy.