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

by Kathryn Schulmeister

9. Methods of practice

There are two main strategies that I developed to begin the process of mapping the rhythmic complexities of splinter onto my physical muscle memory to build my performance interpretation of this work. The first strategy was to meticulously plan how I would learn chunks of material, and how exactly I would put together progressively longer passages until I eventually could perform the entire work. The second strategy was using the computer application Transcribe!28 to easily manipulate the speed with which I could play the click track, making it possible to slow down and speed up the click track with subtle speed adjustments.

Given the extraordinary challenge that each individual measure presents in splinter, I decided it was necessary to make separate click tracks of every single individual measure to learn each measure separately, one at a time. Since it's helpful to be able to hear a few repeated beats of a given tempo before one begins to play in reference to that tempo, I created 4 preparatory beats for each individual click track of each measure. The preparatory beats always correspond to the tempo reference of the beginning of the bar, even if it's a translation from a polyrhythmic ratio.

Once I made individual click tracks for each measure, I then created click tracks for short passages of two to several measures, depending on the complexity of the material. For the click tracks for shorter passages, I also created four preparatory beats for each track with the same principle as applied in creating the click tracks for individual measures. I found that putting together short groups of measures to be doable once I had learned the individual measures thoroughly, since I had already started to develop an aural and muscular memory for the rhythmic challenges of each individual bar. After creating click tracks for shorter passages of several measures, I then created click tracks of longer passages, again determined from my analysis of the score, piece structure, and what I predicted to be manageable.

In practicing, I needed to be able to start at a very slow tempo, because it was physically impossible for me to immediately execute the rhythmic complexities of this work at full performance tempo. The transcription program Transcribe! became a significant practice tool to solve this problem. Intended as a transcription software for musicians to transcribe music from audio recordings, the program has a user-friendly feature that automatically loops imported audio tracks (in this case, the click track), and features a dial where the user can adjust the tempo of the recording from 1-100% of the normal playing speed. With these features combined, I could import a click track into the application, slow down the click track to a speed appropriate for starting to learn and practice (e.g., 50%), and keep the click track on a repeated loop with the built-in preparatory beats so I could repeat each measure or passage as many times as necessary. As simple as it may seem, I found this method incredibly useful and effective. Although there are no shortcuts to learning a complex piece of music, these tools helped me strategize an efficient method of learning that worked, and that I had confidence in. As efficient as this process is, I still could only manage to learn one or two measures a day as it on average took several hours to learn each individual measure.29 With this method I was able to successfully learn to perform the rhythmic challenges of splinter at performance tempo, and by using the click track, I had a measurable, objective scale to assess my performance accuracy.

Once I began to bring passages of material up to performance tempo, I began the process of video recording myself practicing. Listening and viewing recordings of myself playing through passages of the piece gave me a chance to both assess my performance and develop my understanding of splinter from an external point of view while I'm not splitting my attention between all the intellectual and technical demands of performing the music. If the process of practicing with a click track seems to not have much room for personal interpretation and creative expression, I believe that reviewing practice recordings provides the opportunity for more subtle and nuanced self-reflection in sound production (tone), phrasing, gesture, timbral quality, etc. I have not yet decided whether I would use a click track in a live performance or not, but in any case, I believe the method of practicing with a click track aids in the learning of Barrett's splinter.30