The Multifaceted Gift of Scales Part 2: Counting and Cross-Rhythms

In my last post on scales, I demonstrated how we can use scales as a vehicle to isolate and improve the fundamental cello technique of bow control at increasingly slower speeds. Today, I will show how we can use the familiar exercise of scale-playing to improve a fundamental technique of musicianship, and an essential professional skill--counting.

To be honest, a lot of string players, even advanced ones, have a weakness when it comes to rhythm and counting. Brass, woodwind, and percussion players often have much stronger rhythmic and counting chops than string players--probably because the pedagogical repertoire for those instruments tends to be more rhythmically complicated than that for strings. Changing time signatures, irregular time signatures, complicated rhythms, cross-rhythms? They learn them all, whereas it's an exceptional pre-college string player who can confidently tap three against five, for example, or sightread with ease in the time signature of 11/8.

It's seldom too soon, and never too late, to do something about this. The two exercises below are a way to kill two birds with one stone by incorporating numerical and cross-rhythm counting into everyday fundamentals practice.

Exercise 1.

Let's start by playing some scales using slurred bowings. Now, most of us can easily play through a scale using slurs of two, three, or four. But it may surprise you to know that when it comes to slurs, most people can't count to five.

That's OK, of course. There are two easy ways to make sure your five-note slur comes out with the correct number of notes in it: think of it as "One, two, one, two, three" OR "One, two, three, one, two." In the tempo of your choice, play the following, concentrating on really counting to five, and keeping all five notes of the slur even. Resist the temptation to place accents on any note.

Slurring six notes to a bow will be easier, since we can count "One, two, three, one, two, three" or "One, two, one, two, one, two" without much trouble. But when it comes to slurring seven notes to a bow, there are three possibilities for counting that we'll find in musical compositions: 2+2+3 OR 3+2+2, or, more rarely, 2+3+2. Slurring seven is actually pretty easy because when you start on do, a seven-note slur encompasses all the pitches of the diatonic scale. That ought to help if you have trouble with the counting.

  • Eight-note slurs: easy! 4+4.
  • Nine notes: the easiest way is 3+3+3, or you could try 3+2+4.
  • Ten notes: adopt whichever way is easiest from five-note slurs, and do it twice!
  • Eleven notes: 3+3+3+2, or 3+2+3+3 or another combination of 3s and 2s.
  • Twelve notes: 3+3+3+3 or 4+4+4.

Go on through 13, 14, 15 and so on, figuring out how you're going to count them. As you advance through repeated practice, you can go up to 20-note slurs or higher.

Exercise 2

Now it's time to have some real fun with this. Pull out one of the cellist's best friends: the metronome. Set it to a slow tempo of 40 bpm to the half note/minim. We're going to play a slow scale in slurs of two half notes/minims per bow to internalize the tempo. And now...we're going to do a scale of three-note slurs against the two-beat pulse of the metronome. This can be tricky for first-time players. The trick is to internalize the overall rhythmic pattern created. When you divide 3 by 2, you get 1.5. Here are two different ways of writing down this pattern:

It's not hard to tap these rhythms on a desk or on your leg if you remember that three must be divided perfectly in half: "One, two AND three." Or you can use a mnemonic such as "Nice cup of tea," which a British percussionist friend taught me many years ago.

Let's apply this to the scale. Keep the metronome on 40, and chant "One, two AND three" or "Nice cup of tea" as you play, if necessary. Avoid tapping your feet, however--it's distracting and doesn't help you keep better time.

With the metronome still on, play a scale slurring four against the metronome's two. (This is much easier--2+2.) Now let's do five against two. This is not hard if you just remember that 5 divided by 2 is 2.5, so the broad pattern will be "One, two, three AND four five."

In the staff, it looks like this.

A good daily cross-rhythm workout could look like this: metronome on 40 to the half note/minim, play scales in slurs of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Of course, that's not the only way to practise cross-rhythms. Why not put the metronome in 3/4 time and play 2-note slurs against it? Next, play "four against three" and "three against four," using the handy mnemonic "Pass the bread and butter."

Once you get good at this stuff, it's really geeky and fun. The possibilities are endless. For more advanced fun, try 3 against 5 and 5 against 3. I like to use the mnemonic "I like to hug teddy bears."

In other words...