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I am working towards my clarinet Grade 8 and have a few occasions where I have to play an unaccompanied long trill (we're talking a bar or 2). I have always struggled to count trills, however all the ones I have had to play before have a piano accompaniment that helps me to count (quavers in the bass or something similar) or I can pick out a few notes in the accompaniment which alert me to the end of the trill. However I am struggling to count accurately when the piano accompaniment either plays a long held note under my trill or stops entirely.

I find that tapping my foot or playing with a metronome just results in my trill turning into quavers or semiquavers instead, which doesn't quite sound right. I can count the length of the note just fine regardless of accompaniment if I don't trill, the trill seems to throw off my 'internal rhythm'.

Are there any other techniques I can use to try and keep count during a solo trill?

  • Possible duplicate of How many notes in a trill? – Carl Witthoft Jan 18 at 13:32
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    @CarlWitthoft That is not what I'm asking, nor are there any answers which help in that question... I am after advice on how to hold a steady internal beat whilst playing a trill – lioness99a Jan 18 at 13:34
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Internalizing the beat in non-trivial situations is actually one of the most difficult things that a musician has to acquire.

It's also seen that different individuals develop different internal strategies to achieve that. For example, some people say they feel the beat as a pulse in their stomach, for others it's a sort of visual projection, as if they were visualizing rhythmic movements or some conductor, and still others can hear internally something like a metronome tick.

And to make things worse, there isn't a well established, reliable way of teaching that, and as a result, bar a few tips, most musicians are more or less left to figure it out for themselves.

I have actually spent quite some time studying this very issue, with a view to possibly designing a training system for this kind of skill, and could talk a lot more about it, but in order to be as useful as possible to you in the shortest time possible I'll give you two points to consider, hoping you can get something useful from them.

1

Realize that you can only pay attention to music in one way at a time. There are many ways to pay attention to music (follow the rhythm, follow the melody, follow the harmony, follow the mechanics of play, etc.) but you can only do one at a time, and whenever you switch your focus to one (e.g. the mechanics of playing a trill) inevitably you lose most of you conscious attention to anything else.

In your specific case this means that you have essentially two main ways of achieving your goal:

A) Keep your attention on the trill, after having internalized the beat to such a strong degree that you don't lose it if even if you don't pay attention to it. Essentially, this is as if you had a metronome ticking vividly in your head, and even if you don't pay attention to it consciously, you can rely on its presence implicitly.

B) Keep your attention on the beat, counting the beat inside, and perform the trill with indirect attention. This requires that your have practiced the mechanics of the trill enough that you can do it with only a fraction of your total attention.

Borrowing a concept from the mechanics of vision, where we have focused vision and peripheral vision, the two alternatives above correspond to putting one aspect at the center of the vision (either the mechanics of playing or the keeping of the beat), and managing the other aspect with the peripheral vision, so to speak.

Both approaches are possible and both can work well with some practice. Which one works best depends on the individual and the specific situation.

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To improve your ability in mode A above (i.e. focus on the playing and feel the beat with your peripheral awareness) I find that the following exercise can give good results.

The exercise consists in listening to the music you need to play on (in this case it would be just the piano) and keep time by hitting a surface with a stick, pen, drumstick, or something like that. You want to reach the point where you can keep the time effortlessly and very precisely, without using your full attention. In other words, after enough practice, you could be looking around the room, petting your cat, sipping a drink, and your hand should be effortlessly keeping the beat with very good precision.

Obviously, pay as much attention as you need, especially in the beginning, but the goal of the exercise is to eventually be able do keep precise time with little or no direct attention. (And it's important that your movement produces a sharp tick, which you can clearly hear as being either precise or not. Waving a finger in the air or tapping a foot is not sharp enough.)

Once you reach that point, when you will again play your instrument over that accompaniment, you will find that you will have a much stronger sense of the beat running internally. It may feel like a ticking sound, or it may feel like a kinetic pulse of some kind, or some other way -- there's no single best and right way -- but you will definitely feel the beat much more vividly than before.

Hopefully this will help you solve this particular challenge to a satisfactory degree, but in any case I think that it will also be quite helpful in playing in general, and in rhythmically difficult situations in particular.

  • This was really interesting to read and hopefully I can put some of into practice :) – lioness99a Jan 24 at 16:09
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    And if down the line you'd like to let us know how it worked out for you, we'd love to read that :) – MMazzon Jan 24 at 19:32
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Very best of luck with the exam!

Last resort would be have a chat with your accompanist. They may be able to "conduct" you with their subtle head movements.

Also, have you tried doing those conducting movements yourself as you perform? When I do a long trill (I'm a trumpet player), I might actually move my bell subtly in a 4/4 beat pattern or whatever. I find this helpful.

I'd also suggest practising trills with a metronome. It may be that you're concentrating on trilling as fast as you physically can, so all your mental effort is going on that. It also means you're treating the trill as arhythmic. But if you're able to consider the trill motion as a fast rhythm, you'll be better able to keep track of where in the bar you are. It also helps you prepare if you have any decoration at the end of the trill before you hit the held note.

  • My accompanist is my teacher and she is trying to encourage me to learn to count it properly, rather than relying on her, so I don't think she would agree to the first one! I might try the subtle conducting, although she has also been trying to stop me doing that in other parts of music where it makes things sound a bit stilted! I will try again with a metronome and see if I can try and stop ending up just playing semiquavers. Thanks :) – lioness99a Jan 18 at 12:54
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Ideally, you should be able to trill and simultaneously listen to the accompaniment, and know the piano part well enough to know what is being played at the end of your trill. That's a lot to deal with, but I recommend you try doing so, as it is a great skill (listening to other parts) in any ensemble.

BTW, you may have seen chamber music players using electronic tablets to display the music. This allows them to see all the parts at once, making it easier to coordinate just as you are trying to do here.

  • I can play a trill fine when there is an accompaniment. However, as stated in the initial quesiton, the piano is just holding a long note underneath my trill, or stopping entirely, and I need to be able to count correctly to end the trill as the piano begins playing again – lioness99a Jan 18 at 13:38
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    Ahhh, in that case it's the accompanist's job to follow your transition out of the trill. Even if you hold it a beat too long or too short, the piano must follow the soloist. – Carl Witthoft Jan 18 at 14:20
  • Whilst that is true in general performing, that won't help in an exam where the examiner will mark you down for letting the beat slip (especially in a Grade 8 exam) – lioness99a Jan 18 at 14:25

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