This Is Your Brain on Meter and Voicing

By Gail Fischler, founder of Piano Addict Blog

Have you ever been horrified to discover rhythmic or voicing errors in music you have known and performed for some time? It happens. A case in point for me is Copland’s Four Piano Blues. The changing meters in these pieces evoke the improvisatory rhythm and rubato of solo blues—the best Copland could do to write this music using traditional notation.

From the time I first learned these wonderful pieces, I have regularly had to sit down and count them aloud pretty often just to be certain that, in the heat of the moment, I haven’t added or shorted an eighth note. 

Another time this problem manifests itself in my playing is in chord voicings. It’s so easy to change an inversion or inner note. As a graduate student, I remember studying a certain sonata, which shall remain nameless. I had to really stay on the inversions and voicings in those chords or I would change the order of the notes within the chords. It was quite frustrating both for me and my teacher and more than just a failure of my musical ear. 

It took me a while to realize that all this is pretty normal. My friend used to say that practicing was like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time you get to the end, it is time to start over again. My inadvertent changes weren’t and aren’t a personal failure. When you memorize something like a speech, poem, or bible verse, eventually your brain starts changing the order of words or flat out substitutes like-words without telling you. You go back to the source and suddenly realize that at some point you started quoting it wrong. 

Gee thanks brain… Actually, this is the same mechanism that allows you to keep going after a memory slip. So, let’s cut the brain some slack here. Who's to say that the reason your brain substituted a voicing or rhythm in the first place wasn't a correction for a memory slip that was dealt with automatically so that you never even realized it?

Just say oops and leave. And, by that I mean Go Practice.

(This article first appeared on June 5, 2018, on Piano Addict. Reprinted with permission.)