Five Essential Reasons to Subdivide

Have you ever been so excited to hear a recording of a performance you just gave, feeling certain that it was not only flawless, but also musically thrilling, only to be bitterly disappointed after hearing the recording? You may think, “how could it sound so bland when it seemed so exciting from behind the horn?” Upon a closer listening, you may hear the missed opportunities to really convey the emotions of the music. Maybe you let a long note die on the vine? Perhaps you now hear a less than perfect slur? If it seems odd to think of subdividing as the cure for your musical malaise or technical lapses, not so! Read on….

Students are told by their teachers to subdivide from the earliest lessons, with the emphasis solely on good rhythm and yet the ability to play steadily still eludes so many. However, the value of subdividing while playing goes way beyond “playing in time”. In fact, subdivisions are the force that propels music forward—either towards greater intensity and passion or towards moments of calm of resolution. If we recognize the power of this mini-engine that sits between the big beats of the basic pulse, and then learn how to drive this engine with precision in order to take our listeners on exactly the journey we envision, our performances can be transformed.

How to start?

The first step is to take a passage and break down every long note down to the next logical smaller value. Using the the overly familiar solo entrance of Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto #1 at bar 28 as an example, we would divide everything into 1/8 notes. Be careful not to articulate with your air, but instead, slice through a long block of air with your tongue. Play through the passage enough times with a metronome so that you’re certain of the rhythmic precision. Note: When practicing with a metronome, break free of being a passenger and “following the metronome”. By playing all the subdivisions, you are now the driver of the metronome, predicting with precision when the next click of the metronome will come.

The second step is to tie dynamics to rhythm. Now practice the phrase articulating every 1/8 note, thinking that each 1/8 is picking up more volume and intensity until you finally reach the exact high point, and then control the rate that each 1/8 note loses volume or intensity. This requires that you visualize in detail the contour of every moment of the phrase. Like a sculptor first roughs out a shape from a block of stone, your first few passes may not be fully refined. But with practice, the clarity of your ideal version of the phrase will emerge. I find it helpful to consider using numbers as though you had a volume dial that went from 1-20. So the first 4 bars of the Strauss Concerto passage might look like this:

ralske subdivide

By the time you’ve done this passage 10-20 times, you’ll hopefully notice a transformation, revealing 5 essential benefits of subdividing:

  • Perfect rhythmic control.
  • A much more clear and expressive line.
    Communication of the intent of the phrase will be much more direct with a detailed dynamic plan based on 1/8’s (versus 1/4’s). It’s like having a much higher resolution photo versus a low resolution image from the 1990’s. For example, we all tend to decay on long notes even if the overall direction of the phrase is a crescendo. That can detract from your musical intent.
  • Better air flow throughout the phrase.
    If you’re truly connecting the subdivision “dots” with your air, your air flow won’t lapse as long as you follow your dynamic blueprint.
  • Fewer technical glitches.
    Better rhythm means better coordination of air, fingers and lips and therefore, fewer mishaps
  • Remedy for performance anxiety.
    You will notice a deeper level of concentration and feeling of engagement while you play, as you control every moment, knowing the precise direction of the music at every moment, subdivision by subdivision. It’s as if you’re saying “now” with each passing subdivision,. Focusing on the present tense on a micro level, melts away attachments to past and future, where the effects of past mistakes or future expectations distract us from the task at hand: following the path you created with the stepping stones of the subdivisions of the phrase.

While this approach may be dismissed as overly analytical and lacking spontaneity, I maintain that with discipline comes independence. Once you’ve spent enough time experiencing your hands on the steering wheel of every moment of a phrase, one can spontaneously decide to deviate from your blueprint, as long as you maintain control of the direction of every subdivision. However, greatness is in the details. Great music and great performances are no different. Therefore, careful contemplation of the ultimate beauty of a phrase deserves no less attention.

Erik Ralske is currently Principal Horn of the Metropolitan Opera and a former member of the New York Philharmonic. He is a faculty member at The Juilliard School, Mannes College of Music and the Aspen Music Festival.

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