How to Practice Polyrhythms

Question: What is your advice for playing polyrhythms? For example, simple polyrhythms like triplets against duplets or quadruplets and odd ones (Chopin’s favorite) like 4 notes against 35 or 13 notes.

My approach is lots of practice hands separately with the metronome but the odd ones seem impossible to be subdivided.

Thank you for the wonderful insights on this website!

– Christopher Cheng (Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia)

Albert’s reply: First it’s important to master the most basic of polyrhythms, 2 against 3. This should first be practiced by tapping exercises in which one hand taps three beats and the other two.

There’s a little trick to practicing 2 against 3. Notice that the second eighth note in the duplet (the right hand in the below example) falls exactly between the last two notes of the triplet? Pronounce “George Washington” as you tap, and the syllables will coincide with your taps:

An alternative is “old rattletrap,” and I’m sure there are others you can invent.

Since our object is absolute precision in this case, it’s best to practice with a metronome.

After you’ve mastered duplets in the right hand against triplets in the left, switch.

The next common polyrhythm is 3 against 4. It’s best to practice it – again with a metronome – using an exercise such as this one:

Notice that each hand changes direction on the beat. This will help you to embody precise rhythmic control. Again, practice with the metronome and eventually reverse hands, playing 4 in the right against 3 in the left. It’s very common for one hand to be better at playing 4 against 3 vs. 3 against 4.

Another very practical exercise for 3 against 4 in both hands is the first of the Brahms 51 Exercises.

As for unusual tuplets such as those frequently found in Chopin’s music, these are almost always vocal embellishments and are generally not meant to be played with absolute mechanical precision. An example is the first Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 1:

There are a couple useful approaches to practicing complex polyrhythms: First, find out where the right hand coincides with the left and use those notes as landmarks. Draw a line connecting them in the score. Then practice the notes between individual “landmarks.”

This is not the case with the above example, however. Here, the best approach is simply to practice hands separately, setting a metronome to the common note value (a dotted half note in this case) to ensure that you’re playing both hands at the same tempo.

When it comes time to put the hands together, do it without the metronome at first. Use the left hand to determine the pulse, and play the right hand accordingly. Solving the rhythmic problem involves concentration, shifting your attention away from one hand and towards the other: Focus on the left hand with its regular rhythm and the right hand will fall into place.

What is important is that the hands become independent of one another. Over time you will learn to concentrate on two independent rhythms at once.

Remember that these passages are not supposed to be mathematically precise. In Chopin, they should be played with liberal yet controlled rubato. If in doubt, sing the right hand: Only a very inexpressive singer would perfectly equalize the note lengths!

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