Grace-note Questions – Feb. 9, 2009

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Questions from a student: I am curious about your interpretation regarding the following figures:

A.

B.

 

1. What terminology do you use to identify figure A?

Cahn: drag; ruff; 3-stroke-drag; 3-stroke ruff; appoggiatura

2. What terminology do you use to identify figure B?

Cahn: 4-stroke ruff, (4-stroke drag), ruff, appoggiatura

3. How do you define these two terms – ruffs and drags?

Cahn: I mostly use the terms interchangeably. However, on occasion (depending on the music in question) I make the following arbitrary distinction: a ruff is played with alternating strokes and a drag is played with one bounced stroke in one hand preceding a single stroke in the opposite hand.

4. How do you interpret and teach these figures?

Cahn: I apply and teach interpretation based on several main factors:

– the style of the music;

– the interpretation of other players/instruments in an ensemble;

– the generally accepted past practices;

– the musical sensibility of the performer

all of which are subordinate to the interpretation of the conductor or composer. In any case, the grace notes are normally played as secondary sounds leading towards an ultimate final stroke.

5. Do you feel there is a distinct difference when these figures are played in an orchestral style vs. the rudimental style?

Cahn: I use various names for the two primary styles of performance for these figures:

– grace-note style 1) – rudimental; military; open; articulated, double-bounce

– grace-note style 2) – concert, closed, orchestral, pressed, buzzed, multiple-bounced

In style 1 each grace note (in examples A or B. above and in examples where there are more than three grace-notes) is precisely articulated, either by alternating single strokes or by various combinations of double-bounce and single strokes.

In style 2 the grace notes (in examples A or B. above) are interpreted as a single multiple -bounce stroke followed by a final single stroke in the opposite hand. In examples where there are more than three grace notes, there may be two or more alternating-hand, multiple-bounce strokes followed by a final single stroke.

It is important that the performer be aware of general musical styles and practices, and that the performer use this knowledge in his/her musical expression. This is especially important when the performer is playing in unison with other percussionists, as in a marching band or drum corps. However, in concert/orchestral/chamber music performance, only very rarely may the interpretation of the performer be questioned, regardless of the grace-note style applied.

6. I have encountered a variety of approaches regarding the open or closed quality of the grace notes and the placement of the grace notes to the main note; how do you deal with these issues in your teaching and performance?

Cahn: As indicated above the main factors are:

– the style of the music;

– the consensus interpretation of other players/instruments in an ensemble

– the generally accepted past practices; and

– the performer’s musical sensibility

Grace-note style 1 (open) would be appropriate for snare drum parts in Sousa marches, Shostakovich symphonies, drum corps routines or any music that contains a military implication.

Grace-note style 2 (closed) would be appropriate for any music of a non-military or non-march-like character.

That being said, the concert/orchestral/chamber snare drummer is generally free to choose how to interpret such figures, except when the conductor, section leader, or composer requests otherwise. However, it is very rare that a conductor will question the interpretation of the performer. One example of a conductor requesting a particular style might be for the snare drum to play the figures (ruffs) in the closing measures of the third movement of SCHEHEREZADE by Rimsky-Korsakov either more open or more closed. It would still be up to the individual player to determine the best sticking to achieve the desired change.

7. In the rudimental style, where does the placement of the grace notes occur (i.e. does it wait until the last moment prior to the arrival note, or does it stretch prior to the arrival note, almost producing a 32nd note rhythm)?

Cahn: I have heard many interpretations of grace-note placement, and to a very large extent it is that interpretation which distinguishes the many rudimental styles – ancient (fife and drum), drumcorps, Swiss, British, Scottish, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and many more. I am mainly familiar with the ancient (fife and drum) rudimental style as it has evolved in post-WWII North America, but even within this genre there are differing interpretations. Generally, in the ancient style which I have learned, the grace-notes are played in synchronization with the underlying rhythmic hand movements, and prior to the arrival note. I have heard other interpretations in this genre, in which the arrival note is somewhat delayed. It is virtually impossible to distinguish these interpretive differences in notation; they must be learned aurally.

There are great players who profess to be the keepers of historic performance practices in this genre, but in my view, while it is possible to make reasonably educated guesses about rudimental drumming practices prior to the American Civil War (1861-1865), it is nevertheless virtually impossible to say with absolute certainty how the military music was specifically played with regard to the drum beatings. Performance practices were not standardized and were subject to the varied influences of many individual players over time. There are, of course, no recordings in existence, and the few existing original written sources along with the subsequent interpretations of those sources are contradictory.

8. Beyond the figures above, what about four or more grace notes tied to an arrival note? (i.e. Anthony Cirone’s Portraits in Rhythm, Etude #’s 3, 4, 9, 10, and 14). Is there a terminology that you use to describe 4 or more grace notes tied to an arrival note?

Cahn: I have no special terminology for more than three grace-notes. As indicated in Question 5 above, in grace-note style 1 the grace-notes would be precisely articulated, either by alternating single strokes or by various combinations of double-bounce and single strokes. In grace-note style 2 there could be two or more multiple-bounce strokes followed by a final single stroke.

It is the responsibility of the performer to choose which grace-note style to apply, based on the factors presented above in Questions 4 and 6.

9. Do you feel like there are any guidelines for the performance of grace note figures when there is not a clear musical reference point for comparison?

Cahn: Again, it is the responsibility of the performer to choose which grace-note style to apply, based on the factors presented above in Questions 4 and 6:

– the style of the music;

– the consensus interpretation of other players/instruments in an ensemble;

– the generally accepted past practices; and

– the performer’s musical sensibility.

10. Do you feel that there is a right way to interpret grace note figures or do you feel it is a matter of musical interpretation?

Cahn: As a concert musician, I think of music not as a science, but rather as an art in which individual interpretation is fundamental. However, I recognize that there are genres of music in which any divergence from accepted practices could be frowned upon. I would encourage each performer to think for herself/himself, based on as complete an understanding of the relevant musical style and the expectations of the other performers and listeners as possible, then decide for herself/himself which option best meets the musical demands of the particular situation.

11. In the Delecleuse snare drum etudes, would you play the grace notes in the rudimental style or in the concert style?

Cahn: The composer’s notes at the front of the book are not clear on this question (or on the question of tied/untied rolls). If one assumes (I do) that the composer has a very good understanding of snare drum technique and notation, then one would be inclined to assume that the notation of the grace-notes implies a specific number of grace notes to be articulated as printed; in other words, the grace notes would not be interpreted as ‘buzz’ or multiple-bounce, but rather as a specific number of double-bounce strokes and/or single strokes . This would be my first inclination.

However, that being said, a good argument could be made that the Delecleuse etudes are not in a rudimental style, but rather in a concert style, and therefore the grace notes should be interpreted as multiple-bounce or ‘buzzed’ strokes. A good resolve, and one that I advise students to do, is to play the etudes well in both styles. Then, in a recital the performer is free to play in whatever style she/he chooses.

Competitions are another story, and I’m not wild about competitions, because the personal prejudices of the judges can become a major issue affecting performance decisions.

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