Several months ago and I posted a blog on marching and playing as an effective way to establish a reliable sense of internal rhythm. Another great way to work on complicated rhythms away from the instrument is through the use of egg shakers. Rather than developing a steady larger beat as we did in the marching exercise, egg shakers help us develop consistent rhythms within each beat. This is particularly valuable for pieces or excerpts that contain long passages written in 16th notes or works written in complicated changing meters with intricate rhythmic motives. As in the marching exercise, egg shakers encourage us to use our body to connect our understanding of how music is constructed rhythmically to our own physical capabilities of producing a musical performance.
The practice of using an egg shaker is relatively straightforward. Place the device in your palm and using a swift wrist motion rock the egg shaker back and forth to replicate the corresponding rhythm. Many students who are new to this technique tend to use their entire forearm to create the shaking motion however the movement is quite a bit more precise (and significantly less tiring) when limited to the wrist and palm area.
The below excerpt taken from the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony is an ideal passage to practice with an egg shaker. The difficulty in this excerpt lays within the running 16th notes at the end of the passage – a section than many of us tend to rush out of nervousness or overconfidence.
Practice this section with an egg shaker and a metronome (or better yet – a YouTube clip as this will help you hear what the orchestra is playing during this solo…. hint hint – strings have downbeats!). What do you notice? Where are you rushing the 16ths? If you are like many of us, you probably rushed the measure oscillating between high Ds and C#s. Try this exercise again at a slower tempo using only the egg shaker. Once you have mastered the passage on the egg shaker, play the entire excerpt on the flute as written. You should notice a significant improvement in the clarity and evenness of the 16th note passage. Egg shakers for the win!
Another great way to use egg shakers is in connection to pieces written in complicated meters where the tendency to rush notes as the meter changes is extremely tempting. The following excerpt, taken from the 1st movement of Ibert’s Sonata for Flute and Orchestra, illustrates such a passage. As the meter changes in the measure before rehearsal number 3, it is quite easy to slightly rush the 16th note passage in the 3/8 meter, however the duration of the 16th notes must correspond to the tempo established in the previous 2/4 measures. As we did in the above example, practice this passage away from the flute using egg shakers (ideally with a recording as the big beat changes here and a metronome fails to recognize this change). What do you notice? Where are you falling behind the tempo? Practice this exercise until the rhythm in the egg shakers is consistent then return to the flute and play the piece as written. Notice a difference? At this point your rhythm will be even throughout the meter changes.
Egg shakers may also be useful in correcting sluggish syncopated rhythms such as those found in the below excerpt from the Dance Infernale in Stravinksy’s Firebird Suite (1919). Using a metronome, practice this excerpt at a reasonable tempo (quarter note = 108 for example) with an egg shaker. Gradually increase the tempo as the syncopation in the shaker becomes consistent with the larger beat. You may also wish to march to the beat while you practice this excerpt. As in the above exercises, return to playing the excerpt on the flute once you have smoothed out the rhythm using the egg shaker. You will notice that the rhythm is now sharp, lively and perfectly in line with the beat.
Probably the most effective use of the egg shaker, however, is in to relation to pieces containing unpredictable accent markings. The power of the shaker is in its ability to produce an accent simply by using a slightly more forceful shake of the wrist. The following excerpt taken from the 1st movement of the Nielsen Concerto illustrates a perfect example of this type of writing. Practice creating these accents first on the egg shaker with a metronome or recording than translate the rhythm to the flute. Egg shakers allow us to practice rhythmic figures apart from the articulation and air techniques that sometimes complicate otherwise straightforward compositional ideas.
Finally, egg shakers make it possible to practice note groupings away from the instrument. By placing a small accent at the beginning of each note grouping, one can develop a chunking plan first on the shakers before implementing into the music itself. An example of this type of note grouping can be found in the 3rd movement of the Vine Sonata for Flute and Piano. As you can see in this example, grouping the complicated 16th note pattern in the following manner helps keep the music moving forward without becoming monopolized by the repetitive rhythm. Again, practice this first on the egg shakers with a steady slow beat by placing a slight accent on the first note of each grouping. When you reach performance tempo on the shakers, translate the groupings to the flute. At this point your 16th notes will be even and your groupings will be clear.
Rhythm is sometimes easier to conceptualize away from the other complexities of playing the flute. Practicing with egg shakers not only helps us learn complicated rhythms away from the instrument but also helps to develop evenness among long, repetitive rhythmic passages. Do you use egg shakers in your practice? How have egg shakers helped you correct rhythmic inconsistencies? Did any of the above exercises work for you? Please share your experiences in the comments below.