Approaching new, complicated polyrhythms can be extremely intimidating for pianists.
If you thought 2:3 and 3:4 (“two against three” and “three against four,” respectively) were hard enough, polyrhythms like 3:8 and 4:5 can feel downright impossible to coordinate.
Here, tonebase Head of Piano Ben Laude will show you how to approach complex polyrhythms on the piano by shifting your focus to the primary skill that makes them physically possible: independent control of the hands and fingers.
Complicated polyrhythms in Debussy’s Reflets Dans L’eau
Let’s start off by taking a look at a passage from Reflets Dans L’eau from Debussy’s Image, Book 1:
Here we can see that Debussy is layering his melody in 8th-note triplets, over a 32nd note wash in the left hand. When we break this down, we have a 3 on 8 polyrhythm.
Given that we cannot divide 8 evenly by 3, we can see how a figure like this can be a headache to calculate.
Check out another example of complicated polyrhythms from the same piece:
Here we have a 13 on 4 polyrhythm! Again, this sort of thing gets remarkably difficult to break down into clear patterns, especially when it goes by so fast.
Physical independence over mental calculation
With 2:3 and even 3:4 polyrhythms, their lowest common multiple is small enough that we can hold it in our minds and attempt to feel the sub-pulses in the division of the beat where each competing rhythm falls. But even if we had supercomputers in our skulls, this method of calculating where notes occur does not address the physical problem of performing the two tasks simultaneously.
If you want to sound fluid in this passage, the solution has to do with developing more hand independence - and not doing polyrhythm math.
In both examples you have to let the arpeggiated hand go, thinking neither of how many notes are contained within it nor where it lines up with the melodic hand.
I recommend only focusing on the extremities of the arpeggios - the top and bottom notes - because they're on strong beats and are in sync with the melodic hand.
Practice the run/arpeggio separately until it feels more or less automatic, then get used to how long it takes you to get from top to bottom, or bottom to top. Feel that span of time filled in by an ascending or descending run as a large "beat," and just observe the hand that's playing quickly as if you're not even doing it.
That's part of developing virtuosity in these passages - making the arpeggio so comfortable that you don't really have to focus on it and can just feel the contour of the tune.
If you're really focused on nailing the arpeggio, you're likely applying tension in the arpeggiated hand that is restricting the freedom of the melodic hand. They must be totally independent in these passages, as if there are two musicians in the room - a harpist maybe, and woodwind soloist (or, in the second example, a whole violin section).
Then, you can sit back and admire these musicians doing their thing, and your role is that of a conductor: stand above it all and just make sure the musicians are coordinated in landing together on the bigger beats in each bar.
This means you need to practice with the goal of hand independence. Easier said than done!
And, it won't happen every night. But, it's also the kind of thing you can practice away from the piano.
Hopefully this will help you understand how to actually play complicated polyrhythms, not just in Debussy’s music, but in any piece in your repertoire with these rhythms.
Just remember, it’s not about doing complicated polyrhythm math. Just let your hands work independently and flow together naturally!
If this post helped you in any way, let us know!
Shoot us a DM on Instagram at @tonebasepiano, we’d love to hear your thoughts :)
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