As a child of the 80s (okay, born in the very late 70s, but I don’t remember any of it), I am increasingly convinced that I grew up in the best time to ever be a kid. The internet was not yet a reality in most households (perhaps thankfully), but we had cable television and plenty of great cartoons, and even though most of those cartoons were basically 22-minute toy commercials, we had a ball watching them. Despite the only thinly-veiled profit motive behind their production, most cartoons of the time had at least a working moral compass with an obvious dichotomy between good and evil (He-Man was good, Skeletor was evil; the Autobots were good, the Decepticons were evil; G.I. Joe was good, Cobra was evil…you get the point). Popular entertainment nowadays—including programs intended for children—contains a great deal more moral ambiguity, which is perhaps more realistic but arguably unhelpful. But, that is a digression from my present point. For now, suffice it to say, again, that the entertainment options enjoyed by kids in the 80s were great.
Those entertainment options included the very earliest home video game systems, and during that great decade, my family had first an Atari 2600 and, later, the first iteration of the Nintendo Entertainment System. To be sure, the graphics and sound of the NES are rather crude to modern eyes and ears, but the 8-bit graphics were a massive improvement over the Atari, and the gameplay was decidedly better. The first three Super Mario Bros. games were released on that system, as well as the first two entries in The Legend of Zelda franchise. I still remember receiving a copy of the first Zelda game and being first taken by the shiny gold (i.e., gold-colored plastic) casing on the game cartridge, and then very intrigued by this concept of saving one’s game. Unlike previous games that were played from beginning to end in a single sitting, Zelda was intended for more long-term play, and allowed the player to save his or her progress at various points. This not only facilitated a more expansive world-covering adventure than had been possible previously, but meeting an unfortunate end in some battle did not necessitate restarting the game at the beginning, but instead at the most recent save point. While players of modern video games might take this concept for granted, in 1987 it was still pretty new, or at least new to me.
As great as the original Zelda game was, though, the gameplay was sometimes clumsy or confusing, and occasionally the amount of activity on the screen would overwhelm the modest computing power of the NES. Remarkably, the game rarely froze entirely, but the action of both player and enemies and the music would slow down until enough enemies were dispatched to reduce the number of moving objects to a more manageable level. (The rest of you 80s kids remember what I’m talking about.) As a music teacher, I am often reminded of this little phenomenon during my students’ lessons.
For better or worse, most of my students’ early musical training leads them to place much greater emphasis on pitch accuracy than on rhythmic accuracy. This most often manifests itself in students slowing down the tempo when the rhythmic activity becomes more pronounced, and sometimes in obliterating all sense of rhythm or time in the interest of “chasing notes.” It’s as if we’re right back in 1987, and each of those sixteenth notes is an “enemy” that makes the CPU (i.e., the student’s brain) slow down until “Link” can destroy enough of them to allow running at normal speed again. While it is wholly unremarkable that most students in 2022 have no idea what I’m talking about when I tell them that their playing reminds me of playing The Legend of Zelda in the 80s, I do find it remarkable that many of them do not seem to notice that they slow down at the “hard parts,” and others do not seem to understand that this is a problem.
So what is the solution? One way or another, students must be brought to understand one important yet counterintuitive idea: rhythm and time are more important than pitch. While we tend to think that the melody is the most important aspect of any tune, the rhythm actually plays a greater role in making it recognizable. As an experiment, simply tap the rhythm of a well-known tune (like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) on a table and ask people if they recognize it. Chances are, they will. Now, pick another tune and play the pitches in order, but completely out of rhythm. Your listeners will almost certainly have more difficulty identifying the chosen song. The rhythm really is more important.
Moreover, good timing (thinking here of a felt sense of “the beat” more than the rhythm) is important not only for musical reasons but also technical ones. A solid sense of time will lead to better coordination of breath, articulation, and the various other elements of technical execution. This is interrupted when one slows down to accommodate difficult rhythms.
All of that said, slowing down to “get the notes” in a difficult passage does hit on one important aspect of addressing musical challenges: complex tasks are best mastered by reducing them to series of simple tasks. Students who slow down while learning the pitches probably intend to improve their rhythmic performance in the future, but for the reasons discussed above, this effort will almost certainly be more successful if approached in the reverse order. Master the rhythm first, and then learn the pitches. This promotes better time, better coordination, and better accuracy. It’s okay if a slower tempo is necessary at first, so long as a consistent tempo is maintained throughout rather than varying according to difficulty.
To be honest, sometimes I miss 1987. I mean, being eight years old was pretty great, Ronald Reagan was still president, and the Saints went to the playoffs for the first time. And yes, I loved playing the original Zelda game on the old NES system, but that was a video game, not performing music. When playing an etude or performance piece, maintaining steady rhythm and time is of primary importance, no matter how many “enemies” are on the page.