Mano a Mano: Two-handed exercises to improve your polyrhythmic playing

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Cuban composers of the 19th century developed a polyrhythmic approach to solo piano performance that highlighted the contrapuntal techniques we often refer to as the “Spanish tinge.” These techniques, which involved rhythmic independence between the hands, laid the groundwork for the syncopated sounds of ragtime in the years to follow. To improve your polyrhythmic skills, begin away from the keyboard and internalize the rhythms as a percussionist would (either by tapping on a hard surface or clapping). Start slowly, evenly, and methodically, with both syncopated and nonsyncopated rhythms, and be sure to switch hands often so you are able to play in an ambidextrous manner. Next, add the clave rhythm by tapping your left foot (the right foot handles the damper pedal, of course). This will connect your playing in a multidimensional way. The trick is to think like a drummer.

The following examples start with standard rhythmic notation so you can separate yourself from specific melodic and harmonic ideas. Once you’ve internalized the rhythms, apply them to any sequence of pitches, scales, or chord progressions.

Ex. 1: Tresillo as a Foundational Rhythm

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The subdivision of the tresillo is an international phenomenon and often associated with Cuban and Brazilian rhythms. This structure subdivides an 8-count pattern by accenting the 1st, 4th and 7th beats, which translates to beats 1, the and of 2, and 4 in a 4/4 time signature. The first order of business is to execute the tresillo against a half-note pulse, and assign each pattern to each hand.

Ex. 2: Tresillo + Response

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Now use the tresillo as a basic framework to develop your antiphonal skills by answering each iteration with a contrapuntal idea. This fills up more space but still emphasizes the syncopation.

Ex. 3: Tresillo Displacement + Pulse

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A completely different feel results when you begin the tresillo on the and of 1! In addition, challenge yourself to feel the beginning of the phrase on the 4th beat of the bar as a pick-up, much like the bass tumbao in Cuban music and salsa, Latin jazz, etc. Start by playing this pattern against the pulse.

Ex. 4: Displaced Tresillo + Syncopated Montuno

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Now play the elided figure in the left hand against a right-hand montuno variation, and you begin to experience the ultimate, not only in syncopation but also polyrhythm. It may only be two rhythms at once, but it feels more complex given the lack of a downbeat.

Ex. 5: Cinquillo Pattern + Response

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Much like the tresillo, the Cuban cinquillo (5-note cell) is another African rhythmic structure that permeates Caribbean music and provides a good example of a single-measure or “clave-neutral” phrase. When combined with a consequent response (and turned into a binary pattern), it forms the ostinato foundation of the Cuban danzón known as the baqueteo, which was frequently used by Cervantes and Lecuona as left-hand accompaniment to classic danza melodies.

Ex. 6: Montuno + Tumbao + Clave

Binary structures are commonplace in Cuban rhythms, and one of the most essential components of playing in such a highly syncopated environment is that of anchoring yourself to the clave pattern. By tapping it with your foot while you play the bass tumbao in the left hand and a montuno pattern in your right hand, you will have a solid foundation for improving your polyrhythmic abilities. This example is a timba pattern in 3-2 clave direction.

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