Playing 3 against 2

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    Hi all
    I started working on Debussy’s 1st Arabesque (which is actually the piece that made me want to play the harp) and I am having some difficulty playing the 3 against 2 pattern. I can get it veryyyy slowly but as soon as I try to bring up the tempo a bit, I can’t quite get it. Perhaps I am thinking of it wrong. Does anyone have any tips or suggestions to play poly-rhythms like this?


    Sitting at a table or desk, get ready to tap both hands to either ” Both, right left right, Both, right left right” or “Blueberry pie”, whichever you prefer. The right hand taps only on both, right, right for the first option, and only on Blue, ber, pie for the second. The left hand taps only on Blue, ry. Slowly, then gradually faster and faster, as you have said, should help solve this rhythm problem. Reverse if you want your left hand to tap three times to the two tapped by the right.

    Gretchen Cover

    I saw a youtube masterclass video in which harpist Skaila Kanga coached the student to say something like “a nice cup of tea,” or “have a cup of tea” (can’t recall her exact words) to play 3 against 2. I do the one-ee-and-a-two-ee myself to get that passage. I also use the metronome. I did the hand tapping, too, when I first started First Arabesque.

    I’m sure your instructor is working with you on it and should have approaches to this tricky passage. Don’t rush. It will come in time – maybe a lot longer time than you’d like. Accuracy is more important than speed while you are learning the piece. Make sure you know each hand well to the point of memorization in those measures so you can focus on the rhythm, not the notes. Once you get this on the first page of First Arabesque, you will be able to complete the piece and always be able to do this rhythm playing any piece. First Arabesque is a great technique piece, and one of the most difficult IMHO to play well.


    ‘Nice cup of tea’ is what I was taught – you only want four syllables. I found it clicked for me when I wrote out crotchet, 2 quavers, crotchet (repeat) with the relevant tails going up and down.

    Sid Humphreys

    One of my teachers taught me to say “not difficult”.


    Two against 3 is not that complicated. In this particular case, the right hand is playing 3 and the left hand 2. If you think of it as the right hand playing triplets, both hands play together on the first note of the triplet. The second note of the left hand comes exactly half way between the second and third notes of the right hand. If you want to see what is happening, write out on a piece of paper 3 groups of 16th notes, 4 notes in each group(for a total of 12 notes). Put up stems on all of these notes. Now put down stems on the 1st and 7th notes. The right hand plays the first note of each of the 16th note groups, and the left hand plays the two notes with down stems. Count the 16th notes aloud, counting 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 at a fast tempo, and slap your right hand on the table every time you say 1. Slap your left hand on the table on the first 1 and the second 3(where the down stems are). That’s 3 against 2.


    “Nice cup of tea” seems to be the standard method of teaching this in the UK. No surprise there really! As everyone has said, it’s not complicated.

    Depending which hand has the triplet, it works like this.
    T = together R = Right hand and L = left hand. I hope it lines up properly when I post it!



    If you like thinking mathematically, think of fractions and common denominators. Each note of the triplet is a third (of the beat, for instance) and each eighth note (in this piece) is a half. The common denominator is 6, as in 1/6.

    Divide the beat into 6. Each note of the triplet is now equal to two numers: 123456 and each eighth note is equal to three: 123456

    Counting out loud, tap both hands on 1, the triplet hand on 3, the eighth note hand on 4, and the triplet hand on 5. Rinse, lather and repeat. It’s also a great idea to reinforce your feel by switching hands, maybe walking around with your feet as the triplet and hands as the eighth note and in reverse, etc…

    Basically – understand exactly how they fit together and then move the understanding into your body.


    The nice thing is that, once you get it, it becomes automatic. You no longer have to think about it. One of the hardest pieces I’ve ever played is the Parish-Alvars Serenade, and in that piece there are several looooooong melismas, where the right hand plays say 27 notes against the left hand which plays 6. I had to go through each one of those with a pencil and put a line from each left hand note up to the right hand note I had to hit at that point. Then I had to practice these melismas literally one beat at a time so I could get the feel of both hands getting to the same mark together. And each of these melismas was different. Another one might have 39 notes in the right hand and 7 in the left, then 34 in the right hand and 6 in the left, etc. So each one had to be learned the same way. But once I got it, I could just play each one of these without even thinking about it.


    Suggest you go back to Grandjany’s Arabesque – a grade 6 piece – a good place to learn 3 against 2 – oh and tap on your knees (thighs) RH triplets, LH quarter notes.

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