Several years ago, a famous conductor came to give a guest clinic with my undergraduate orchestra. Somewhere in the middle of one of the thornier passages of Till Eulenspiegel, he stopped to ask the orchestra what we thought was the most important part of music. One of the younger cellists raised her hand and said “love.” He sighed and said “Well, yeah, ok… but that’s not what I was thinking. I meant rhythm.” He followed up with a passionate soapbox speech on the importance of playing with good time. The sound of our collective bubbles bursting must have been audible to the observers in the hall. I find this story funny now because I have witnessed (or have been on the receiving end) of many such incidents, and most of them were not quite so polite. In fact, the only time I (knowingly) witnessed a musician getting fired in the middle of a rehearsal, it was over rhythmic issues.
Recently, I was having lunch with a friend of mine who was in that same rehearsal. We laughed at how little we understood what the conductor meant. My friend was also in the cello section then, but now plays full time as a bassist in a Southern rock band. These days he works more on his rhythm than on flashy technique, and he wishes more musicians would do the same. His band is auditioning new drummers and he complained about how few of them had even a passable sense of time.
It makes sense that playing with good time is so critical to a musician’s career. Music is a temporal art, after all. The way that a piece of music unfolds in time, whether it is groove-based funk or a highly flexible Romantic piano work, is arguably its most critical component. If this is so, why would anyone neglect this part of his or her training? Often, I think it is because the musicians don’t know they have a problem. Rhythm and time issues are very hard to perceive in the moment, particularly when playing alone. They are often only revealed through the introduction of a metronome or another musician. On top of that, practicing rhythm and time is neither easy nor glamorous. However, those who do play with great rhythm will tell you that patient and intelligent work in this area will pay huge dividends.
Below I have compiled a few common exercises for improving one’s time. Be aware that while these exercises are simple, they are not easy. If you are just getting started working on time and rhythm, make sure that you are doing to following three things first: 1. Play with others. If you spend most of your playing time alone, it is easy to develop poor pulse and sloppy rhythm without realizing it. 2. Use a metronome. If you are practicing alone, a metronome will keep you honest. (Of course, metronomes can be used incorrectly, but more on that later.) 3. Record yourself. Rhythmic issues are much more obvious as an observer. Record yourself playing with the metronome and playing with others, too!
Slow and Simple
I know many excellent musicians who swear by this first exercise. It is as effective as it is simple. Set a metronome to a slow tempo (50 beats per minute or so), pick any note and play quarter notes with the metronome for 2 minutes without pausing. Increase the metronome by 5 or 10 beats per minute and repeat the exercise for another 2 minutes. Increase the metronome again and repeat the exercise one last time. Practice this exercise every day for at least two weeks.
After some time, your perception of the beat will change. I began to notice that the beat is not a single point, but an area. Once this happens, you can practice playing consistently on different parts of the beat. Being able to play on the front or back side of the beat is important for specific musical styles, but it is also important to be able to adjust to your placement to match others.
Metronomes are a great tool for improving your time, but only if used wisely. I have encountered many students who use a metronome but still have poor rhythm. Once they turn the metronome on the problems disappear, only to reappear again once the metronome is off. Try the following exercise to reduce metronome dependency.
Play through any passage with a metronome set to play every beat. Once you can execute the passage accurately and consistently, turn the sound off on every other beat. (Many metronome apps will allow you to specifically mute different beats within a measure, but you can achieve the same effect by setting the metronome to half tempo.) Once you can do that, set the metronome to play every four beats (or three or six depending on the meter). The fewer the pulses provided by the metronome, the stronger your internal time must be. Alternatively, you can download an app like Time Guru which mutes beats at random based on the percentage you set.
It is possible to play with a steady tempo and still play with poor rhythm. To improve your internal subdivisions, be sure to practice a variety of rhythms everyday (perhaps on your scales and arpeggios). You can also try setting the metronome to the offbeat instead of the downbeat. This is very challenging at first, but with a little practice it is actually fun to do. This exercise will reveal any rushing or dragging you might be doing within each beat.
Study the Time of Great Musicians
This advice is true for more than just rhythm, obviously. Listen to recordings of famous musicians of all genres to find out how they use time. If you can go see great players live, that is even better. I have been a fan of salsa music for many years and have always enjoyed the interlocking dance rhythms that form the backbone of the style. However, the first time I saw a high-level salsa group from Cuba perform live, I was in for a real treat. Their collective sense of time created such a strong physical response that I felt my heartbeat syncing with the percussion. There is a visceral aspect to playing rhythmically that is difficult to attain in isolation, so be sure to listen and join in as often as possible.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 Edition of the Texas Flute Society Newsletter.