When we play in groups the timing issue can sometimes get a little bumpy. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
“Play a little quicker. You are dragging! No! A little slower. You were a little late on that note. Hmmmmmm….You were just a pinch early.”
What a nightmare!
Consider this for a moment. When you are playing music with someone, the sound leaves their instrument and enters your ear and is perceived by you AFTER it happens. Same goes for the sound coming off your instrument being perceived by your partner. It’s all in the PAST! So, how do we play together? How do we play “in time?”
I have a theory. Here I go again with the theories. No science here, just anecdotal evidence. Here it is:
The best way for people to play together “in time” is to learn to THINK the rhythm together. For me, this means learning to listen to the musicians around me and letting my internal sense of time synchronize with theirs. This is a miraculous calculation that the brain is all too happy to make for us, if we let it. It seems like a simple process but it is something that takes a lot of practice. For most of us, being able to attend to rhythm AS we play and sing does not just happen on its own. We need to work on it. And, unless you have an in-house jamming buddy who’s got a great sense of rhythm, you’ll need to find some way to work on this skill by yourself. Otherwise, it will be a big shock when you do play with other people! Playing along with recordings is one option that helps. But, in my experience, learning to work with a metronome can be even more helpful in developing a strong sense of time and listening.
Oh, Oh! The metronome! That ticking tyrant! If you’ve ever tried to work with a metronome you might have said something like this:
“I SWEAR THAT THING IS SPEEDING UP AND SLOWING DOWN! I CAN’T FOLLOW IT!”
Deep breath. In today’s article I will suggest ways to work with a metronome. Hopefully it will help you to make friends with that ever so useful time keeping gadget. Or maybe you already love your metronome and you will find something new to try.
First, I want to look at some general considerations concerning our ability to attend to rhythm. Full disclosure, I struggle and continue to work on all of these issues.
1. Avoid excessive movement
Movement is good. Especially if it’s spontaneous. That being said, movement to the beat, especially when it’s vigorous, can cause a musician to become a closed system. We are so busy telling ourselves where the beat is that we aren’t available for the very information that will help us self-correct and adjust. So, if you are having trouble tracking rhythm and you are a confirmed toe-tapper or head-bobber, try making the decision to NOT move to the beat and LISTEN. See if that helps. It just might.
2. Keep an “open focus”
Our attention can often become very narrowed to what we are doing when playing. We might be concerned with chord shapes, or a challenging passage that is coming up. We might be wondering if the sounds that we are making are good. It’s essential that what we are doing as musicians not cut us off from our environment. Otherwise, it’s impossible to play as a group or synchronize with a metronome.
3. Be willing to simplify what you are doing.
When something musical is too challenging for us it is very likely to cause us to narrow our focus and lose touch with the rhythm. If this is the case, it may be necessary to simplify what we are doing so that we become able to stay more “available.” When you are working with a metronome choose simple pieces that you know well.
4. Pause and listen when you feel you have “lost the time.” Don’t Chase!
If you are working with a metronome and you feel that you’ve lost the beat or you’ve drifted off, STOP AND LISTEN TO THE METRONOME FOR A WHILE! If you stop playing you will more easily get re-oriented. Then you can start up again once you’ve got your bearings. It’s just a good policy. Trying to chase the metronome just leads to more confusion sometimes. Stop, let yourself re-synchronize and try again.
LET’S TRY IT!
Synchronizing Your Internal Clock To A Metronome:
If you don’t have a metronome or you’ve never used one, you may need to take a moment to familiarize yourself with how one works. A metronome is basically a device that plays a steady beat. The most important adjustment to make on a metronome is the Beats Per Minute (BPM). A higher number BPM makes the metronome click faster, and a lower number makes it click slower.
Below you’ll find a link to an online metronome. I like this metronome because it goes all the way down to 20 BPM (really SLOW!) which we will need for the following experiment. Click the link and explore the metronome. Choose a BPM number from the grid on the left and click PLAY. You’ll hear: Click Click Click Click Click. Choose some higher and lower numbers and notice how that changes the speed of the metronome clicks. Enjoy! Here is the link:
A. FEELING THE GROUPING OF BEATS
1. Set the BPM to 120 and press start.
2. In your head, without saying it out loud, please try to count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, along with the clicks of the metronome. Each click gets a number.
The beats in a song are grouped into things called bars or measures. Usually the beats are organized in groups of 3 or 4. This exercise is simulating the beats of a song that has four beats per bar. We are getting a feel for the beat and how the beats are grouped.
If you are unsure about whether you are getting it right, just mentally count one bar along with the metronome clicks:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4
Pause and listen to the metronome for a while then try two bars:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
Then stop. Keep adding bars until you are reasonably comfortable.
B. TAKING ON MORE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE BEAT
1. Now set the BPM of the metronome to 60. Half the speed as before.
2. Try mentally counting like this:
Since the metronome is only clicking 60 beats per minute now, we only get a click on beats 1 and 3 of every bar. We are now responsible for thinking beats 2 and 4 on our own, while synchronizing with the metronome. Cool, Eh? Try this for a while. I think you can guess what the next step is.
C. WAHOO! ONE BEAT PER BAR!
1. You guessed it! Set the metronome to 30 BPM
2. Try mentally counting like this:
Now we only get one click per bar! The metronome is clicking on the first beat of the bar and we are responsible for keeping track of the rest. And the metronome clicking on the first beat of the bar gives us feedback as to whether we have stayed synchronized. We are building the internal clock and learning to listen. Great stuff!
You can do this exercise starting on a faster tempo too. You can start at BPM 160 then 80 then 40, if you like. Experiment with it.
This is a powerful exercise for building your internal clock. The concept can be applied to any metronome work that you do. The basic idea is that the metronome click does not need to always be on every beat. It can be put on only some of the beats. It’s even possible to put the metronome click on the “off” beat. More on that later.
Here is a little video where I demonstrate and then build on today’s lesson concept. I demonstrate some really fun and challenging uses of the metronome that were shown to me by my bass player friend, Taisuke Sugi in Japan. I also use the sea shanty “Drunken Sailor” in the video so I’ve put a link to the tablature below.
I hope that you enjoyed today’s lesson. If you know of someone who could benefit from this lesson please forward it to them!
All the best,
p.s. Here is the tab for Drunken Sailor: