Developing Great Time

Tuesday February 23, 2016

This post is a culmination of  the tools I learned over the years, much thanks to professor Michael Anderson and his dedication to his students at Oklahoma City University.

It’s no secret that developing great time is a crucial to success in music, especially in the professional world. As an adult, it can be rather challenging to overcome years of self-taught habits.  The journey of correcting these habits becomes more arduous the longer one waits to fix it. Although I had been performing professionally since 2004, at age 25 I finally decided to get my undergraduate degree.  I could not have been happier with my decision to do so, but during the process I had discovered that my sense of independent time had become majorly skewed.  As I continue with my higher education in pursuit of a doctorate, it is my goal to develop the tools necessary to continue improving my independent time, as well as developing a “tool-kit” to teach time to students who are struggling.

Feeling The Pulse Internally:

In order to develop great time, one must learn to feel time internally. This can be easier said than done for some folks, I would know! Early on in development, many music teachers tell students to “tap” their foot to feel the pulse.  There are two schools of thought one this one. Although I wont be taking us down that rabbit hole today, suffice to say that this habit can be both beneficial and a burden.  There are many instances in which tapping the foot can be distracting to ones peers as well as the audience. In addition to the distraction, it becomes a crutch on which we come to depend.

Having a sense of internal pulse is something that should be doggedly practiced. Without the gears all going the right direction, tapping your foot does little to help you. Step one in correcting the problem is the elimination of an outward dependency. These outward dependencies include conductors, a rhythm section, tapping your foot, and overuse of the metronome. When the pulse is provided, playing is less of an issue, but what do we in the audition room? Having a secure internal pulse can be the difference between wining a job or being cut in the first round. The good news is, there are methods one can utilize to start the journey.

So, now you’re in your practice room. Step one, set a tempo on your metronome and count inside your head with the beat. Step two, start recording yourself. Once the pulse is steady in your body, turn the metronome off and start playing some music. Once you have finished, listen to your recording. The recording doesn’t lie.  Makes notes as you listen, did you rush, drag, skip the rest, not play a long note full value? The first step in recovery is acceptance! Now that you’re aware of the problems, clear your head and start over from step one. Recording yourself is an invaluable tool, you should do this often. When you’re listening, tap your index finger to your thumb and keep a steady pulse. This is not an overnight fix, but with determination and practice your time will improve.

Subdivide Passages As You Play:

Often when we struggle, the suggestion thrown out immediately is that we need to subdivide. This is excellent advice, but only if you have practice doing so. Crank up the recording device again and have it on standby. Now, pull out some music with rhythmic variance. When playing through the passage, choose the durations you wish to subdivide. Wholes become quarter notes, dotted quarter notes become eighth notes, ad nauseam. Play through the passage with a steady pulse and subdivide the rhythms several times. Once you have done this, pull up your recording device, it’s the moment of truth! Remember, no tapping, just play the ink. The repetition of the subdivision should have become so strong that in theory, you’ll feel when you’re wrong. Listen, check your time, repeat. This seemingly simple tool will serve you well if you use it enough.

The Metronome Games:
Playing with the metronome is great, but using it to the advantage of the ‘metronomically challenged’ is different. Remember, the goal here is to eliminate the dependency on outward sources. So, we have to use the metronome differently than we have in the past. Instead of using the metronome to provide a steady beat-by-beat pulse use it to provide only parts of the pulse.  Start with only having the metronome click on beats ‘2’ and ‘4’. Try only beat ‘3’ or beat ‘1’. There are endless combinations, and they will all let you know when you are not playing with good time.  The idea here is to keep the time going with each sounded click acting as a guide to get you back on track. This is not to say that having the metronome click on every beat is not good, but one must train themselves to feel the beat when it’s not provided.

Shake It Up:

A simple tool for feeling the beat can be the use of an egg shaker when you are away from your instrument. Play along with your favorite music and feel the beat as you shake the egg along. This can be a fun way to incorporate movement and pulse into your listening. Keep it fun and simple, as you get better at it you can start use more complex syncopated rhythms within the pulse. Sometimes the best practice in time can be time spent away from your own instrument. The connections you build while having fun can directly translate to playing in time on your own.

Play Chamber Music:

It is not a secret that chamber music shows some of the highest rates of improvement in musicians. Because of the value, conservatories and music schools world wide encourage, or even require, students to play in chamber groups. Chamber groups without a conductor, such as a brass quintet, are invaluable learning experiences. Playing well with others requires playing in tune, in time, and using ones ears at the highest level.  The more complex the music becomes, the more you and your peers depend on one another. This type of reciprocal playing not only highlights the weaknesses in your playing, but forces the musicians to actively listen and adapt. When time is not good, the music falls apart. Don’t let this discourage you, the ‘pressure’ of being accountable to other musicians will only serve to strengthen the connections in your brain.  Play music that challenges you by including syncopated rhythms, staggered entrances, and mixed meter. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue compositions are excellent examples of the necessity of great time on each musician’s part to work as a unit. It is important to venture outside of your comfort zone if you wish to develop better time.

Closing Thoughts:

Each of the sections above are pieces of a much larger puzzle. Ultimately,  your end goal should be to always create music. Just playing the notes and rhythms correctly means that you have only solved half of the puzzle. The goal is not to develop ‘strict metronomic time’, but rather to develop a working sense of steady pulse that provide the foundation to building a bridge to the “musical side of the pond.” Keep things fun, but know that working hard is what is required for the growth needed to overcome any issue.