I’m always amazed at how some musicians can come together, count off a tune, and create music on the spot that really swings. How come some can do this yet others simply can’t? Why is it that some music grooves a lot and some grooves less or not at all? While there may be a number of reasons to this problem, I’ll focus on one of them in this article: “The beat”.
What is “the beat”? You may define it as: “A common denominator, in the form of a pulse, used by a group of musicians in order to be able to play music “together.” Now, if the individual musicians of a band or ensemble have different pulses, or beats, how can they possibly be on the same page? Even if someone is loudly marking the beat for everyone to hear, that doesn’t mean that people are closely following it. Some may place their music exactly around the beat while others don’t. All the individual notes that are being played don’t line up the way they should which results in “sloppy” music.
Let’s take a moment and use target practice as analogy. The target is the beat. The arrow is the note. If we all shoot our arrows at the target at once, chances are that the arrows end up all over the place. Experienced professionals, however, have a much higher chance of hitting the bullseye.
Well, the same applies to music. The more musicians hit the beat right on the head, the more the music will sound “together.” This, I believe, is the crux of the matter. The more difficult the music gets, the more musicians have to concentrate on mastering their part, so that they pay less attention to the beat.
This happens all the time on the bandstand, and it is really easy to observe. Next time you’re on the bandstand, keep an eye on a musician who is tapping his foot to the beat. As the music gets more syncopated, the foot may skip a beat, speed up or slow down, it may attempt to play the part that the musician is trying to play, or it may stop altogether!
As this happens, the “common denominator,” the “pulse” or “beat,” the “foundation” that’s supposed to keep the band together is now no longer stable. Of course, the musician may argue that the part that he played was exactly in sync with his foot, but that is all relative. His playing may have been right relative to his foot but if his foot moved, his playing was not right relative to the pulse of the band.
This can often lead to all kinds of discussions and disputes not all of which end on a happy note! A common response to the above-mentioned problem is that we would all sound like robots or machines if we played exactly like the metronome.
Let me respond to this by looking at one of the masters of “time” or “groove,” the legendary drummer Steve Gadd. He is known as one of the drummers who has mastered “time”. This means that whatever he plays, he is always exactly with the metronome. You could shut off the metronome for a couple of bars and switch it back on and Steve would still be in sync with it. Yet, Mr. Gadd does not sound like a machine, far from it. His playing is some of the most “grooviest” you’ll ever hear.
Why is that? Why can he be in sync with the metronome so much and not sound like a machine?
The answer is in where he places his notes. Let’s look at a simple rock patten, where his snare drum would fall on beats two and four of the bar. Now, he can decide to hit these two beats exactly on the head, or he can decide to “lay them back” a bit. This means that he would hit beats two and four just a tad after the metronome hit those same beats.
These are tiny differences and only schooled ears can make them out. But these tiny details are what make music groove or not. The key is that if Steve decides to hit these two beats just a bit behind the beat (meaning a fraction of a second later than the metronome), he needs to be consistent and hit the two and four of consecutive bars at exactly the same spot, each time.
Let me use the target practice analogy again to make this a bit clearer. If Steve’s decision to hit beat two and four a fraction of a second later than the metronome, would be equivalent to hitting the target just a bit to the side of the bullseye, and hit it in the same spot every time you shoot an arrow.
Notice how Steve would not change “the beat” or “the common denominator” at all, he would simply place his note consistently after the beat, where the novice would move “the beat” and make playing music “together” impossible. Does that make sense?
So how can we make sure that we don’t “lose” the beat? Is that something we have to have naturally or can we acquire this skill through practice?
Well, I believe that we can all improve our ability to keep the beat better by internalizing the beat. This will help you to place your notes exactly where you want them placed even when the music is difficult and requires a lot of concentration. This does not mean, however, that you’ll swing more, because, remember that the “swing” comes from knowing where to place your individual notes relative to the beat and doing so consistently.
By “knowing where to place your individual notes” I’m not implying that this is something that every musician is doing consciously. I believe that large amounts of talent are responsible for the fact that some people will just naturally place the notes in a way that makes them swing. This is what puts a Charlie Parker in a different league than the average college saxophone player.
Ok, so how do we average musicians do it? How can we solidify our sense of the beat?
Internalizing the beat means to be able to sense the beat regardless of how much attention you have to pay to the music. I firmly believe that you can only achieve this by using your voice. Tapping your foot is not an option as we’ve seen from my example above. You don’t really have all that much control over your foot. When the going gets tough, you can’t really tell wether your foot skipped a beat or not.
This is different, however, if you use your voice. You can always feel the vibrations of your voice, no matter how loud the music around you gets, no matter how many distractions you’re dealing with.
I thus suggest the following exercise:
Exercise #1: Sing quarter notes out loud and play rhythms with your hands.
You can do this with a metronome and without. Just start the metronome, sing the same quarter notes, and sightread rhythms with your hands. Don’t just play rhythms that you know and are comfortable with. Grab any musical text you can get your hands on and play the rhythms with your hands. (If you’re a horn player, put down your instrument and do the same).
You’ll find this challenging at first, but once you get the hang of it, it will become surprisingly easy. At first there will be a tendency to stop counting out loud, or lower the volume gradually, or mumble. Focus on counting loudly and clearly for the whole duration of the exercise. I suggest you count 1-2-3-4, not just any sound.
This exercise will most definitely help you build a more solid “inner clock” provided you practice it religiously. Even horn players will feel a stronger sense of the beat when playing their horns, even without the count.
In order to challenge yourself a bit more once you’ve mastered the first exercise, you can add the following exercise:
Exercise #2: Start off counting the click out loud just the way you did in exercise #1, then switch to singing the rhythm that you’re reading from a book and play the quarter notes.
Let me just point out that this exercise will merely add independence skills. I don’t believe that it is nearly as important as the first one. But it is fun and may get you even more comfortable with the placement of rhythms around a steady beat.
The nice thing about exercise #1 and its variation is that it will become second nature and once you get back to the bandstand you won’t have to consciously think about it. It will truly build a stronger sense of the beat, which you’ll benefit from for the rest of your career.
The only thing left for you to do is convince your fellow band members to practice the same exercise.