Thursday, April 04, 2019

Time and whatnot

Object To Be Destroyed
by Man Ray
It is often said that in a musical ensemble, keeping time is everyone's responsibility.

And in some hypothetical quantum universe or other fantastical musical fairyland, people may actually follow that in practice. In reality, it's all on you, the drummer. You will always be the one blamed when there are problems with the time. You are the receptacle for everyone's problems with the time— both real and imagined— and you will be expected to fix everything.

So your time has to be good, so good that you know it's good, and can speak with real confidence when it comes up.

Here are a few general philosophies and practical tips for improving your time effectively:

Feeling bad
For professionals required to play modern music in a wide variety of tempos, styles and settings, where you are basically expected to maintain metronomic accuracy, I don't believe you can rely on body motion, technique, listening, feeling... “innate groove”... whatever mickey mouse theories people have about the mysterious place good time comes from. It doesn't lie in your muscles, your soul, the motion of the sticks, or the structure of your anatomy.

It resides in your head. The time has to be conceived. You could say it's an intellectual process, I would say it's about awareness. Time awareness can be learned.

I should clarify: there is plenty of indigenous/folkoric music, some of which is extremely rhythmically sophisticated, in which the time may be very much reliant on the things I listed above. That music may be the greatest art in the world, but the demands are different for professional musicians playing the drum set.

Time is the point
In learning to play, we work on a lot of stuff. A whole lot of drumming crap, none of which matters if it isn't servicing the time. Not only do you have to be able to do it in time, you have to use it to construct the time. So we have to resign ourselves to the idea that time is something we have to build and constantly maintain with what we play. There are times where you are allowed or able to take a looser attitude, but you have to be able to do the constructive thing.

The nice part is that when you're playing really good time, little else matters. The crap you wanted to play doesn't seem that great any more. You can be a great drummer with very little drumming crap.

Counting rhythm
Vocalizing is how we make sure our brains get it. It gives you internal concept of the musical idea, which you can then express by playing it on an instrument. Counting the rhythms out loud is a functionally OK way for  doing that. I think of it as a low-grade version of the very ancient, sophisticated and effective Indian rhythmic solfege.

For any piece of music you should be able to vocalize the rhythm of the notes only, and the notes plus rests, counting rests as if they are notes. Playing something written out for the drumset, you should be able to count the combined rhythm of the snare and bass drum parts, and the combined rhythm for all of the parts. Personally I only take this to the 16th note level: 1-e-&-a 2-e-&a. At normal tempos I wouldn't count complete rhythms for sixtuplets or 32nd notes— I count those as 8th notes, with no syllables for the subdivisions.

A major place where your time will get messed up is with anticipations— long notes landing right before the beat. You hit a lot of &s of 2 and &s of 4 in jazz, and they tend to rush. When you hit a long note on the & of 4, know where the 1 is, and know how long the space is from the & of 4 to the 2.

1 and 3
Jazz drummers can get almost phobic about the 1 and 3, like they're the white beats that will show everyone how ungrooving you truly are if you acknowledge them. But they're the context for all the super-hip stuff you play. You have to know where they are, and state them accurately, especially if you're doing an Elvin Jones type of cymbal interpretation

Slow click 
Practice with your metronome set to the slowest speed you can handle, regardless of the tempo you're playing. Like a quarter or 1/8th speed. So if you're practicing something at quarter note = 120, set your metronome to 30 or 15. This forces you to conceive the time in your own head, the exact same way you need to do when you're playing music. The metronome just comments periodically to tell you how well you're doing it. I set mine from 15-40 BPM all the time, unless there's a good reason to do something else.

People like to get cute with their metronomes, programming them to drop out for a few measures or whatever. That's just dancing around the real issue, which is ongoing focus on the time. Just learn to deal with a constant slow click.

Memorizing sound
BPM numbers and metronome pulses are lousy media for learning time. Instead, memorize sound. Here: think about the song Kashmir; hear the recording in your head, clap the beat, then check the recording to see how accurately you called it:

Try it with any other recordings you know well. If you wanted to, you could memorize the BPMs for your remembered music catalog, so you can recall the entire functional range of tempos just by thinking about it. Fool your friends.

The more important thing is just to know that this is a thing, learn to trust its accuracy, and begin exploiting it in your playing every day. For example, in playing and recording, I will often memorize the sound of the countoff— not the tempo, the actual sound of the person's voice— or the horn pickups, to check the timing of the tune in progress.

See what you think. These things have all worked very well for me, I think they'll work for you too.


Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be dense, but is this addressing the question of hearing the 2&4 of uptempo tunes as the 1&3?

Todd Bishop said...

No, it's for any tempo-- just knowing where the 1 and 3 are, and playing them as part of the groove. Maybe it wasn't a problem for everyone-- it was for me.

Anonymous said...

Todd, it's Rhumbagirl. Are you saying that, by putting the metronome on the bar instead of the quarter note, you're letting youself breath more (time-wise) within the groove? If so, may I come over and give you a big hug??