Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dealing with it: bad time

We'll see if this becomes a regular feature: dealing with it. If anyone has thoughts, ideas, frustrations in real life playing situations, mention them in the comments, and maybe I can write something about it.

Today let's talk about people with bad time, or who play in a way that interferes with good ensemble time, which... what's the difference? Players who make everything you play sound bad, or at least it feels that way. Someone on a drumming forum suggested an astoundingly bad way of dealing with it:

I have found that playing with musicians who have bad time is far more difficult than playing with ones that have really good time. I wonder if there’s an app that has a setting for bad time programmed in so you can practice playing with players whose time is very poor. If there’s not one, I wonder how hard it would be to create one, or modify an existing one.

So, that's not how performance works. The world is not a playalong track. You are an actor in this thing we call reality— you are a co-creator of the musical time, together with the other musicians on stage. Just as what they play influences you— to want to die, or live— what you play should influence them. Understanding that is the first step towards dealing with it constructively.

First you have to know what is actually happening. Time issues I have encountered include:

Habitual rushing
Some players just rush, especially when soloing, and if you listen to them too closely, you'll rush along with them. This has caused me a lot of problems, because I place a high value on listening.

Dragging at phrase endingsOne set of players I know got way too sensitive about phrasing with each other, and turned music that was supposed to swing almost into rubato chamber music.

Rushing on easy stuff and dragging on hard stuff
Vocalists do this a lot.

Dragging generally on ensemble passages
Horns so focused on playing together with the other horns they lose the thread.

Inaccurate rests and figures
Self-explanatory. Everybody does it.

Badly timed countoffs, pickups, intros, and solo breaks
They're not really thinking about the tempo they're counting off. Or they're vocalizing it badly. Intros and breaks played by people with weak rhythm, setting up what comes after them poorly.

Deliberately “floaty” time
Horns or vocalists. Not necessarily wrong, but it doesn't help you with the time.

People trying to be hip with their “feel”
People who listen to too much hip electronic music and not enough actual groove music.

Unsupportive bullshit 
As people get more into chops they tend to forgot their actual job, and play too much of the wrong stuff. Their time may not even be bad, but what they play is such noncontributive musical clutter that it compounds other players' time issues, and gets in your way in dealing with it.

It's partly a problem of getting people to listen. For advice on that we have to go back to the very beginning of this blog, where I reposted an answer Joey Baron gave in a master class— from a transcript I found on usenet a long time ago. The question was how do you make the band listen? 

Um, drown them out? No, well, you can't make somebody listen. You can try to hint, you can do things like with the dynamics— seriously, you could drown them out— you could lay out, you could do something with the time, like take it into a different feel, you could jump up and down and make funny noises— I've kind of tried all of those and they all work. It just depends on the context, who you're playing with. But you can't make someone else do something, but you can try, and those are ways. If you're playing in a funk groove and it's a constant backbeat going on, and the soloist is going on and on and on and on and on and just you feel like, wait a minute it's like this is turning into like, they should get a rhythm machine or a sequencer, instead of... 
You can do things like: don't affect the intensity of the groove but just don't do a backbeat, like in hiphop stuff— or in the stuff that's all about mixing— a lot of times, they'll just mix out the backbeat with the rest of the track is going on. That's a big change, if you're not listening. I mean you'd have to be deaf not to notice that kind of stuff. In a more subtle situation, like if you're playing jazz or more softer type of music, you know just change the texture. If you've been playing on the ride cymbal for a while, play on a closed tight sound, change up the sound, do something to kind of wake people up or something?

You can also:

Learn to ignore them
If they're playing bad time, what kind of information are you hoping to get by listening to them? You have to have a concept of time independent from what you hear.

Independence is necessary even with good players. Not everyone improvises perfectly rhythmically accurate stuff 100% of the time. They (we) need to feel that the time is not going to go to hell just because they rushed one line. That push and pull creates energy. None of the ahead/behind the beat stuff people love talking about is possible without it.

Focus on the one other solid player
Often that's enough to make the gig tolerable, and maybe even worth listening to.

Make sure you're playing in a way the others can follow
Don't play unsupportive bullshit all the time. If you're way too into your patterns and ghost notes and linear funk grooves, you may be making the problem worse. In dealing with a bad time situation, I moved towards a more 70s way of playing funk, which is more chunky, with the full 8th or 16th note grid stated strongly. That's actually a better way of playing all the time. It's nice to play hip, fascinating shit, it's nicer to create an unmissable groove.

Develop a high level of awareness and confidence in your own time
How are you going to know what to do if you don't even know what's going on? Read my post on things that helped me improve my time awareness, and have more confidence in my time.

Be realistic
On the internet especially I have noticed drummers adopting some highly unrealistic ideas about what good time is, and adopting some extreme practice habits in service of that. Time squishiness is inherent to human beings playing music. Through a lot of playing experience and a lot of listening (to non-quantized, non-click track music) you learn what actual professional tolerances are.

No comments: