Keeping Good Time
You can normally tell when someone’s playing out of time. It either ruins the flow of a solo piece or throws a whole band’s performance off. Even the least discerning audience – maybe a wedding reception where people are drinking and won’t even notice some bum notes! – will be upset by music that is out of time. Tapping your foot to music that’s out of time is like clicking your fingers to the beat of a bumblebee trying to escape through a closed window: you’re going to have a bad time. Typically, unless you’re playing some something weird and atonal like Penderecki, you want people listening to you to have a good time. Hopefully I’ve put across the point that, in order for that to happen, your performance has to be tight; bum notes can be overlooked but dropping the beat is unforgiveable!
What does it mean to be in time?
All music has a pulse, or beat. It can change or be slightly freer and more fluid depending on the piece but it’s always there. Go online and find any pop song, odds are you’ll find yourself counting along “1, 2, 3, 4”. The beat is the reference point for when to play the notes and chords you’re playing, it tells you how to play the rhythm – and how quickly. Being in time means the rhythm of what you’re playing lines up with the beat. Note that this doesn’t mean everything’s played on the beat, that would be pretty darn boring. It means things that should be on the beat are and things that should be off are off; it means four of your semiquavers fit evenly into a beat without being rushed or spilling into the next beat.
How do you know what the beat is?
A metronome is a device that keeps a perfect beat at any tempo. They come in mechanical form and digital form, they can even be found in a pure software form and there are even some websites dedicated to acting as a free metronome! If you set a metronome to 60bpm (beats per minute) it will click once every second. Set it to 95bpm and it will click exactly 95 times over the course of a minute. A metronome can be put to great use in solo practice – it give you perfection to practice to! There’s one problem though, even if you internalise a perfectly even beat that will only work when you play on your own – not to mention it will lead to robotic performance. When you play live you’re going to be playing to a more “organic” beat, either kept by you or by a bandmate.
How can you practice playing in time?
The simplest way is to practice with a metronome. There is a slight trick, though: you need to use two different methods of metronome practice in order to really benefit. You can practice absolutely any piece of music you want with these methods, just start off with something simple to get a feel for it. The first way is to anticipate the beat, this means you try to play dead-on. If you’re playing on the beat in 4/4 time, your playing should happen exactly on the beat of “1, 2, 3, 4”. This is what I’ll call “tight” playing – this is what you might want to do if you’re making a recording or playing to a super-accurate backing track where the drums are quantised.
And the other method?
The other method is to practice “in the pocket” playing: just don’t play until you hear the beat. But it will be off, won’t it? Yeah, by a small amount but the trick is that you need to do this when you play with others. Anticipating the beat works with a metronome because it’s perfectly regular. Drummers are not; you are not. Human beings do not keep perfect time – and if we did, we wouldn’t sound human either. Anticipating the beat and trying to be spot on will lead to you going out of time with bandmates: maybe you’re perfectly on time for the song’s proper tempo, great, but if your drummer speeds up or slows down slightly then you’re going to sound out of time. If you practice playing slightly after the beat, you’ll get used to doing it so smoothly and quickly that your “lag” isn’t noticeable and you’ll always sound in time with other musicians even though the reality is that you’re playing a tiny fraction of a second later.
Why bother with the first method, then?
Some music benefits from being played really tight in a solo situation, a lot of Bach only comes to life fully when it’s played spot-on in time and at pace. Sometimes you’ll be playing to an electronic backing that’s spot-on so you can anticipate the beat. Finally, it’s becoming more and more common for bands to use in-ear monitors and play to a click. This means everyone in the band is playing against a perfect beat and you can all aim for perfect time, you don’t need to and shouldn’t wait for the drums in this situation.
One final tip!
Tap your foot to the beat in both situations. One of my teachers once said to me: “When your foot stops tapping, it’s the first sign that the music’s dead.”
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pacovila