Music is the art that defines one’s relationship to Time. –Stravinsky
Time is one of the fundamental underpinnings of music. Without time, music has no space in which to unfold. Within the space of a piece of music, the sounds can be measured and regular and cyclical, like most music, or it can be more amorphous and float through the moments without concern for symmetry, repetition or groove. Although playing without a regular beat or tempo has its own challenges, it’s not hard to do from a rhythmic standpoint. What can be difficult is teaching/learning how to play (or do anything for that matter) in a very steady and invariant rhythm. This is an essential skill for about every kind of music invented, wheter it’s music made ’round an ancient fire or in a modern concert hall or giant arena. You’ve got to practice rhythm.
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One of the most boring ways is with a metronome. It has its uses, and more on that in a future post on the metronome. A much more fun and interesting way is to play a rhythm instrument. No need to get all expensive about it either. Small egg shakers can be found at most music stores and rarely cost more than a few dollars. Buy some. Better yet, recycle some aluminum cans: empty them, cut off the top or lid (this works well w/ canned food cans b/c they’re already lidless), fill it with popcorn or kidney beans, then tape the two cans shut with duct tape. (instructions) Bingo! You’ve got a pretty loud and very functional shaker. Hold the shaker in front of your face with your palm facing you, fingers on the far side of the shaker, thumb on the near side. Move the shaker away from you quickly a short distance (3-4 inches) and then give a quick snap of the wrist as you bring it back. (Here is a YouTube clip for technique.) You’ll hear a crisply delineated sound when you do this. The One-Shot is a very cool shaker invented by Latin percussionist Daniel De Los Reyes that has foam on all but one side which gives it an especially crisp presence. Whatever kind of shaker you use and however you’ve decided to play it, find a way to keep the beat along with a recording. You can also roll the innards of the shaker along the inner surface for another type of sound. Your goal is to get yourself in synchrony with a recording or with live musicians (this is more fun). This “playing-with-the-beat-ness” is also called entrainment.
No reason to stop at the shaker, though. I have a conga, a set of tabla, (these links are great examples of conga master Giovanni Hidalgo, and tabla master Alla Rakha) and I also play on a whole sack full of other percussion instruments. They’re all relatively easy to play on a simple level, which helps you focus on playing rhythmically instead of having to worry about instrumental technique. At more advanced levels, percussion instruments are equally as difficult as any discipline (especially tabla!) and need as much practice as any other instrument. Take a look at the Reyes, Hidalgo, and Rakha links and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Those guys are monster players!
You don’t even need an instrument really, a manufactured one anyway. Your hands and a body part or other surface will do just nicely, thank you very much. Lately I’ve been doing conga patterns on my leg whenever I think of it. It helps to get the brain working on those patterns many times throughout the day, and I’ve noticed a difference when I come back to the drum. I’m convinced it helps my trumpet and guitar playing, too. Even if it didn’t I’d still do it. It’s fun. Try it, you’ll like it.
That’s probably the best part about this kind of rhythm practice: it’s really fun to do (with or without instruments), and gives you an excuse to put on some recordings and pay attention to them. Practice doesn’t need to be boring. Have fun!