Rhythm pervades every living moment
From the cosmic to the momentary, every aspect of Life is shaped by recognizable, yet infinitely varied patterns. No two moments are the same, even if they are recognizable as being similar…nothing repeats itself, exactly. This is key to recognizing and unlocking the true power of rhythm in life and music.
In trying to embrace the essence of this phenomenon, the starting point of our understanding should be the acceptance of the concept of ‘infinity’; measuring rhythm with a lesser unit will result in blind spots in our perception of the endless variety within each passing moment.
When it comes to music, rhythm shapes sound into recognizable patterns, creating emotional meaning and order out of what would otherwise be nonsensical chaos. Our understanding of rhythm as performers needs to be more conceptual than literal, however, otherwise we lose our personal connection with it, along with two of music’s most crucial elements: freedom and variety. Rather than being restrictive, rhythm needs to be a facilitating/liberating force that reveals the aesthetic shape and cohesion of our playing.
A few points to ponder, when putting together your rhythmic approach:
Metronomes and Watches
In nature, things happen in whatever time it takes – any logic we perceive is only revealed with hindsight, at the conclusion of each evolutionary experience (phrase)…nothing is fixed in absolute or predetermined terms. Yet within this infinite variety, there also exist recognizable aesthetic trends and patterns.
Practicing with metronomes creates more problems than it solves, as relying on an external source of rhythm results in a serious abdication of rhythmic responsibility…ultimately, this can actually weaken our sense of rhythm, rather than strengthening it. It is far better to get used to organically creating rhythm internally; making a proactive mistake (and learning from it) is far better in the long-term, than simply learning to play accurately in a reactive way which is devoid of Will and Intent.
Furthermore, metronomes are lifeless machines - they don’t know you are playing, they don’t hear the music and its high-points/low-points/harmonies/tensions/releases and are unaware of the idiosyncrasies of various instruments. They go Tick Tock, no matter what happens in the room. It is important to arrive at a living rhythm that is built on the living/breathing/moving nature of Life in all its glory and vulnerability, otherwise we wind up with a sterile rhythm that is created in denial of life itself.
Exactitude, in itself, has no real human, emotional or musical value.
In order to glean the emotional characteristics of rhythm, we need to highlight its emergent defining features. This can be done in a combination of ways:
1. By clearly articulating the nuances and phrasing within any given rhythm. The use of articulation and phrasing allows us to highlight the weight and lift of rhythms.
2. By subtly magnifying the noticeable features, we begin to characterise rhythm, instead of simply reproducing it - the difference between ‘painting an impression’ (which involves a creative process) and ‘taking a photo’ (which is comparatively neutral, creatively speaking). This involves making clear decisions about lengthening/shortening certain notes very subtly, in order to bring the rhythm characteristics to life.
Apart from the perspective of musical aesthetics, rhythm can have a very strong effect on us physically (and vice versa), as performers; we need to actively listen to our bodies as well as the sound we are producing.
A lack of internal rhythmic fluency very quickly translates into physical tension while playing, which often compromises our playing on many levels. By comparison, when rhythms have been deeply absorbed, they become second nature and the body is able to flow with the music. This is a process that is facilitated by repetition and memorisation.
A close scrutiny of our body language is vital, if we are to harness the full power and potential of our bodies. Why do we move? When do we move? How does this all affect our playing? If you notice over-emphasized movements on certain beats (whether this is foot-tapping, or upper-body gestures), this body language is usually expressing a discomfort of some kind. If such gestures are appearing in mid-phrase, these are probably resulting in musical dead-ends and tension points that need to be resolved – such physical arrival points need to be avoided until the end of the phrase is reached...beats need to be subordinated in order for the bigger shape of the phrase to emerge.
Consistency and Coordination
When we find our timing, a by-product of this is that we also find much of our coordination and consistency. Having a clear idea of when we choose to place a note results in a precise arrival point for several seemingly disparate movements: concentration, lower body support, articulation, fingers, lips and air speed/angle all have a common meeting point.
Bending Rhythm for Physical and Technical Advantage
Bending rhythm to seek technical advantage - that’s not cheating….it is streetwise. Here are some examples of how to use flexible rhythm to command better musical and technical control:
1. If a difficult passage is coming up, reducing speed in the preceding notes by a tiny fraction can give us a significant advantage. This takes a lot of self-control to do and is hardly noticeable to your audience.
2. When running out of air, reducing volume and subtly speeding up allows you to reach the end of the phrase with grace…far more desirable than sticking rigidly to a constant speed and falling short.
3. Starting a fast group of notes a tiny fraction early buys you valuable time to get the notes in. By the same token, starting a fraction late makes it more difficult, because you have even less time at your disposal.
4. It is a huge advantage to be aware of the varying idiosyncrasies and technical demands of various instruments, when playing together; making minute rhythmic adjustments to accommodate these will facilitate better ensemble playing, while creating stronger empathy, trust and respect between players.
Large Versus Small Units
Counting in smaller rhythmic units (sub-dividing) can result in greater precision and accuracy, but this comes at a price: less freedom and more physical tension. On the other hand, choosing larger units facilitates greater freedom and ease of playing, but the drawback to that is that there is more likelihood of small inaccuracies occurring. We need to learn to switch between the two, depending on the situation.
In the early stages of learning a new piece, I find that some disciplined subdivision is helpful…but as the piece is internalised, it becomes more desirable to switch to counting in larger units, allowing space for a more natural playing style. This also helps create space for breathing in an unhurried, natural and musical way.
You will probably also notice that accessing your phrasing through larger rhythmic units helps reduce tension to a large degree, because each constructed beat is potentially a psychological/physical tension point – reducing the number of beats is therefore creating a more seamless and effortless playing style.
So how do we arrive at the right choice of ‘pulse unit’? This process is largely driven by the underlying harmonies within the music; each changing harmony is a musical milestone, a transformation, a progression and an evolution. These evolving harmonies are cosmic beats that are the driving force of the music and our own energy levels, while what happens between these cosmic beats is merely transitory or ornamental - and must not be over-emphasised by being awarded a prominent beat.
Using metronomes and watches to measure the glorious patterns of Life simply reduces them to our petty filtered human standards…that is a path I choose not to take. It can be revealing to briefly check metronome markings, but I avoid practicing with a metronome for long periods.
We need to construct an attitude towards rhythm that transforms it into a catalyst and liberating force. Finding this freedom (our freedom) is not self-indulgent…it is the very pinnacle of self-discipline, self-control and empowerment, and needs to be represented in every facet of our music making, including rhythm.
© Wissam Boustany