I Got (Better) Rhythm

Let me begin this post with a potentially controversial statement: rhythm is the most important element of your musical foundation.

Hear me out – other musical concepts such as tone, interpretation, and repertoire selection are very subjective and abstract. Even seemingly concrete aspects of pedagogy (embouchure, articulation, fingerings, posture) have fiercely divided and loyal devotees.  Don’t believe me? What syllable should be used for articulation? Dah? Dee? Tah? Tee? Tu? Your answer depends on your musical upbringing and a myriad of other factors.

The one unifying element of music is rhythm.  Rhythm is the universal equalizer – musicians and non-musicians alike are capable of keeping a steady beat and recognizing various rhythmic patterns, thanks to some of the most primitive parts of our brain (for a more in-depth examination on the neurology behind this, check out Daniel J. Levitin’s fascinating book, “This is Your Brain on Music”).

What does this mean for musicians? It means that judges, listeners, and audiences can disagree about whose tone they prefer or their favorite pieces, but rhythmic shortcomings are unanimous. A trumpet player might not be familiar with clarinet resonance fingerings, but they will know whether or not you came in early on your rest. Instrument-specific details might go unnoticed by listeners who play another instrument, but poor rhythm will be obvious to anyone who is listening. Rhythmic shortcomings don’t necessarily vanish in larger ensembles with conductors either – accurate rhythm is a necessity, whether you are playing alone or with others.

Once you have mastered the most common rhythmic patterns and groupings, here are some practice techniques (dare I call them “games”) to further improve your rhythm:

  • Metronome game – Although the title is unimaginative, this “game” quickly improves your ability to make fast changes between various subdivisions. Set a metronome to a slower tempo (I suggest 60-80 BPM) and play one note per beat. Focus on playing exactly in time with the metronome. Once you have mastered one note, play two notes per beat, then three notes, four notes, five notes, six notes….The goal is to fit all notes evenly within the beat and transition to each different subdivision with precision and accuracy. Increase difficulty by increasing the tempo or adding different notes. This is a great game for teachers and students to play – teachers can call out numbers at random for students to practice transitioning between different subdivisions.
  • Guess the tempo – As the name implies, the object of this game is to guess the tempo of the metronome without peeking. This will improve accuracy when performing a wide variety of speeds of music and is especially useful when sight-reading. Teacher tip: Have your students not only guess the tempo, but also assign it an Italian tempo vocabulary word (allegro, moderato, lento, etc.).
  • Tap the tempo – Think of a tempo (Ex. 110 BPM) and try to tap/clap as closely to the beat as possible. Check your tempo with a metronome. To improve accuracy, use other songs as references. For example, most Sousa marches are 120 BPM.
  • Keep the beat – Set the metronome to any tempo then tap or clap with the metronome. After you establish a steady beat, turn off the metronome and continue tapping/clapping for 30 seconds to a minute. Turn the metronome back on to see how steady your tempo remained.
  • Subdivided practice – One of my personal favorite ways to improve rhythm! Simply articulate all the subdivisions in the musical passage you are practicing. For example, instead of playing a dotted quarter note, articulate the three eighth notes which comprise the larger note. This is the easiest way to maintain rhythmic accountability in your repertoire and add rubato to your phrases.
  • Use nature’s rhythms – Even when I don’t have the clarinet in my hands, I play the “air clarinet” in time to my surroundings – ticking clocks, the turn signal on my car, or the beat of the song on the radio to hone my rhythmic skills.

As you work to improve your rhythm, be aware of the following natural rhythmic tendencies so you can avoid these mistakes:

  • Rushing through slurred passages
  • Turning dotted eighth/sixteenth note passages into triplets
  • “Resting” during the rests. Just because you’re resting doesn’t mean you’re not accountable for good rhythm. Rests are also part of the music, and thus part of the rhythm.
  • Rushing or taking a faster tempo when nervous
  • Slowing down or dragging when playing softer dynamics
  • Speeding up or rushing when playing louder dynamics
  • Rushing on technical passages (sounds counterintuitive, but most musicians rush through challenging passages as a result of nerves)
  • Not becoming physically involved with the rhythm. Tap your toes or use another subtle (i.e. no saxophone arm-flapping à la birds attempting to take flight) gesture to internalize the rhythm

The simplest way to improve your rhythm in ten seconds or less? COUNT OFF! Something as simple as establishing a baseline tempo can prevent several unnecessary rhythmic mistakes. Here is a post I wrote about this exact topic last year:

Another obvious but often overlooked component of good rhythm? USE A METRONOME! You’d be surprised at how many students I’ve taught who didn’t understand why their rhythm wasn’t improving – without a metronome.

Remember, achieving accurate rhythm is an arduous and never-ending process, but you’ll reap the rewards at your next audition, competition, performance, or recital with diligent practice.

Good luck, and happy practicing!


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