Brains are brilliant. Human brains especially so. They are incredible machines at recognizing patterns – and aren’t drum beats just patterns? As we develop as drummers our sensitivity to time-keeping seems to go through an evolution of its own. Look at any young drummer who has just started out. Are they worried about speeding up and slowing down? No, not in the slightest. There are other considerations at the forefront of their minds – how much noise they can make seems to be one of them!
Similarly, a young guitarist, bassist or keyboard player will not be concentrating on groove or tempo either – they will be busy thinking about notes, chords, and the settings on their amplifiers. Timekeeping is just never on the top of their list.
Consider then what happens when a young band is formed. Quite quickly the ‘job’ of keeping the tempo steady is given to the drummer (although this may not be formally identified as such – the un-written rule just seems to take hold of its own accord). The drummer has less to think about, after all. No notes, no chords, no melodies, no harmonies… easy life!
This perception that the drummer should be the ‘timekeeper’ in a band can persist right through to quite a high semi-professional level. The drummer will, for most of his or her early drumming career, continue to be blamed for less-than-steady tempos and grooves in a band situation. As a result, drummers can develop a real hang-up about their timekeeping. When you consider the bigger picture, you will start to realize the huge injustice of this.
The other musicians in the band have been relying on the drummer to make up for the fact that they have not worked on THEIR OWN timekeeping. The drummer becomes a crutch – a living, breathing click-track that others lean on. Think about the young band-members: as their inexperienced fingers fumble for the right keys or frets, tiny timing errors creep in robbing the tune of its groove or ‘feel’. Are they aware of these timing errors? Are they bothered? No! As far as they are concerned they managed to play the notes – in the right order – at roughly the right place in the tune. At the microscopic rhythmic level they are blissfully unconscious.
And here lies the danger. Here lies the difference between the amateur and the pro. At some point every player will have to concern themselves with that area of musicality which all good drummers have been focussing on for years: timekeeping. The problem is that it is only when a drummer finds him or herself in that glorious situation in a band where everybody has an excellent sense of time, that he or she can FORGET about timekeeping and get on with the job of just playing music. At last the drummer’s brain is back doing what it embryonically did right at the beginning – playing a pattern. At last the drummer has let go of the ‘job’ that he or she has been doing for all these years. Because all the band members have a great sense of time, it ceases to be anyone’s responsibility. The BAND keeps time!
Let’s look at the human brain’s innate ability to acknowledge tempo and patterns. How do most woman know when to menstruate at exactly the same time every month? How do you know instinctively when to wake up in the morning? Has someone ever asked you the time and your estimate turned out to be accurate to within a minute? Are you the kind of cook who never uses a timer, but just seems to ‘get it right every time’? These are all clues to the brain’s incredible ability to keep perfect time – and possibly a clue why humans produced any kind of music at all. Didn’t it all start with rhythm back in the stone-age? Yes, our brains have developed our innate instinct for timekeeping down to fractions of a second and called it ‘rhythm’.
When we play music at our deepest, spiritual, and most musical level, we allow ourselves to trust our rhythmic instinct. A beat lasts as long as it lasts, a quarter-note lasts as long as it lasts, an eighth-note lasts as long as it lasts…. you get the idea. When our hang-ups are not part of the equation, our minds get on with the timekeeping thing unconsciously.
All the playing and practice that we have done has been ultra-valuable, platinum-plated experience for us as musicians. Our instincts become stronger, more accurate and finely-honed the more we play. It is a shame though that practising timekeeping per se is so far down the list for many musicians. Drummers seem to have it higher on the priority list than other instrumentalists, but the musician that actively practises timekeeping is indeed a rare breed.
How do you practise timekeeping? Well, don’t just slave yourself to a metronome or click-track. That would be like learning to walk with crutches as a baby – you would always be hopeless at waking without them thereafter. Here is a really good recipe for improving your sense of time:
Create a loop in a drum machine (or create a track in a computer sequencing program) to give you a bar of click, followed by a bar of silence. It is in the bar of silence where you will learn to keep time. When the loop comes around you’ll be ‘told’ if you have sped up or slowed down by the timing when the click returns. The slower the tempo, the more challenging the game becomes. If you are brave try two bars of click and then two bars of silence! Ouch! It really makes you aware of your own feelings as you play. You’ll also find you become much more aware of the timing of other musicians. For me, after practising this way for a few months, I slowly came to realise that it was not ME that was slowing down in the band…. IT WAS THE BASS PLAYER! I had just presumed that I was at fault, because I was the drummer and it was my ‘job’ to keep time.
If a musician grows up with constant nagging from other band members about speeding up or slowing down, it is quite possible to develop a serious hang-up about it! This makes matters WORSE! When you concentrate on your timekeeping whilst you play you are preventing your subconscious from keeping time for you. Your subconscious is much much better at timekeeping than your conscious mind. You need to let go. Stop worrying. If you’ve been working on your timekeeping, trust it!
If you want to rid yourself of self-limiting beliefs regarding timekeeping – or a host of other music related issues – check out the ‘musicians hypnosis’ program. This material is available as an iPhone App or as a series of Mp3s. Both can be purchased at the Musicians Hypnosis website.
Each blog post will have some downloadable freebies. This post comes with a free ‘taster’ mp3 hypnosis session. Simply click the button below.
Best of luck.