Thursday, March 14, 2013

A one and a two and a...

Tempo is one of those things people either get really well or have trouble cementing. 

It’s an interesting phenomenon, watching people get off-tempo.  Sometimes a leader counts off “5, 6, 7, 8” but then people come in at a faster tempo.   Even more common is someone holding a position of support (back row, percussion, etc.) who doesn’t realize when they’re getting off (for whatever reason).

I’ve seen people get visibly upset knowing they were off and not able to get back on, and others who were clueless that they were nowhere near the beat.  So how do you train to get better at getting good at staying on tempo?

The easiest answer is also one of the hardest to learn from: use a metronome and drill just about anything – a ji, a song, a solo, whatever.  The problems are that it requires extra time to do outside of practice and it may take a lot of work just to train yourself to be more solid.

What I recommend is using your body to feel the tempo of whatever you’re playing.  Pulse it in your feet, bounce it in your knees, groove it in your chest – hell, even bob it in your head, if it’s not too distracting (to you and/or the group!).  This is definitely better for practice than performance, unless you’re allowed to move pretty freely in a song.

At first, this might actually seem more difficult than trying to remain relatively still and keeping tempo, but once you trust your body, you can use it to hold that tempo you want and focus on other, more fun things.  When you feel a tempo in your body, you have another level of understanding that you can utilize.  If your hands start to speed up, your body might inform them that the tempo is “back over here”.  Most of us are actually using this sort of internal metronome, but many don’t develop it.

I strongly suggest exaggerating the movements you do at first.  Ideally, you start doing this at a slower tempo/song.  Bob and pulse with much more emphasis than you ever would in a performance.  Think of a batter prepping by swinging three bats before going to the plate, but only using one to hit.  When you’re up “at bat”, you minimize those extra movements, but you’re still feeling it internally.  Those big motions are to help connect and understand what you want the body to feel, but in practice you’ll only need it on the inside (or small, unnoticeable external movements).

This is a skill invaluable for long-term development.  When I’m off on a syncopation "adventure", I know where I am because I feel the downbeat; I don’t have to count or watch where other people are.  Naturally, It took me a while to get to that point, but it was a skill worth learning.  If I ever start getting off (in whatever role), I make sure my body is more involved and lock into that.  It requires trust and practice, but I find my body knows where things should be when my brain is confused.

This idea of physically pulsing/feeling is one you can practice whenever you find yourself in a supportive role.  How much you can do depends on your group and what you’re doing at the time.  You never want to sacrifice technique or tempo for the sake of the pulse, so start simple until you can coordinate what you’re playing with making your body move.  "Simple" can be something small or something big, and it's up to you to find what works.

If you want other people to feel the joy and power in what you’re playing, you should be able to feel it in yourself, too!

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