Rhythmic Ear Training
I recently had a major breakthrough in my playing just a couple days ago. I finally feel like a can hold a groove by myself without the help of any other instruments or a metronome. This gives me a sense of being completely liberated, now my brain just feels "free" to conceive ideas and concepts when I improvise without worrying about "keeping the beat". But before I get to how I did this, let me talk about some of the different aspects of rhythm.
Rhythm is very difficult for some people. As a piano teacher, I see some kids who just get it and some who don't. Rhythm is one of those things that is so abstract, it's very hard to teach but there are 3 areas that I think should be focused on:
-Hearing "the beat"
-Hearing "groove" or swing
This is tough for a lot of people. This is really the ability to hear 4 bar phrases as well as 8, 12, 16, 32, 64 bars. A good example is the song "So What". It's an AABA form with 16 bars of D-7, 8 bars of Eb-7, and 8 more bars of D-7. Why is it so hard not to lose the form on this song? It's because not only do you have to hear the 8 bar sections, you have to feel the difference between them. I think the key is to really hear the last 8 bars as the end of the form and then hear the next D-7 section as the beginning. Hearing form also relates to other genres too. Can you listen to a symphony and think about how the first movement relates to the second? I must admit, it's pretty hard. If you can't hear form, I think the best remedy is to count 4 bar phrases until you don't have to count them anymore and can just feel them. The same goes with hearing chord progressions and not getting lost in the middle of solos.
Hearing the Beat
This is what I was talking about in the introduction. It's really easy for people to speed up or slow down the beat. I tended to flip the beat once a tempo gets above 220 bpm and make the 2 and 4 the 1 and 3 (that is, until a couple days ago). The key to improving this is to be able to feel the beat. This is where a metronome is crucial to improvement. Musicians should be able to play music to a metronome VERY SLOWLY and then slowly start to speed it up to performance tempo. Often the problem is that the player doesn't even realize that they are sloppy rhythmically. It really is the first step, whether it's someone telling you or you realize it yourself, it's a good thing to come to terms with. I think people don't recognize their rhythmic disability because if a musician is hearing it in their head while playing it simultaneously, their brain will adjust the imperfections that they hear in their ear to match their conceived thought. That's why when I would record myself, I would really think that I was laying it down nicely but hearing the recording would show that I was far from perfect. So to fix this, I spent about 3 hours just playing with the metronome on 2 and 4 and I've been doing it every day since for about an hour and this just instills a solid backbeat in my mind which also matches my ear. It really wasn't tough for me to fix (I have been playing for 18 years now), the hard part was to realize I had a problem in the first place.
Hearing the Groove or Swing
This one just takes practice. I had a teacher bust me pretty hard in college when I was playing with a bass player and drummer, she said, "you're only playing you're own swing and which is very different the drummer and the bassist". This was very eye-opening and ever since I would always try to lock in with the swing of the other people I'm playing with. Everybody swings differently, and the key is to swing consistently. It's also important to consider if you would sound better playing behind the beat or ahead or just right on it. To improve swing, I recommend listening and trying to identify and imitating famous musicians' swing characteristics. Also getting out the metronome and make that metronome swing!
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