Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep time.
The famous quote by the legendary American pianist and composer Thelonious Monk sums it all up – any instrument in any ensemble is responsible for keeping time and not relying on other instruments to keep their place. While rhythmic instruments such as guitar and bass are used to this role, many melodic instruments are not, especially as the music is not requiring them to do so. So then how do we musicians, in general, and especially the ones that play melodic instruments or sing, improve our sense of time? It boils down to this – you have to play time to improve your time! Here are a few tips on how to go about it that go beyond practicing with a metronome.
“Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep time.” ~ Thelonious Monk
PLAY ONLY RHYTHM ON YOUR OWN INSTRUMENT
When thinking of instruments like saxophone, trumpet, flute, and similar, we first think of them being melodic instruments. While this is true, they can also serve a more rhythmic role, such as playing repetitive notes, accenting rhythmic figures, etc. Give this experiment a try – on your instrument try imitating a drummer. Find a piece of music you like that has a relatively simple, steady drum pattern and then start taking the pieces apart. Pick a sound/note on your instruments that fits a bass drum and play it each time a drummer hits a bass drum. Same for a snare drum. Start simple. Then start adding additional sounds representing a hi-hat, cymbals, etc. Experiment and don’t be afraid to fail. Start grooving and have fun. The point is to focus on rhythm and time. Your work here will then translate into thinking of notes as more than just melodic values. They’ll start having more of a rhythmic context in the music you play.
Here is an example of flute beatboxing (don’t worry about playing melody and focus on rhythm!):
PLAY A PERCUSSION INSTRUMENT
An excellent way to practice time (and rhythm) is to pick up an instrument designed to do precisely that – a percussion instrument. The choices are endless, so pick an instrument you actually like hearing. Think of something simple that is easy to get started on: cowbell (yes it is loud and there is no hiding behind it), claves, cajon, shaker, guiro, hand drum such as a djembe, and the list goes on. It is easy then to go on YouTube, find some videos demonstrating how to play it, and start grooving with the music. Again, the simpler the better, so think of this as a way to master rhythm and not a long journey to become a percussionist.
PLAY BODY PERCUSSION
Body percussion is a super fun way to get engaged in rhythm. It boils down to using the sounds your body can produce (hands, feet, mouth, etc.) to create groove and rich rhythms. Again, start simple. Here is where you can start:
Want to really take your time awareness to the next level? Learn to play drums! Playing several rhythmic figures at once, in sync, requires both awareness and ability. It does take time and practice, but this will greatly improve your sense of rhythm and time on your own instrument.