It’s one of the three main pillars of music (harmony, melody & rhythm), it’s been with us from the beginning of music, it’s the heartbeat behind our music, without it music would not be possible; and yet somehow it is one of the most ignored subjects in the music language. How is it possible that such an important part of music (maybe the most important) can be so easily overlooked? I’m talking about rhythm.
It’s incredible how we can find music in the world that is only rhythm and yet it does not need anything more, it is perfect the way it is. That right there is the power of rhythm. If we think about it, rhythm is the basis for everything we do on our instruments. Without rhythm there would be no dancing, no dynamics, no music period. So why do we detach ourselves from the responsibility of practicing rhythm often stating, “I’ll leave the practicing of rhythms to my drummer”.
When I talk about practicing rhythm, I’m talking about practicing every rhythm in any way imaginable. For example rhythmic reading, polyrhythms, subdivisions, time signatures, etc… I have a firm belief that it is very important to understand rhythmic notation. We don’t need to be amazing readers at first sight (though it would be great) but at least have a good idea of what a subdivision sounds like and how it is written for this will help in the quest to understanding and performing any type of rhythm in the world.
The problem with just “feeling” certain rhythms is that it leaves a LOT of room for insecurities and problems to come about. When it comes to the study of these I believe that we should at first learn them extremely mechanically and understand the time in space that a note occupies in a specific time. Afterwards we can and must add the “feeling”. This is the importance of getting the basics down to a good level of understanding. The result of having any insecurity and knowledge gaps is that it will show up in your playing. Don’t even think about going into a studio to record on a click track is your rhythm is all over the place.
It is very important to dissect every part of a rhythmic figure and understand it at its very core. I can’t count the number friends that I have tried to explain more complex rhythm concepts (mostly easy concepts once you have the basics down) who end giving up on them just because they refuse to practice simple rhythmic patterns. They all say “sing it so that I can try to understand it”. The problem is that some things simply cannot be gotten by ear (unless you already know the basics).
By definition something that is complex is just something that has many simple connections that are being applied at the same time. So by understanding really well the simple foundations of rhythm we can quickly understand the more complex stuff. It takes more time learning and practicing your subdivisions at first, than it does understanding 15/16, 21/16 or 7/8 once you really get a feel for your eighth notes, sixteenth and triplets.
So, how do we fix this? Get a metronome, some rhythm books (especially the ones for drummers, they seem to have this rhythm thing down) and don’t be afraid to practice without your instrument. Get your subdivisions really down and sounding crisp, also try to match your metronome beats by clapping. Don’t be afraid to tackle harder and more complex things since these will also help you with the easier ones. Have you ever tried improvising with the same rhythm over and over or changing the accents on a specific subdivision? Look up rhythm exercises online and wherever you can find them, maybe ask your drummer buddies for tips, get creative with it. Time to practice!!!