It's About Time
by Howard Morgen
Count Basie, famous for his sparse, swinging piano style, was also legendary for his uncanny ability to count off the perfect tempo for each arrangement his great orchestra would play. But choosing the right tempo is not the sole province of the jazz musician. In fact, it’s probably one of the most essential, yet sometimes overlooked, factors in the successful performance of any style of music, classical or popular. For the fingerstyle player, who is often required to perform self-accompanied solo arrangements without the aid of a rhythm section, choosing the right tempo and a well developed sense of time becomes critical.
A BRIEF RECAP AND A CLOSER LOOK
Last visit we discussed employing a tape recorder as an integral part of the practice routine for rapid and systematic improvement of performance. I also briefly suggested adding a metronome to the mix for finding and maintaining tempos that feel “in the pocket.” Since this visit is about developing and fostering good time, let’s now take a closer look at that suggestion.
The metronome, like the tape recorder, can be a valuable instrument for self examination. If used judiciously, it can improve your time by making you more aware of time. And, if your time improves, so will your performance. There are musicians who feel that using a metronome can make a performance sound stiff and unmusical, and so it can. If the tempo on the metronome is too fast, the playing will sound strained. If too slow, the performance will drag and the discomfort of the player will transmit to the listener. Yet this drawback is exactly why the metronome can prove so useful! The trick is to use it as a guide, not a crutch and also to find the tempo that feels right from the start.
Here’s an approach utilizing a metronome and a tape recorder for finding that groove you’re looking for.
SEVEN STEPS TO PLAYING “IN THE POCKET”
STEP 1: Play your arrangement through from beginning to end at a tempo that feels comfortable and relaxed. Don’t worry about making mistakes. “Clams” don’t count now because we’re only concerned with the time feel. Tap your foot in tempo as you play.
STEP 2: Keep tapping your foot in tempo after completing your arrangement, turn on your metronome and find the setting which comes closest to the beat of your foot. You’ve found your preliminary setting. Write it down on paper.
STEP 3: Play your arrangement through again, this time with your metronome on at your preliminary setting and see how it feels. If you feel comfortable throughout the piece, you’ve found your groove and can go directly to step five (Recording a Take). If the playing feels at all strained or uncomfortable go to step four.
STEP 4: Using your metronome, begin to experiment with time settings that are both slightly faster and slightly slower than your preliminary setting. Take your time and be aware that you may feel the time differently on different days.
STEP 5—RECORDING A TAKE: When you feel ready to make the first take, turn on your metronome to your chosen time setting and tap your foot to the beat. As you tap, turn off your metronome and record the take.
STEP 6—THE PLAYBACK:Either snap your fingers, clap your hands or tap your foot as you listen carefully to the playback. If you’ve played with good time throughout, you will have no difficulty keeping the beat and you’ve found the “in the pocket” tempo for your arrangement. You needn’t go to step seven and can start to concentrate on other aspects of your performance. If, however, it becomes difficult to snap, clap or tap at any point in the playback due to rushing, dragging or turning the beat around altogether, go to step seven.
STEP 7—PINPOINTING THE PROBLEM:Record another take, this time with the metronome on at your chosen time setting. (To avoid a stiff, mechanical sounding performance, play around the click with a loose give and take rather than pouncing directly on each beat.) Be sure that the sound of the metronome is audible on the tape along with your playing. This method allows you to pinpoint the trouble spots during the playback. It’s then up to you to determine the cause of the problem. You may need to experiment further with the time settings or it may simply be a technical problem such as a phrase that needs to be refingered. Another possibility could be a tendency either to rush or drag at that spot in the arrangement. After you’ve found the cause and have made the necessary compensations and corrections record another take with the metronome on but not audible on the recording. (Most electronic metronomes are equipped with an output for a mono ear plug which cuts off the room sound but allows you to use it in one ear as a click track). As before, always snap, clap or tap on the playback. Repeat the process until all the trouble spots are eliminated.
HOW I CREATED A MONSTER - (A CONFESSION)
Many years ago, I found out the hard way, that the potential for poor time and a stilted performance can actually be built into an arrangement like an accident waiting to happen! After completing the “head” of my new arrangement, I began to develop an “improv” section at a moderate swing tempo. At the end of my work session, I wrote down my ideas for that day’s work. I continued this process for several days before I completed the project. When I finally sat down to record my work, I was surprised to discover while snapping my fingers on playback that my time was all over the place! Worse yet, I was unaware of this when recording because the groove felt good to me. At first I tried experimenting with other tempos but to no avail. I finally checked out my performance by playing it through with a metronome at a constant setting and found that a number of the phrases in the improv section were uncomfortable to play. At this point, I knew what I had done. I had written those phrases on different days at slightly different “moderate swing tempos.” The natural tendency to play a phrase where it feels good had clouded my time sense! I also knew that if I had to play the arrangement “live” as an unaccompanied solo, I would probably play it with poor time. And if I played it at a steady tempo, many phrases would feel stiff and stilted. I had created an out of sync monster and I felt it had to be destroyed!!
I now always keep a metronome handy during the writing process to keep track of my groove and I know that I’ll never have that particular problem again.
By the way, I never destroyed that monster. Instead, I got out my metronome and re-constructed it. It’s still alive and well and someday you may hear it.