“Don’t rush, dear.” Countless music teachers have said that to even more music students for generations. Keeping a steady tempo while you play can be one of the hardest things to do. But it shouldn’t be.
Consider for a moment that our entire body is rhythmic. Our heart beats in a steady rhythm; we breathe in and out. We have a natural sleep cycle. Even our snoring is rhythmic. These processes happen without a single conscious thought on our part.
So why do we have such trouble playing rhythmically? And why do we tend to say, “I just have no sense of rhythm,” when nothing could be farther from the truth?
The truth is that playing at a steady speed is difficult. Drummers spend their entire career making their inner pulse steady and unwavering. We use metronomes, with sometimes doubtful success, in an attempt to instill a habit of playing at a consistent tempo.
I believe we sabotage our efforts at developing our inner pulse. Our well-meaning practice techniques can actually lead us away from the result we want in two specific ways.
First, when we worry about playing the right notes and the fingering, we often lose our connection to the pulse. We humans lack the ability to truly focus on more than one thing at once. So as soon as the notes get tricky, that’s where our focus goes and we lose the steadiness of the beat.
And secondly, we often use the metronome as a substitute for counting. The metronome is a very helpful tool and it will help us learn and play at a steady pace. But it is not a substitute for our own counting.
When we stop counting, we actually are abdicating the responsibility for keeping the beat. Counting, particularly counting aloud, is how we maintain our connection to the pulse of the meter, to the steady procession of beats. I like to think of counting as the verbalization of our own inner metronome; by our counting, we can be assured that we are feeling the beat and playing to it.
But never fear - if you want to reconnect with your inner pulse, or perhaps discover it for the first time, here is a simple, three-step system.
STEP ONE: SOLO COUNTING
You probably never thought of counting as something to do by itself, but you will likely find this exercise very revealing. First, simply count aloud: “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.” Just count. Don’t play; don’t listen to music. You need to listen to your counting. Count at a moderate tempo and keep the beat steady. Don’t use a metronome for this; that would defeat the purpose entirely!
Keep counting and listening until you feel confident that you are counting at a steady tempo.
Next, count again, but this time at a faster tempo. Choose any faster tempo you like and count aloud as you did before, making sure that you are maintaining this faster tempo and not reverting to the one you did earlier.
When the faster tempo is steady, start over again, this time counting at a quite slow tempo, almost a slow motion tempo. This part of the drill is harder than the others. It is quite challenging to stick to a slow tempo. Don’t rush, dear.
STEP TWO: COUNT A SCALE
Now take your counting to the harp. Do the exact same drill as above, counting at the three different speeds, but this time, as you count, play a simple scale. “Simple” is the key word, here. You need to maintain your concentration on the steadiness of your counting, not worrying about your fingers on the harp strings. Think about matching your playing to your counting, not the other way around.
STEP THREE: COUNT A PIECE
Lastly, choose a simple, short piece. Repeat the same three speed counting drill. Now however, you will have a little more distraction while you are counting. Try to resist the distraction of the notes, or your technique, or the strange tempo choices. Just focus on matching what you are playing to your counting, not the other way around.
This is not an easy drill, but it is one that will help you be the master of your music, not at its mercy.