When Malcolm Gladwell famously professed that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice is what it takes to achieve mastery in any field (increasing the anxiety levels of musicians everywhere), I began to take stock of my own practice habits. Sure, I had likely already spent the prescribed time with my instrument (the bass, for those keeping score) but had I achieved mastery? Were the hours I put in focused? It’s easy to understand that practice is essential to your growth, but knowing what to practice can get overwhelming.
Well, one of the key areas every musician needs to work on is internalizing time. Whether you’re a singer, drummer, or Lisa Simpson playing an empty jug, you need to have a well-ingrained sense of time. That doesn’t mean being able to play everything precisely all the time, but rather, it means knowing how to adapt and shape what you play to the moment, and what serves the song.
I’ve always thought of musical time as being much more elastic than strict. It’s important to note that I’m not saying, “Play whatever you want, maaaaan, it’ll totally work out.” What I mean is that knowing where the pulse is will allow you to play right on it, ahead of it, or behind it to create different rhythmic textures. Sometimes, playing or singing on the pulse can create interesting, non-percussive reinforcements of the drum beat as well, like in Missy Elliott’s hit song, “Lose Control.”
With all that in mind, I offer up some practice techniques for every musician who hopes to develop their internal sense of time. (And if you want to dive deeper into an overhaul of your practice routine, consider chatting with a Soundfly Mentor.)
The Expanding Triplet
This first exercise was something I learned from Dave Clark in a bass lab at Berklee College of Music. (Adam Neely also dives deep into the concept here.) You can decide to practice with your instrument or just clap. Either will work, but I recommend clapping at first to get comfortable with the idea before moving the exercise to your instrument.
Set a metronome to about 60 BPM, and count an even triplet subdivision for each of the above examples. Beginning with eighth note triplets, clap the circled notes as you count, and loop each example until you feel totally comfortable. The more space you have between notes played, clapped, or sung, the harder the exercise is going to be and the deeper you will have to concentrate on your execution.
The double whole note example (Ex.5) is a good introduction to this concept. You’re counting out groupings of 16 within a triplet subdivision which gives you a ton of space between each note played. Play examples 1 through 5, and then back down again.
To really challenge yourself and feel the difference as you expand the triplet, tap a constant eighth note triplet subdivision in your left hand and the expanding triplets in your right.
Recording in Practice
Start by opening the DAW of your choice. Set the metronome to a tempo you’re comfortable with and choose something repetitive to play. For this example, I went with good ol’ steady eighth notes on a single pitch. During your first pass, try to focus on playing exactly on top of the beat. On the second pass, try to lay back a bit and play a little behind the beat. Finally, try to play slightly ahead of the beat.
Once you’ve gone through each run, have a look at the transients and where they line up on the grid. Visualizing what you play will tell you a lot about your natural abilities, your bad habits, and practice blind spots.
As you can see in the image above, I did a decent job on each. However, when I tried to play on the back end of the beat, my notes shrunk dynamically, and when I tried to play ahead of the beat, they got louder.
With the intent to play ahead of the beat, it seems I naturally attack the note a bit aggressively, and when I try to play behind the beat, it looks like I “feather” my attack, perhaps to hide my notes and give the illusion I’m playing more behind than I really am. This looks like something I need to focus on. Ideally, my attack will look the same regardless of where I am trying to land in the grid.
Playing to Records
I once asked bassist Chris Tarry about his practice routines and how he worked on his time, and his answer was surprisingly simple: “Play to records.” This one is obvious, but we often forget how important it is. At any time, you could play along to a favorite recording, with a legendary drummer, and work on making the bass part (or whatever it is you play) feel as good as it does on the record.
Since the previous exercise is still in our minds, let’s look at some songs that feel right on top of the beat, behind it, and ahead of it. These examples will be centered around the bass, but once you get comfortable with what playing on different parts of the beat feels and sounds like, you’ll be able to use this approach with any instrument.
For on top of the beat and right in the pocket, let’s listen to John Mayer’s “Who Did You Think I Was.” Both Steve Jordan (drums) and Pino Palladino (bass) are locked into the grid here. The groove sits perfectly throughout the whole song. Even though Pino is playing a ton of notes (each one carefully selected), the line feels steady, in control, and right where it needs to be. Pay close attention to the snare drum as it guides your ear seamlessly through the groove and anchors the song throughout.
To practice playing behind the beat, I’ve selected J Dilla’s remix of The Pharcyde’s “She Said.” The first time I tried to play this line was in a bass class in college. There were seven bassists in the room, and none of us could get it quite right. It sounded so simple, but it wasn’t.
The problem a lot of musicians run into when they try to play behind the beat is that it’s too easy to equate the idea with being loose or sloppy. The effect created when you play behind the beat might give the listener that sort of laid-back feeling, but every note has to be played with just as much intention as if you were trying to play right on top of the grid.
Listening solely to the bass can be a bit misleading here. Listen to the drums. Listen to the hi-hats. The snare is pretty much in the grid. The kick is pretty on point. A lot of the slinky, neck-breaking Dilla vibes comes from the hi-hat. Those greasy, sluggish hi-hats work with the bass to give this track a perfect behind-the-beat feel.
Finally, for an example of what playing in front of the beat feels like, let’s head over to John Coltrane’s “Impressions.” I could have picked any number of swing tunes, as this style usually sits best when the bass and ride cymbal are propelling the music forward. Just listen to how Jimmy Garrison’s bass line and Elvin Jones’ ride are locked in and right in front of the pulse. It gives Coltrane and McCoy Tyner the perfect foundation to improvise over. If either Garrison or Jones were playing a little less ahead of the beat, it would give the music a listless feeling, which is generally something to avoid in swing.
At its core, each of these exercises aims to help us think more consciously about time. We often find ourselves rhythmically relying too heavily on other musicians (oh hey, drummers) to guide us through a tune. But the truth is that the job of maintaining a good sense of time belongs to the entire ensemble.
Having a well-developed sense of time means being aware of your personal tendencies and understanding how to adapt your playing to fit different situations. It also means being able to recognize the tendencies of others, and identifying what sort of micro-adjustments you can make to help the song at large feel more locked in.
Internalizing and maintaining your sense of time takes effort, but putting in that work will definitely help you stand out as a musician. If you try any of these exercises, let us know how they work out for you! And if you’d like to implement more growth-focused practicing techniques, our Soundfly Mentor team can help.
Soundfly’s community of mentors can help you set the right goals, pave the right path toward success, and stick to schedules and routines that you develop together, so you improve every step of the way. Tell us what you’re working on, and we’ll find the right mentor for you!