By Harvey Grant
As musicians, we can spend so long trying to improve our technique in terms of scales and “speed” that we bypass one of the most important factors in the success of a piece: timing. Sure, you may say that Glenn Gould didn’t stick precisely to the given measures of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and that the child prodigy tucked away within you just has their own innate sense of timing that differs from the rest. I must however burst this bubble by assuring you that Glenn Gould’s timing was impeccable before he decided to deviate from it. You may find your own sense of rhythm, but this will only be perfected by first mastering the basics of musical measures and sticking to the beat.
What perhaps comes to mind at the mention of “musical timing” is the inane tick-tock of a metronome, which always removes any sense of enjoyment for me. For pleasure’s sake, let us have a look at a few slightly less tiring exercises that will have you tightening up in no time.
1. Use a Drum Machine
The easiest way to do avoid that tick tock is to replace it with your own fun beat on a drum machine. Whether you’re practicing jazz standards or classical sonatas, drum machines immediately make things much more vibrant and thus, more fun. An easy piece such as Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies No. 1 sounds strangely eerie when coupled with a slow kick drum!
Whether you want to simulate the experience of playing with a drummer, or simply recreate a beat you were dancing to over the weekend, it’s extremely easy to find a drum machine to fit your needs. Here is a very simple and free copy of the classic TR-808 drum machine to get you going on a web browser. Apps such as GarageBand for iOS and Mac also offer adequate built-in “drummers” if you’re looking for something slightly more subtle. And there are a nearly infinite number of DAW drum plugins if you want greater control.
Many scores nowadays make note of the chosen piece’s BPM (beats per minute) at the start. Program this BPM and choose a rhythm that suits you. Now that we’ve got you sounding like a modern-day Giorgio Moroder, let’s take a look at how you might begin to work on your timing.
2. Make It Easier
Often, the reason we have timing issues is because we’re finding it hard to grasp the complexities of a piece. It’s entirely possible that you have memorized every tricky bar, but that the correct timing and flow seem to be evading you. Take a few minutes to reduce each bar to its fundamental properties. Play only the first note of the bar in time with the drum beat and repeat this a few times. Add in the second, the third, and so on. You’ll find that you’ll have gained a more intricate understanding of that bar’s inherent timing properties, with each note occupying a unique space in correlation to the metric “beat.” You’ll hear more coherently that, although many classical pieces don’t actually possess a beat, everything has a “pulse” that needs to be felt in order to follow the piece’s intention. By initially simplifying a piece, you can deconstruct this flow, examine its properties, and re-build it as a stronger, pulsating rhythmic entity.
Another way of achieving a similar result is to slow the piece down immensely. This is as easy to do with a drum machine as it is with a metronome. Simply lower down the BPM to a pace that almost feels uncomfortably slow, play it, and make it slightly faster. By gradually increasing the BPM back to the piece’s original speed, you’ll have gained an understanding of every note’s unique placement. This understanding will be heard when back at the original speed.
3. Hum It to Yourself
The easiest way to improve one element of your technique is to disassociate it from other elements such as fingering or dynamics. When slowing the piece down, you’re eliminating the need to play everything quickly or dynamically, leaving you more time to analyze the beat. Taking this disassociation to a fundamental level, you can try out small exercises such as humming the rhythm. The more shy among you may prefer to practice this method while the rest of the house is out, but it is actually a great way to get a feel for the correct rhythm while simultaneously eliminating the need to concentrate on actually playing the notes. Either tap the rhythm to yourself, or use a drum machine to accompany you, and try to hum along the rhythm until it feels like second nature to you.
4. Tiresome Timing
I’m afraid that an article on timing simply wouldn’t work without mentioning one of the most tiresome exercises on any teacher’s list: scales. This is because, when played to a beat or metronome, scales serve the double purpose of improving your innate sense of timing, while also strengthening your fingers to play when they’re supposed to. We’re all familiar with the word “rusty” when talking about the fact that we don’t have the chance to practice enough, or haven’t played in a while.
What we often mean is that our fingers don’t move in the way they do when we’re well-oiled, falling all over the instrument like a bag of potatoes. Scales are the musician’s dosage of WD-40, getting you warmed up and de-rusted. Try to play a C major scale to a drum machine at 80 BPM, and slowly speed this up. On every fifth run, switch key upwards to D major, E major, etc. The daring among you could even start on the flats and sharps!
Here’s a great resource listing all the different scales.
Timing of course, is key, but like all skills, it’s also one acquired over the years, with hard work. When you do find yourself faltering, try to find more inventive ways to practice such as the ones mentioned above. It will pay off with time.
Harvey Grant is a featured writer for Tomplay interactive sheet music app; pop and classical scores for piano, violin, and more, with real recordings by professional musicians. Harvey is currently completing studies in Music at Goldsmiths University of London and works as a piano teacher.