When we are new to learning a musical instrument, we want to learn the cool stuff; the stuff that has a bunch of notes in it. We want to show off to our peers how good we are getting by playing complicated stuff filled with a whole lot of notes. In the process, we overlook the silence or the rests in music.
It is a phase we all go through, and it is necessary and valid. However, when we start maturing and comparing our playing with professional musicians, it hits us, and we start realizing what makes the difference between a professional sounding player and an amateur musician.
It is phrasing and rhythmic precision; the space in between the notes and between the phrases. It is not how many notes they play, but the ones they don’t. It is not how they play the notes, but how they play the rests. It is the way they place the notes within the time that matters the most.
Yes, we should play the rests as well, they are there for a reason, and it is our interpretation of them what gives music the rhythmic feel.
If you’ve ever wondered why you learned a piece of music from another musician and it never sounded quite like the original, perhaps you’re playing the notes right, but not the spaces in between them.
So let’s talk about rhythmic feel.
Have you ever listened to an amateur drummer and compared the difference to a drummer like Jimmy Cobb? Of course, this is an unfair comparison. But if you take a good listen you are going to notice a difference in the feel. Among other things, that gap is defined by the placing of notes within the time and the spaces in between them.
The space in which we don’t play is as valuable as the one in which we do. Notes create the sound. Rests and space create the rhythmic feel.
Always keep that in mind.
Is there a way we can improve our interpretation of space, rhythmic feel, and precision? Some say that you’re born with time feel. You either have it, or you don’t. But, I cannot disagree more with that statement.
Music is a language, and as such, we learn it through the environment in which we interact. It is NOT in our DNA.
No one is born speaking a language by default. We learn to speak the language that people who surround us speak. You can be German or Japanese, but if you grew up in Spain, you are going to end up learning Spanish because you are surrounded by Spanish speaking people.
So yes, feel is possible to learn and improve upon. You just need to practice and surround yourself with the style of music you want to learn, and in our case, jazz.
I always like to compare music to speaking languages because it is about the same process. When I first arrived in the United States, I knew a bit of English; I was able to communicate my ideas and understand most of the things I was hearing. But I didn’t have the vast vocabulary an American person has. I didn’t have the slang and forget about the accent.
However, as time past by and I started spending more time with people, my English improved so much without me even realizing. My ears got so used to it that even my accent diminished. By living in an English speaking country, I was forced to speak it all the time. All the TV shows I was watching and music I was listening to were in English.
With music, it is the same. If you want to improve your playing and feel, you need to go deep into the style you want to learn.
Play as much as you can with people who know the style, hang with them, listen to the music all the time and go out and check musicians playing live. There are no shortcuts.
So with exposure and practice comes rhythmic feel. Now let’s talk about rhythmic precision, so we can perform those feels with confidence and authority every time we play.
The concept of rhythmic precision is all about having the control to perform rhythms accurately every time we play. People argue that good, organic music has a loose feel, and I agree with that. But even that loose feeling needs to be accurately executed for it to sound loose at all times.
For instance, New Orleans music has a very particular feel. The 8th notes have a precise placement which is neither straight nor swing. Musicians call it playing “in the crack.” To sound authentic within the style, we need to find that crack and stay in there. That requires a lot of rhythmic precision.
The following exercise I learned a long time ago while I was a teenager studying rhythms in the classical percussion conservatory. Later on in college, John Patitucci, who at the time taught at the City College of New York, reintroduced the exercise to me in a slightly different way.
The exercise is excellent to internalize subdivision, improve reading and of course gain rhythmic accuracy. Also, it is a great coordination exercise, because we are going to be using our hands and voice to perform it.
As I said before, to practice these exercises, we are going to use our hands and voice. It works as follows: we are going to play the notes with our hands, and we are going to play the rests with our voice.
If you listen to the example tracks 1-4, you see that I have a cowbell playing the notes and a shaker playing the rests.
- Our hands are going to play the cowbell’s part. In other words, the notes, and our voice are going to play the rests, the shaker’s role, using a short syllable of our choice. Once we master this, we can go the other way. Sing the notes and clap the rests.
Start slowly, these exercises are challenging, but definitely worth the effort put into them.
For Exercise #5, you probably noticed I changed the sound source to a synth. The reason is that for this exercise I want you to play the actual duration of the notes and rests when singing them. So for instance, when you’re singing the rest, pay attention to the duration of it and hold your voice for the entire length and the same when you sing the notes.
- Another way to practice these exercises is to play them with the feel of different styles. It could be New Orleans, Brazilians, Jazz (Swing 8th notes), Hip-Hop (Swing 16th notes) or any other you’re currently working on. Exercise #5, for instance, is already played with a swing feel.
Again, these exercises are not easy, they demand a great deal of concentration and practice, but the results are excellent.
You can work with any music reading book or rhythmic material you already have and apply the same concept.