As a professional drummer and educator, I’ve taught many students and I’ve noticed that many of them are concerned about their tempo. They always ask for advice on how to improve or overcome their tempo issues. However, rarely has a student asked me about time feel.
I’ve found that in many cases, students of all instruments are confused with the two terms. And on many occasions when they ask about tempo issues, they are really talking about time feel issues or the other way around.
Tempo and time feel are two greatly related concepts, they complement each other. If you have a good grasp on tempo, it is most likely you going to have a nice feel, and vice versa. However, you don’t necessarily need one to have the other; for instance, you can have a great tempo and no time feel at all.
Music notation software is a great example of this.
If you type any music into music notation software it is going to play it with perfect tempo, but is it going to feel good? I highly doubt it. On the other hand, you can have great time feel, but not perfect tempo. Examples of this can be heard on many great live recordings in which the band has an outstanding feel but they rush throughout the song.
That being said, despite their relationship, time feel and tempo should be practiced as separate subjects.
Why? According to my experience, the tempo has to do more with technical and physical aspects related to performance. Whereas time feel has more to do with language and knowledge of the repertoire and style of music we are playing.
As I mentioned before, one of the questions I get often from my students is: How can my tempo be improved? The answer seems like a no-brainer, right? You may be thinking, I just need to practice with my metronome a lot, and eventually, my tempo is going to be perfect. However, only practicing with a metronome rarely solves tempo issues.
Having a good tempo means having the ability to create from within our mind and body a steady pulse. We can translate this pulse to our instrument so we can play along with it continuously. While practicing with a metronome is useful and necessary, it is not the entire solution to the problem. In my experience, other aspects of performing, which have nothing to do with the ability to follow a metronome, play an important role on the fluctuation of your tempo.
Physical aspects of performing like technique, posture and breathing have a lot to do with our ability to play with good and steady tempo. Bad technique, posture or inconsistent breathing can dramatically affect our tempo and I’ll explain to you why:
Our brain needs to have the room to focus on keeping a steady tempo, which, as I said before, can be translated to our playing. So anything getting in the way of our brain to perform that basic function is going to affect our ability to play with a solid tempo.
Bad technique is, in my opinion, the number one cause of shaky tempo. And practicing with a metronome is not going to fix your bad technique issues.
A lot of people argue that technique gets in the way of creativity. I personally cannot disagree more with that statement. I see technical skills as a tool or medium for creativity to come from our mind into the real physical world. The better the technique, the clearer our ideas are going to come across.
A good exercise to overcome technique issues, which can affect your tempo, is record a video of yourself. But this exercise has a twist.
Exercise: Record a Video of Yourself
Before recording yourself, get a metronome and listen to a tempo of your choice for a few seconds. Then turn the metronome off and proceed to play and record yourself for a few minutes. Then listen back and check how well you were able to retain the original tempo, and for how long you were able to keep it.
Here’s what you’ll get out of this exercise:
- Observe what your problems with tempo are; do you tend to rush or to drag?
- By video recording yourself, you can also observe technical problems, like bad posture, strange motions, tension in your body and in some cases even breathing issues.
When I started doing this a long time ago, I discovered my tendency to rush. I tried it out on different tempos and styles, which I recommend you to do as well, and in all of them, I was rushing.
But in addition, I was able to spot a lot of tension on the left side of my body. My left leg was moving in awkward ways, creating a huge amount of tension in my calf muscle. And my left arm looked like it was made out of steel. Also, when I recorded myself soloing I noticed I was rushing even more. On further analysis, I realized I was holding my breath for long passages when I was soloing. These, of course, are drummer issues, but every instrument has its own set of things.
At that moment I didn’t realize the connection between my technical problems and my tempo problems. I got really concerned about the technical issues and started working on them right away. And I’m glad I did, because after a while when I overcame my technical issues, I realized that my tempo problem also went away.
I’ve tried this on many of my students as well, with great results. I highly recommend this exercise, because it changed my life. I did it consistently for a while and every time I was able to spot little details that were affecting my playing. Once I overcame those details my playing grew exponentially.
When talking about time feel, we are talking about how you interpret the time coming out of your brain and making it fit into the music you are playing. As I said before, you can have great tempo, but not the right feel.
In most of the cases, I have noticed that the lack of a good time feel is associated with the lack of knowledge about the language of the style in which we are playing.
A musician with a classical training can have rock solid tempo, but maybe if we put that musician in a Latin jazz environment he or she might not have the right feel for it. And it has nothing to do with technique, but with not being familiar with the language of the genre.
That being said, don’t waste your time with a metronome if you need to address any time feel issues in your playing. Submerge yourself in the style you desire to play and learn the language. As you familiarize yourself with the style, time feel related problems are going to go away.
Last month I wrote an article on why jazz musician should practice along with records. I highly recommend you to check it out. In there I give some ideas on how to work on time feel using the records of the jazz masters.
Remember time feel doesn’t have anything to do with technique but it has everything to do with knowing the style, the language.