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Rhythm/Meter/Tempo/Groove: Playing in Time

As a music teacher, I find the most difficult challenge may be teaching rhythm. Some students come to me with a well-developed sense of rhythm already in place. But for those who don't have it coming into college, it is sometimes difficult for them to catch up. It helps if they can be led to a clear understanding of the differences between these sometimes confusing and blurring concepts: rhythm, meter and tempo.

TEMPO
Tempo is the speed of the underlying pulse of the music. If a piece is marked q = 80, then 80 beats per minute is the tempo.

Tempo markings and preferred tempi are a big subject. It has always been clear to me that players can use tempo to set their interpretations apart. Think of the standard American songbook. Favorite classics like, say, "You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You" get moderate tempo readings, fast readings, slow readings. Each interpretation reveals something different in the music, each makes different things possible or effective. The same is true in classical music. I noticed it first in recordings by the incomparable Glenn Gould. He would stake his claim on a tempo either much faster than anyone else or much slower, each approach rendering his playing distinctive and fresh. (And, yes, irritating to many.) But not easy to forget. 

Later, when I was researching the Chopin Mazurkas, in preparation for recording them (all 51), it soon became obvious that not only do pianists all pick different tempi from one another; they all categorically ignore Chopin's metronome marks. It was a tempo free-for-all. In my own interpretations I gravitated toward slower readings, favoring the dreamy, sensual approach, but play many of them faster now: a change of taste. 

Tempo can be the defining element in a performance. It can equally enable the player to do what he intends or make it impossible. Small changes in tempo can have a huge effect on the character of an interpretation, nudging, for instance, a placid and gentle gesture into one both plodding and dull. It matters. 

Composers will be of several minds on the subject. Some will bristle at the thought of deviating from the markings; others will delight in what they hear in new, slower or faster readings. It's common for tempo markings by non-guitarist composers to be too fast to play comfortably (for most players!). In the end, the player himself must find the best speed for his interpretation to work, and of course to accommodate his current skill level. 

METER/GROOVE
Meter is the organization of the music into regularly occurring units. 3/4 is organized into units of three beats. 6/8, into units of six beats. The unit is expressed as a measure. Each meter has a readily identifiable "feel" -often with the first beat receiving more weight than the others. 

Students get into difficulties sometimes when they try to practice slowly. We all need to do this, of course, it is a critical part of the learning process. But when playing the music slowly, they sometime fail to recognize the "feel" of the music at this new tempo and the rhythm is then easy to distort. Once distorted, it is all too easy to become accustomed to this new distorted version of the music without realizing it, and become habituated to it. This ends up being a signal challenge: playing your music at various tempi, always while maintaining a strong sense of the metric feel, of the "groove."

Groove is actually a pretty deep concept. Good percussionists have it. Musicians who play strongly rhythmic pop, rock, folk or jazz music have it. Certainly, denizens of Latin American popular music and flamenco have it. But what IS it?

First, it is a firm sense of tempo. In order to have the groove, you can't rush or drag the tempo. It has to be rock-solid. Working with a metronome, naturally, helps with this, but so does playing with others. Musicians with excellent groove are foot-tappers. 

In pursuit of groove, the importance of physicalizing the pulse can't be overstated. Foot-tapping is a great example. Moving gently left-to-right or forward-and-back is another. I find it's very helpful to think, sing or tap a specific rhythm while walking. Let the pace of the footsteps falling be your metronome, and try to plug your rhythm into the feeling of your walking tempo. This rhythm-by-walking helps us truly feel the pulse because it is such a vivid physicalization. 

(I regularly recommend my students take ballroom dance classes. Obviously, this is an even MORE vivid physicalization of the tempo than walking, and comes with the added bonus of dancing with all the women (or men) in the room. Caution: one student who struggled hard with tempo--he always rushed-- finally took a dance class. Unfortunately, it was tango. Tango is danced rubato!)

The metronome can be too antiseptic to fully convey the feel of a meter, in a given style. Too often I hear students play while the metronome is ticking, apparently oblivious- it could be the tv on in the background- just an irritating noise to ignore. Perhaps worse, is playing almost with the metronome. This is way too common: playing along sort-of with the metronome, maybe always a bit in front of or behind the beat. 

I like to think of the beat as being a bit wide. It has a leading edge, a center, and a far side. To play with true precision, you need to play in the CENTER of the beat. Some styles favor playing a bit behind, or after the center of the beat; think of bossa nova. The effect is seductive, with just a whiff of lazy. Other styles favor landing in front of the beat; think of music that feels agitated or frenetic. 

Knowing the difference and being able to control where "in the beat" you are playing is a sure sign that you have groove. I like to imagine that the beat is the basketball hoop. Aim for a swish. Or, if it's to be a rim shot, it should be so on purpose, not by accident. 

Another critical element of groove is the easy and fluid use of emphasis (and de-emphasis) to convey subtleties of meter and style. Are there strong and weak beats, syncopated accents, places where silence is used as a structural element? Every meter has it own idiosyncratic "feel" -whether simply strong on one and weak on two in a march-like 2/4, or the infectious 16th-before-the-beat emphasis in choro and bossa nova, to the rise and fall of a common waltz. The unique sensations each meter/style causes are the physical expressions of the groove in question. The march makes you want to move up-and-down in a relatively stiff way, the choro makes you want to move sinuously in two directions at once, the waltz suggests dropping on one and then rising for two smooth beats. And so on. These sensations are how we react to hearing a groove. It's dance. If the music is played without these internal nuances, if it is played flatly, it will lack groove--it will be boring. 

So groove is a rock-solid tempo, understanding where the center of the beat is, and an acute sense of meter and the emphasis patterns dictated by style. 

RHYTHM
Rhythm refers to the actual note values written by the composer. These can be infinitely variable, and are generally notated in a given meter and are intended to be played at a given tempo.

Rhythm needs to be fully understood apart from both tempo and meter. Naturally, it will be affected by both, but if the rhythms are not clearly understood in the first place, then the more subtle impacts that varying tempi or different meters have will be hard to exploit fully. 

Consider the dotted-8th/16th-note grouping. This rhythm confounds most students. At it's simplest, it is an example of dividing a beat into four equal parts. It is absolutely critical that this can be done with precision, consistently. Only then, can subtle style-driven inflections be applied with certainty. Most students drag the rhythm toward a triplet feel. I call it the "Texas lope" (sorry, Texas), as it reminds me of the rhythm of riding slowly on horseback. In fact in many musical settings, style dictates a slight sharpening of the rhythm, approaching double-dotting. This is especially likely at slower tempi. Every rhythmic figure you encounter needs to be fully understood, and playable at various speeds. 

When confronted with a complicated rhythm, it is always helpful to break it down. Write in the score where the beats are, where the half-beats fall. Break the measure into its sections (beats) or even smaller until you can suss-out the meaning of the rhythm. It is never good to put this off or hope it will get better with time. It will get better when it is analyzed and understood. Beware of learning rhythm from the performances of others. First, they may play it incorrectly, and second, they may be applying rubato or other inflections that you may distort in translation. You are never too old to count out loud.

It is immensely helpful to play with a mute. There is a new product called a "tremolo mute" (available at Strings By Mail), or simply take a (clean) sock or (dry) washcloth and roll it, insert it under the strings and slide it towards the bridge, as snugly as possible. If you've never done this before, the effect is revelatory. If you haven't done it for a while, try it again.  By suppressing the ringing of the notes, you can suddenly hear your attacks much more clearly. You become a percussion instrument. If your arpeggio is uneven or if there's a hiccup in your tremolo, it will be immediately obvious. If you play your music with a mute and your eyes closed, just really listening to your rhythm, you'll easily find where improvements will help.

I spend quite some time thinking through my music in my mind. I hear the rhythmic flow of the music, that is, the rhythmic phrasing. I often use verbal aids like tak-i-taki-tak, taketa taketa ta, etc.  If the rhythmic sense of a phrase is right on target, the music usually sounds pretty good. We forget how critical the rhythm is in conveying musical gesture. (Of course, then add dynamics, articulation, timbre, etc., etc., and you're in business!)

Much music is inflected in performance with subtle (and not-so-subtle) deviations from written rhythm and tempo. We refer to this as rubato. Rubato is critical and certainly a part of this discussion. But it will receive separate consideration in another post.

When the composer's rhythmic figures are fully understood, the interplay of rhythm and meter can be better explored. Add consideration of tempo to the mix and the pieces of the puzzle truly come together. In the end, if you truly understand and can play the given rhythms, and understand the nuances of the given meter and style, that is, if you can feel the groove, and if you can convey these elements reliably at different tempi, then your music should really soar. 

The most obvious marker for musical immaturity is poor rhythm. Make rhythm your most comfortable and confident element and the rest will be easy.


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