Strengthening your sense of timing and rhythm

The following is a page from my upcoming book on the alto trombone. This section, however, has as much to do with tenor (and bass) as with alto trombone. Regardless of your instrument, your internal sense of time and rhythm helps define your musical performance. I’ve created some exercises that I believe can go a long way to improving your playing.

A good sense of rhythm is critical to playing music well on the trombone. In jazz improvisation, I would go so far as to claim that rhythm is more important than the right notes or accurate pitch. As a jazz player, your phrases are as responsible for maintaining the groove as the rhythm section. Regardless of the style of music you play, the quality of your performance is very much linked to your keen sense of time and rhythm.

How do you practice and improve your sense of rhythm and time? You can play scales, etudes, musical parts and patterns along with a metronome. These days, a good metronome is as accessible as your phone. You can tongue exercises like this using the steady beat of the metronome, and it will strengthen your tonguing while you’re at it.tounging-exercise-example-for-blog-post-01

But mechanical exercises like this are somewhat boring and they only go so far in building a reflexive sense of rhythm that is so important to your musical performance. Your goal is not to turn into a metronome but rather, to develop a stronger innate sense of time. One better way to practice the above exercise is to give yourself a beat only on beat one of each measure as you loop three or six bar phrases. How accurately can you hit beat one of each bar?

Better yet is to play diverse musical phrases over an evolving rhythm. I’ve created two such exercises for you.

The music file below contains a staccato string background Play the music on page 43 over that staccato string beat. Each four bar phrase becomes progressively more sparse. It begins with a beat on quarter notes, then on beats 1 and 3, then only on beat 1 of each measure. Mid-way through, the sequence starts over. The idea is not to get just close to the beat, but for your steady flowing performance to match the string notes exactly. You have neither a conductor nor any visual clues from other players. You have only your ears to anticipate the beat and blame for your time!.

Record your performance along with this string rhythm and then listen back to it ruthlessly as if it was a student. It may be difficult to listen to yourself play, but recording and listening is the best way to truly hear. There’s too much going on in your brain to be as critical as you need to be as you play in real time. Plus, you must become comfortable listening to recordings of your playing. Your dislike of the process could be a sign you really need to record yourself more.

At a certain point, the exercise and certain lines will become predictable and start to fall into the beat through your repetition. At that point, begin your playing at another staff. Each staff contains the same harmony. Vary your start.

Music file 27 contains a similar exercise, but with a jazz feel. The music is on page 44. Again, the background beat becomes more sparse and, therefore, difficult to play over. It ends with 16 bars of offbeat bass quarter notes. I liked that challenge so much I created a separate file of just the offbeat bass for your practice once the fuller rhythm beat becomes (or is) too easy. See music fill 28. If you can maintain a musical flow over the offbeat bass alone, you have a good sense of rhythm. Don’t forget, however, that your recording (of your imaginary student) is the final judge!

For both of these, is your playing consistent or does it sound a bit like the stretching and compressing of a slinky as you wander a bit and again find the beat?

While each exercise gets progressively more difficult, they are both written in simple keys and within a somewhat narrow range to that you can focus on your rhythm without struggling with notes or key signatures.

rhtym-exercise-classical-for-blog-post-01(click to enlarge and save the image)

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