Improve your rhythm part 1 - Learn to feel the groove
For years rhythm was an illusive beast that I could not tame. It was a hinderance in more aspects of my life than I even was aware of. It did not come naturally to me. Now having practiced it for over a decade and taught music and rhythm for a couple of years I am more aware of the differences in people's abilities in this area. It is definitely more 'natural' for some than others. Some people have more of an innate skill in this it would seem. Whether or not they have been exposed more and thus somehow have acquired this skill is a debatable topic. However, 2 things hours upon hours of of teaching and learning rhythm extensively has taught me is that:
1. There are different levels of rhythmic awareness
2. These levels can almost always be improved.
I truly believe having extensively worked on my own rhythm that everyone can improve this skill, no matter what their level is. In order to improve, I think it is first good to decipher and establish what the different levels are and explain what practice techniques go alongside these levels, in order to progress and proceed to a higher standard of rhythmic awareness and ability.
The first level of awareness is feeling the pulse of the music, the basic beat of the piece. Every living thing has a pulse. Even trees have a pulse! Their heartbeats are too slow for us to see with the naked eye but it exists, even in them. Our hearts and our pulse is the first basic beat that we can follow and it is conveniently there for us wherever we go. Our pulse rate might change depending on our state of action, movement or stress but it is there regardless and it tends to stay relatively at the same tempo when we are in a relaxed state. This leads me to my first tip of how to practice rhythm: Check your pulse and see if you can tap or walk along to it. Doing this activity is a good way to start to become aware of the pulse. An even steadier, easy pulse activity is to listen to the constant 'tick, tock' of a clock and tap along with that or alternatively walk along with it taking a step on each tick and tock. In fact before the metronome was invented in 1816 it seems to be that historically musicians would just use their heartbeats and then clocks to feel and follow the time. So this is quite an 'old school' basic first way of feeling the pulse and time. But quite a useful technique to get back to basics and really understand what pulse is.
Getting into slightly deeper waters here, we can also practice the pulse by following and tapping alongside a metronome. A metronome for those who don't know is (to put it very simply) like a clock except that you can speed it up and slow it down. Start at a moderate tempo at about 60 and tap along with that then eventually increase and decrease the speed. The slower speeds are actually the more challenging. Now, an even better way to develop this skill is to use your whole body to feel the tempo. Tapping your foot is a really great way to feel it because it really grounds us to the sound. Also linking the breath to the beat is another great way. For instance, breathe in on 1 beat and out on the next beat. By connecting the breath and the body to the beat it helps us feel it even more.
Now the next level is the fun level where we dive into music. Music has a pulse like every living thing. We can capture it like a picture on a recording but when it's being made it has a certain life of it's own. A few of the best ways to find the pulse in the music is to again try to engage your body. Dance is one of the most useful tools to really improving your rhythm as you have to be in sync and in time with the other people, otherwise it's a mess and you might stub someone else's toe. Just like in music, if you are playing with other people and you are out of time it will sound like a bit of a mess. So take some dance lessons or look up some youtube or Tiktok dance videos and try to follow along. Do random dancing to music and see if you can feel the beat. This will really help improve your sense of rhythm. For me I found this one of the most enjoyable and worthwhile activities to help with my rhythm. Tap is especially good for this as it helps you be really definitive with your timing. Ballet and contemporary are a little more difficult as your body kind of flows with the rhythm and although you do accent certain beats sometimes it's a bit more movement around the beats and through them. But pick your own preferred style as you'll be more likely to practice something you actually enjoy.
Find a way to really internalise what the pulse means and engage with it in different ways to increase your understanding and awareness and you will feel more secure with your rhythmic ability in time.
I hope this helps you and I wish you luck with this.
Have fun with it and explore the realm of rhythm with an open mind
Naomi Leila xx
p.s. Check in next week for Part 2 on how to improve your rhythm! In part 2 I will go into ways of how to define what time signature we are in and how to perform all different types of rhythms.
p.p.s. Let me know any tips you have on how to find the pulse in the comments below as I'm always looking for more ways to explore this and teach it.