Improve your rhythm - part 2 Perform and dictate better
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
In part 1 I discussed techniques on how to find and feel the pulse of the music which is the first integral, rudimentary step to rhythmic awareness. This week however, I want to look at how do we go beyond the basic beat of the piece? How can we find the time signature of a piece and how can we improve our performance and dictations of different rhythms?
Working out the time signature for a piece can seem like a daunting task however with the right tools and mindset we can learn to progress with this. A great starting point for feeling how many beats there are in a bar is to realise that a) most songs are in 4/4 b) Jazz, Pop and Rock music mostly emphasises beat 2 and 4 more (especially listen to the drum parts to help find the emphasis) whereas Classical music will emphasise 1 and 3 more c) When there are lyrics to the music the main stressed word will often link to beat 1. These are the first touchstones which can really help you grasp the groove and figure out time signature better.
One technique specifically that I found incredibly helpful in deciphering time signatures is conducting. It allows you to find the shape of the music by seeing which pattern fits with the sound. This technique is taught at great depth in Roberta Radley's book, 'Reading, Writing and Rhythmic - the ABCs of Music Transcription'. It is an incredible book! If you are struggling with rhythm this should be a must read for you. It goes through first deciphering between 2 and 3 time and then working on 4 time etc. It also helps you begin to dictate rhythms and really holds your hand through the process of learning rhythm. (this isn't sponsored - I just love this book) It is great alongside Berklee's, 'Basic Ear Training 1' course which I would also highly recommend. These two things coupled with an immense amount of practice massively shifted my perception on rhythm.
Once you have deciphered how many beats there are in a bar you then need to feel if it is in compound or simple time. This is partly about feeling are the beats separated out by triplets or quavers because that will help determine what the time signature is exactly. It will also make more sense when you dictate the rhythm of certain bars and when you get a better sense on how to perform and dictate different rhythms.
This leads me on to practice techniques for performing and dictating rhythms. The first perhaps obvious technique is to learn new pieces and perform them with a metronome first before you put in the interpretations. one thing I did so I could specifically isolate my rhythmic practice was to purchase a rhythm practice book namely, 'Rhythm Workshop: 575 Reproducible Exercises Designed to Improve Rhythmic Reading Skills (Book & CD)' which has tonnes of rhythmic examples to practice and a CD with loads of songs in different time signatures and tempos to practice the rhythms to. A technique (taught by an excellent teacher of mine) I used to practice this was by practicing it in three ways. 1. By making the l.h. the 'metronome' (play the pulse) and the r.h. play the dictated rhythm starting on the slowest song and working up to the highest. 2. By reversing this and 3. By clapping the rhythm. Later on in the book when there are two rhythms going on simultaneously obviously that technique is not possible but it can help if you tap your foot. Working like this everyday for 15-30 minutes gave me a really substantial grip on how to perform different rhythms and I would definitely recommend it.
Another way to practice is to use an app like the, 'Complete Rhythm Trainer' which is an awesome app that goes through levels of performing and dictating different rhythms. It gets really addictive and pretty challenging by the end and bonus it only costs a couple of Pounds. This app is only for android and amazon however at the moment but an alternative for iPhones that seems to do the same job is, 'the rhythm trainer' There are so many rhythmic apps out there, try them and see which works for you.
You can also try to dictate your favourite songs. First work out the time signature then try to dictate a few bars and check it with the sheet music. You can learn a lot by trial and error. Have fun with it and try to enjoy the process even if it seems tedious. There is joy to be found in almost everything and if you want to become a good musician and enjoy music then listening to loads of music and analysing it can be a fun pass-time which will also make you good at rhythm.
Having a strong grip on rhythm can make the biggest difference to playing music and performing with others. Once you have a strong grip on it then you can play with the time/rules or throw it all out the window, if you so wish. But knowing that you can do both gives you options and allows you to become a better musician and interpreter in the long run.
There is always a way we can improve and explore but having that firm grasp on the basics is something that in every profession is worthwhile.
I wish you luck on your own rhythmic journey.
Naomi Leila Xx
p.s. Let me know if you have any other tips. It's always fun to explore and hear different methods.