To say that I’ve discovered something huge about playing in time might be a bit of an exaggeration. What I’m about to say might be old news to some of you, but it was never communicated to me in quite this way. I’ve had two simple realizations about the most common time problems. They have allowed me to illustrate for my saxophone students the type of awareness that is needed to groove.
Let’s set the scene:
You take out your horn for a bit of practice. In your last saxophone lesson, your teacher told you to practice exclusively with a metronome so you power on the click box. No matter how many times you try, you find yourself getting out of time. The next step is usually to shut off the metronome.
Lots of people just give up using the metronome altogether after a few of these experiences. I often have frustrated students come to their saxophone lessons citing their complete inability to stay in time. I’ve been there. Probably not for the last time.
“Why is this happening?!?!”
There are two main reasons for falling out of time with your metronome. I think that I’ve discovered the root causes of each. It’s all about relationship.
- Rushing – Pretty simple right? We get out of sync with our timekeeper by speeding up, or anticipating too much. Cause: We tend to rush when we are prioritizing listening to ourselves over the metronome.
- Dragging – Also very simple. In this instance, we get out of time by lagging behind the timekeeper. Cause: We tend to drag when we prioritize listening for the metronome over listening to ourselves. This also feels like waiting for the click.
The good news is that the cure for both is the same. I would go as far as to say that you don’t even need to know if you are rushing or dragging in order to fix things. It would certainly be an upgrade to your overall musicianship to be sensitive enough to know whether you are ahead of or behind the beat, but just noticing that you’re out of time with the metronome is enough for now.
It’s not only about you. It’s not only about the click. Or the drummer. Or the guitarist. Or…
The cure lies in the fact that music is a relationship of elements, not just individual elements alone.
1 + 1 = 3.
2 + 2 = 5.
You + the metronome = You, the metronome, and the music you make together.
In order to get desirable results, this is something of which we must be keenly aware. There are individual parts, and there is the whole.
For the musician context is everything. When you find yourself drifting away from the metronome, it is an indicator that you’ve lost your sense of the context, or the whole.
Rather than scrambling to catch up or overly relaxing your feel to correct rushing, try this simple exercise:
When you find yourself playing out of time, just pause.
Listen Bigger. Broaden your awareness of context. Try listening to something outside of the room you’re in, maybe even the cars on the street outside. Include that extra sound in your sphere of awareness, along with yourself and the metronome.
Play it again.
Notice your time locking in and feeling better than before. Tinker with this awareness experiment in your practice until you find the recipe that works for you. The key is to aim at the feeling of being a part of a larger whole. Find the context that you fit.
Every single time I’ve had this conversation with students in saxophone lessons, the results have been drastic and immediate. Let me know how it works for you in the comments below!