Friends don’t let friends clap on one and three. This we know. The majority of musical theatre repertoire has a groove, or rhythmic pocket. So does a lot of classical music; Bach preludes and fugues have a wonderful groove if you can find it. It’s the sense of where the beat goes, and how we place the beats. Even ballads and music with markings like espressivo molto rubato, still have a sense of timing. Being expressive with the timing does not mean be arbitrary.
Too often we rush. We rush the beat. We rush the beat that we don’t always feel. Feeling the downbeat is easy. Feeling the off-beat is harder. I learned a valuable lesson from a conductor once; if you’re playing a song with a beat pattern of four, try setting the metronome to two and four instead of one and three. In fact, set the metronome to only beat on two and four, making the downbeat silent.
I was working on a song with this beat pattern. Setting the metronome to click on the beats other than the downbeat enlightened me to how unsteady my timing was. I wasn’t keeping a strict beat with my playing. I’m not alone in this. Even some of the best musicians I work with rush the beat. We get bored, or lazy; we’re all human. Feeling the back-beat is what helps keep us in time.
It’s easier if we are playing throughout a piece of music. When there are rests between the notes we tend to rush them too. Say if you’re only playing on beats one and three, that space between can be pushed. When we feel the beats we don’t play as well as the ones we do play, the structure and steadiness of the music is secure. And even audiences who don’t know the inner workings of music can feel this.
People love to clap along to music. They sway with their favorite songs at rock concerts, and there is a pulse to their movement and their clapping. As I stated: we don’t let friends clap on one and three. When we only focus on the strong beats we inevitably rush past the weaker beats and they become rushed.
After this lesson in a musical theatre setting, I took it to a Bach prelude. I was playing the C-sharp major, Book I, which is in a three pattern. I then set the metronome to the third beat, not the first. Then I worked on the piece of music setting it on the second beat of the three. It was like ironing a nice dress shirt; all the inaccuracies and hiccups in my tempo were brought out. If I couldn’t keep the tempo steady with the click on the off beats, my tempos were not clean.
If you’re a musician struggling with time (and we all do at some point), focus on the off-beats. It will steady everything. And if you are doing something were it should rush or slow down, practice it steady anyway. That way you’ll know where the give and take is in the music, and you’re not defaulting to just ‘feeling’ the music, rather you’re in control of when you choose to push and pull the tempo.