I received an email the other day from a buyer of my book, Rhythm Savvy. His good question asked how best to approach the book in order to get the most from it. Should he follow it in order cover to cover or use another approach?
I organize my books and courses without a firmly dictated sequence. They are written in a certain order, as is Rhythm Savvy, but my teaching style reflects my own learning style, which is to blaze my own trail through the material. I realize, however, that some people prefer a methodical step by step approach which I why I’m taking this opportunity to write a post rather than simply send this eager learner a quick email.
Rhythm Savvy is organized into three sections which I label “Metronomic Rhythm”, “Groove Rhythm”, and “Phrase Rhythm”. My overall advice is to work within the sections and on the exercises that cover an aspect of your time sense that you hear as weak.
For every skill you wish to strengthen, find aspects with which you struggle or find yourself weak. Within Rhythm Savvy, you may find that you need only work on the last two sections, your groove and your phrase rhythm. So skip the first section on metronomic rhythm.
However, before you skip that first section, try a couple of the exercises to confirm that you indeed have a solid core of time – that your internal clock is working well for you. If it not, the other two sections will be less productive for you.
The three sections are:
- Metronomic Rhythm: About your internal clock. Do you feel a pulse that is reflected in your playing? Not to become stiff and robotic like a metronome, but to build within yourself a core of solid time.
- Groove Rhythm: About your jazz feel or swing. Do you play with a time feel that swings or is your playing kind of stiff? Does your playing invite the listener to tap their foot or bob their head? Is there a spirit to your time feel?
- Phrase Rhythm: About the rhythm and variety in your improvised phrases. Do all your phrases predictably begin and end in two or four bar increments, or is there an interesting variety in your phrasing? Do you comfortably play lines across the bars and phrase sections?
I hope these questions will give you clue as to where to work within the book, at least to begin. There is a certain order to these sections. they are as follows:
I begin the book in Metronomic Rhythm by helping you work on your clock. Despite my arguments with Richie Beirach over the metronome, I do believe that it can be a useful tool for tuning your internal clock. For more on our disagreement over the use of the metronome, read the post called About a Metronome.
This section of the book is not meant to turn your playing metronomically perfect. That’s impossible and not very musical. But playing through a few of the exercises will help you asses your sense of time. For example, play with the exercise called the Maniacal Metronome to hear how well you can keep a pulse in the midst of distraction. Can you hear the invisible pulse as the irregular clicks go by?
One other metronomic exercise is one in which I give you a rhythmic pattern and a backing track over which to play it. I play the pattern for you in regular intervals, and then stop playing the pattern to see if you can hear where it belongs in time as you play.
I also include a section that allows you to practice your sight reading. After all, rhythms are often an aspect of reading that trips people up. Can you read these rhythms?
If your basic sense of time is solid, don’t spend as much time on this section of the book. On the other hand, if you don’t have a good sense of pulse and find yourself struggling with these exercises, this section can be a big foundational help.
Time is the most important element of playing musically. And for jazz, your placement of notes determines whether or not you have an authentic feel for the style.
The section begins by asking you to record yourself playing a 12-bar blues. The lines are written out. Listen back to your recording. Does it sound stiff? Does it sound musical? Do those lines dance through the 12 bars?
One of the first things the book encourages you to do is to listen to models of good jazz feel. I include trombonists JJ Johnson and Car Fontana, who had very different feels. I also include Dexter Gordon, who had a very unique feel for time. And I also give you a sample of the singer Rickie Lee Jones, who has a beautiful sense of time. listen to them and hear how they place notes.
Within this section is an explanation of syncopation, which is the foundational rhythm of jazz. Does your placement of syncopated notes flow or do they sound stiff and inconsistent?
Listening is vitally important. I provide you with a few variations of note placement in my playing of the tune Dat Dere. I ask you to identify the differences. Can you hear the notes laying back versus being on top of the beat? What do you hear?
The third and final section addresses the rhythm of your improvised phrases. It is very common for less experienced improvisers to play predictable phrase lengths starting and stopping at 4 or 8-bar phrases. Consider someone speaking. Are all their sentences the same length? “How are you?” “I am fine.” “The sun is out.” “The air is warm.” “I’m going home.”
Listen to Herbie Hancock and how he plays seemingly effortlessly across bars and phrases. His solos have so much more interest because of his variety in phrase lengths.
In this section, I created a type of notation that illustrates phrase rhythms from some classic solos including Sonny Rollins’ solo from St. Thomas in the “Saxophone Colossus” album.
I also provide an exercise where I prescribe a specific phrase length over a number of backing tracks. The phrases begin somewhat regular but then advance to more difficult lengths and placements.
Record yourself playing over rhythm tracks and listen to where your phrases begin and end. How much variety do you place in your musical statements?
My overall advice is to look through the book, find exercises that intrigue you and record yourself playing them in order to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses regarding your sense of jazz time. Perhaps play these recordings for a teacher or musical colleague and ask for their honest evaluation.
No two players are the same, with the identical strengths and weaknesses. Your work through Rhythm Savvy, my other books, or any method really depends upon your playing and what you wish to accomplish musically.
Obligating yourself to working through any etude or method book mechanically from page one to the end, is a sign that you are not listening well enough to your playing and to your needs for getting better as quickly as possible. Use your ear and your brain to mine the best from these tools.