Working on Time


I was once at a drummers' workshop conducted by Ed Soph, who is a great player and an excellent teacher as well. During the course of the workshop, Ed asked the question, "What's the most important beat in a 4/4 measure?"

A lot of people immediately said "Beats 2 and 4". After all, that's the backbeat, right? And you can always tell the hip people because they clap on two and four, n'est-ce pas?

But that wasn't what Ed had in mind. His answer?

"The downbeat."

And he's right about that, I believe. In metrical music, if you don't know where the "one" is, nothing else makes sense. You can slice up time into all kinds of odd-shaped and sized pieces, but it all has to refer to the downbeat in some way, at some point.

So here's what I've been doing lately: instead of setting up the trusty metronome to beat on 2 and 4 like all the jazz books tell you to do (for that "sense of schwing, baby"), I set it up to just beat on the downbeat of every measure. In other words, if I want to practice lines at quarter = 192, I set the metronome for 48. The time between clicks is then one measure.

On the negative side, this gives me a (regrettably) clear view of whether I'm rushing or dragging as I play. On the positive side, it lets me experiment with rushing or dragging as I play; I can stretch or shrink a line as I choose without being constantly hammered with the backbeat. As long as the metronome and I agree on where "one" is often enough (and that doesn't have to be every measure, either), I figure things are going well.

Metronomes are important tools, but they have more than one purpose. Lots of people never get past the traditional usage (""); that method is useful in developing technical facility . The "two and four" approach has its good points, too; it simulates a time-feel we encounter often in jazz and popular music situations. With the "once-a-measure" method, the metronome can be an excellent route for exploring and developing what's unique about your playing. As usual, when you're confronted with a choice of things to work on, work on all of them!