The importance of rhythm

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Which is more important to music: the right notes or the right rhythm?

Going all the way back to Bach and perhaps before then, the expert consensus has been that rhythm is more important that notes.  And when considering how much more sophisticated modern rhythm is than Baroque era rhythm, it is especially important that today’s musicians obsess about getting more rhythmically precise.

On paper, rhythm is easy, or at least easier than playing a lot of notes correctly.  Of course, the reality is that rhythm is not easy.  Inaccurate notes, lack of confidence, and any other number of other factors create rhythmic problems.

I think that many of us that do not play much modern music struggle in this area.  When I judge piano contests or listen to children play, rhythm is easily the biggest problem I see.  Adults are no different.  If you grew up playing classical music and play only traditional, conservative church music, you probably are intimidated by complex rhythm.  The reality is that many of us are not good at rhythm because we simply don’t play complex rhythm very much.

Unfortunately, I am in this category.  Some of you may have watched on the internet that day in the studio last year when I recorded Portraits of Hope.  There are two rhythmic songs on the project.  I wrote them myself but initially I struggled with trying to play them.  When I tried to play them with the orchestra, I was imprecise and caused a lot of chaos.  Eventually, I gave up and let the orchestra record those pieces by themselves (I added my part later after I practiced a bit more).

The fact is that if you are not playing rhythmic music now in your church, you soon will be.  And if you are weak in this area, it is time to start practicing.  Here are some things to know.

1) Understand the difference between playing “in time” and “out of time”.  I tend to play a lot of music purposely “out of time”, meaning it has lots of planned rubato.  Complex rhythm does not work in this style.  In other words, if you add syncopation, how can the audience know whether you are using syncopation or just using rubato?  Only when you decide you are going to have steady tempo do you open the door to much more complex rhythm.

If you are playing with other musicians, everyone has to be on the same page.  If you playing in time, everyone has rhythmic freedom.  If you aren’t, complex rhythm will just create a train wreck.  You could think of it this way: if everyone is hearing a click track or metronome or at least feeling a steady pulse, you are “in time” and able to introduce more rhythm.

2) Dust off the metronome.  If you don’t have a metronome, there are dozens of free ones on the internet that you can play on your computer.  I actually often use a metronome that allows me to go up to several hundred beats a minute so I can subdivide beats.  In other words, I want to hear four clicks for a quarter note and play precisely on those subdivisions.  For example, on a dotted eighth, I want to hold the note for exactly three subdivisions.

When you do this, you end up with a metronome clicking at maybe 400 bpm or higher.  This can seem impossible to follow at first, but with time, it starts making sense.  Try to find a metronome that allows a different sound on the first of each four beats.

By the way, I have a constant battle with my children regarding metronomes.  If I had my way, they would practice with a metronome all the time.  They don’t, and as a result, their rhythm is not always so great.  I would get mad, but I remember that I hated playing with a metronome too when I was young.

3) Practice rhythmic passages.  There are resources on the internet that can help you test your skill.  I use software called EarMaster Pro, which shows you a rhythmic pattern which you beat out with your keyboard.  It then grades you according to how precise you are.

Suffice it to say that I have a long way to go, and I have heard enough pianists to know that most of us are weak in this area.   But, we need to practice rhythm at least as seriously as we practice playing the right notes.