The Early Beginnings of Private Practice
If you are learning a new, perhaps challenging, melody for the first time, in private practice, then sure, do count out the meter and use a metronome / click-track selectively and judiciously to check your timing, but, as soon as you’ve confirmed you’ve got it, asap stop forever using the metronome or click track on that tune and don’t use it again for that piece of music, because what was once aiding you to get better rhythmically will now limit your rhythmic feel and hold you back.
When Jamming or Gigging with Other Musicians
When jamming or gigging, don’t count in your head. By now you should have internalized the song by private practice and be ready to communicate it with others and counting will detract from listening. “Let the Melody by your guide”. If you have the melody in your mind while performing and improvising it will help you keep place without any need to count. Also, where there is a pause in the melody, supplement with your own melody to help with this. For example, if the melody has a two bar rest then filling that rest with your own ‘fill melody’ will support using the melody to keep the place in the tune. Keeping the melody in your head will be the least distraction while listening to the other players unless your sense of rhythm and timing is so good and you are so tight with the other band members that you don’t need even that. If you are struggling to keep your place then a strong hold on the melody can be the best thing to help this.
When Practising Alone or perhaps With Others
What to do when you are playing the tune over regularly to internalize it before you play it with others, or even if you never get to play with others? Firstly, it is important to get a sense of the form of the music, and secondly, it would be good also to always practice and play, in the rhythmic style of the piece. I think an ideal, and unrealistic, optimum would be to have a real human band of experienced musicians who know the piece well ready in your practice studio to jam along to. They will also need to accommodate you by stopping and starting at your command. That concept has been best addressed by professional musician backing tracks supplied by vendors such as ‘Aebersold’. They are a great option, but not always a practical one. If you have purchased one of these, and it includes your tune, in key and style and similar tempo you will be playing it with your band, then, great, do INCLUDE playing along to it as part of this practice. It can be really enjoyable and allows one to practice improvisation with the aural checks on harmony and form you would not otherwise have. That is if you improvise over the form and drop a bar or forget a chord change you should hear that and be able to correct it.
Another great option is to play along to artist’s performances of the tune. Say you are learning Autumn Leaves and you have recordings of it by various artists in your record collection, then play those recordings and play along, ‘accompanying’ with chords or a baseline, depending on your instrument. You are interacting with top musicians who are undoubtedly playing the piece well – nothing you internalize there will be as lifeless and damaging as a click-track. I believe at this time when you are playing and internalising a tune, it is important to practice it in as many ‘practice formats’ as possible. Those previously mentioned and also, playing alone the melody by itself, and then the melody and the baseline, then play the baseline and sing the melody, then play the chords and sing the melody, then play the chords and play the melody together. Do you get the idea? The more variety of ways you hear and perform the tune the better your aural knowledge of it becomes.
So, what about rhythm and timing when you are doing this? I think the best option is to have a rhythm backing track playing that does not have the baseline or chords but WILL represent the musical form of the piece, where sections start and end, where the energy changes as the performance moves to a bridge (or “middle-8”) sections and to middle choruses, which are generally the place for improvisations, and even where four-bar phrases occur etc. If this rhymic backing is also alive and human and responding to the musical form the song rather than metronomic and repetitive in its delivery, and is in the rhythmic style you will be playing the piece, you not only have a great foundation for learning the piece but also a hugely enjoyable one as well.
Essentially, it’s the same argument that went for playing along to click tracks. A click track may expose many faults you may have with the meter and your placement of the chords, your baseline or melody, but it will also install a deadening of the other rhythmic aspects that should be happening and importantly it will not outline the form of the song. I suggest never using a click track at this stage; rather use a Song Rhythm Track that has a great sense of rhythm from the audio of real drummers playing real drums in the style you will be playing it and will outline the song form of the song you are learning. This is a good idea even if you perform in a drummer-less ensemble. One can always additionally practice the piece without rhythmic backing to ensure one can maintain one’s own sense of rhythm and timing without the backing track, but it’s good to get a start from great rhythmic backing first. So, how to get great-sounding, human backing tracks in the musical form of your song? There are now “Song Rhythm Tracks” from Alive Drumming providing exactly that. Check out the iOS App to get them.