Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Let It Breathe: T / F?

A lot of people are under the impression that a wine should be allowed to breathe. As the author of a best-selling book on wine (and two others, equally awesome), I can say with some authority that this is a myth, an obsolete concept passed down through the centuries. 

There are a lot of musicians who believe that music, too, should be allowed to breathe, that the flow of time will sound stifled and un-natural if it is too accurate. Interestingly, most of the music created in the past 20 to 30 years was recorded with a ’click track’. In order to help the musicians play steady time, recording studios often play a metronome click in the players’ headphones, and the musicians play to this click.

Hmmm ... that also means that most of what we've been listening to -- for quite some time -- must lack this element of breathing. And yet no one seems to have noticed. I've never seen a dance floor suddenly empty when the DJ put on some techno loop, which sure as heck doesn't breathe. 

I've ranted about keeping good time before, so let me see if I can keep it light. In the real world, people have varying aptitude for keeping a steady beat. A few are lucky enough to have the rhythmic equivalent of perfect pitch. But most of us have to work at it, which means spending a lot of time with a metronome and remaining vigilant when playing. 

A wee bit of flux in the time can be quite acceptable. It's easy, even desirable, to get enthusiastic when the music gets cooking, and just as normal to lay back when the music cools down. But I would offer that only a very small amount of variation in tempo is acceptable. Nor would I say that such variation is necessary. We've all heard -- and grooved to -- many click-track regulated recordings and never twigged to the fact that the time was rock steady. I've even found myself admiring the steadiness of the time on certain recordings. Even before click tracks, there were recordings that had awesome time, and no one complained about it.

Many bands these days are starting to use a click track during live performances. Given the high playing level of some of these musicians, I doubt they’d use a click track if it detracted from their music.

So go ahead and play great, steady time. I’m sure no one will mind.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Coming to Terms with Triplets

One of my pet peeves when it comes to counting rhythm is the abundance of ways to count triplets. I saw a couple of instructional videos that presented lessons on triplets that just didn't make sense to me. One wag began by saying that triplets are a way of playing three notes in the place of two. Nonsense! Triplets are triplets and have absolutely nothing to do with replacing other note values. Triplets are, simply, divisions of three. They have a specific feel, and that feel is triplets, not 3 in the place of 2.

I like things that are simple … things that make sense. Plus I like consistency and not having to make pointless adjustments. It's also easier to learn the simple before tackling the complex. And stuff that makes sense is easier to learn than stuff that doesn't. An important bit of learning theory is that it's much harder to learn a new method if you first have to first unlearn an old method -- a phenomenon called proactive inhibition. (Don't believe me? Did you upgrade from Office 2003 to Office 2007? How did that go?)

The instructors in the above-mentioned videos advocated the same counting method for triplets: 1-&-uh / 2-&-uh. I've heard this many times before and, quite frankly, it ticks me off. These syllables have already been assigned to eighth notes and 16th notes, so why are they being redeployed for something that's completely unrelated? It’s a recipe for confusion. An even more puzzling suggestion was to count 16th note triplets the same way, resulting in a real tongue twister:  1-&-uh-2-&-uh / 2-&-uh-2-&-uh / 3-&-uh-2-&-uh ... Arrgghhh.

I've also heard from teachers who teach the 1-&-uh method in the beginning but then require students to change later on ... proactive inhibition alert! Why not just teach the 'right' way to begin with?

I have a straight-forward counting system that I was taught way back when, and I've yet to find a situation where it doesn't work or a system that works better. Now, it doesn't really matter what mnemonic you use for counting as long as it helps shape the rhythm, is easy to remember, and doesn't conflict with other methods. So in principle you could count ‘1-kum-quat, 2-kum-quat’. A little odd perhaps, but it works just fine and it fulfills all the requirements.

So here is my method of choice for counting triplets:

       1-trip-let / 2-trip-let / 3-trip-let / 4-trip-let
      
It's easy to remember, easy to say, yields a good triplet feel, and doesn't step on any of the 16th notes' toes. You can easily count syncopation and broken triplets, such as: 1-x-let / 2-trip-x / 3-trip-x /x -trip-let. It can also be mixed freely with 8th notes and 16th notes without confusion :  1-&- / 2e&- / 3-trip-let / 4e-uh. That would be rather tricky using the 1-&-uh system.

A bonus is that this method can handle 16th note triplets just as easily. It may not be elegant, but it is effective: 1-trip-let-AND-trip-let / 2-trip-let-AND-trip-let. Works rather well, I think.

(An odd twist on this method is to count “Tri-pul-let / Tri-pul-let / Tri-pul-let”. While it may seem to be the equivalent of the above, it eradicates the number count on the down beats. How are you supposed to count the beats … or the bars. So ignore this one as well.)