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How to keep exact time (tabber)

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When you first start to use a metronome you may well find it hard to stay in time with it. As a pro you may still find it a somewhat dull experience, and though useful for keeping a steady tempo, and for speed drills, that might be about it.

Actually though, you can use it as a stimulating challenge, and an excellent opportunity to learn to refine your timing and synchronisation - not just with a metronome, but with other musicians as well.

These tips are from the help for the Bounce Metronome Pro, a software metronome with bounce visuals to help you keep in time much as a conductor does with his baton.

If you need a refresher on rhythms first, then go to Refresher on Beats, Bars and Rhythm

On the Beat?

How exactly do you play on the beat?

You may think you can already play on the beat. But if you think about it, do you play exactly to a tenth of a second - or to a hundredth of a second - or to a fraction of a millisecond? However exactly you play you can probably still refine it.

Not that you need to play on the beat all the time, of course not. But when you play ahead or behind the beat, you will be able to do that in an easier and more professional way if you can play very exactly on the beat.

So - if you want to refine your timing, then in your metronome practice, you try to play along so exactly your note merges with the metronome tick. You try to play so that the two sound as one note - and the metronome may even seem to miss a beat.

That's a stimulating challenge if you approach it rightly, and something you can continue to improve on throughout your life.

The problem, ragged beats

If you listen to amateur musicians, although they may be keeping a steady tempo and good time, you often find that the rhythm still feels a little "ragged".

Listen to professional players, and you find every beat is often very crisp, all the instruments together. To someone who just listens for enjoyment, the music sounds maybe smoother, or cleaner, when played by professionals.

BTW not saying that the amateur music is less enjoyable! It has its charm too :-).

Anyway - listen carefully to the professionals again, much more carefully, to the individual beats. Though the performance sounds so polished, you may find that they don't come in quite exactly together.

The lead instrumentalist may be a bit ahead (for an exciting driving kind of a feel) or fractionally behind the beat (when more laid back perhaps). Often the drums come in a bit early on every beat by a few milliseconds (for a bit of extra edge).

But when they do that too, the professionals are more consistent in it which is why it still sounds polished and crisp.

You need a balance between exact timing and keeping the warmth of your rhythms and the "human touch"

Even professionals don't play each beat or bar in exactly the same way. If you try to achieve the same effect in software you may need to introduce little variations in the timing from one bar to the next if you want to try to give it a bit of human like variety. That's part of what gives a real time performance its charm perhaps, and why sometimes even the most amateur playing, even with all its raggedness, may yet still be so heartening and charming and enjoyable and full of life and spirit.

For instance, a mother singing a lullaby to her child, may in her particular way be more musical than any great conductor or orchestra or performer playing to an audience of thousands or millions even. (Think about it :-) ).

Indeed it's something the pros mention that they have to watch out for - that you may find you lose the spirit and enjoyment of actually playing. That's something which you so need, to have anything to give to your audience, and it's something amateurs may often seem to have without trying.

So you need a balance. You can almost certainly learn to play more exactly on the beat than you do at present, as anyone can get a little better at it, no matter how good you are. But don't try so very hard to play exactly on the beat for every beat that you lose the pleasure in playing or it would be a bit sad :-). And it is a matter of learning so that you are able to play an exactly synchronised beat when you want to, but at the same time, to keep the variety in your performance so that you go ahead or behind the beat sometimes and vary the timing from measure to measure as well, and do that in an natural, and also professional and polilshed way.

BTW interesting link here on this subject: Microtiming Studies (from thesis by Vijay Iyar at Berkeley university).


The secret to playing exactly on the beat - conducting

So - how can you learn to play on the beat (or ahead or behind it by the same amount for every beat) like a professional? The secret is to add visual support to help you to hit the beat exactly. That's where conducting can help.

Depending on the conducting style, a conductor may beat the rhythm somewhat like this:

This is for a rhythm in 4/4.

To help pay attention to the timing - it may help to beat a drum or similar instrument - something percussive with a sharp and easy to hear attack to the note. Or clap or tap something if you don't have a percussion instrument to hand.

Try to clap or tap at the exact moment the baton hits the beat. How closely in time can you get?

BTW many conductors of orchestras actually conduct well ahead of the beat. This lets them communicate how they want each beat played before the player hits the note. Players still synchronise with the moment of the beat, with a delay. (Conductors of choirs may be more likely to conduct on the beat.)

However, for metronome practice and learning to hit the beat exactly you may find it easier to play as suggested here, at the exact moment of the visual beat rather than with a delay.


Try to play so that your notes merge with the metronome tick

To do this, you need to listen more carefully. You know that you are playing on the beat if the metronome seems to skip a beat. Or depending how loud you play and how closely you listen to it, you may still hear it, but your note "merges" with the metronome tick. It sounds as if you and the metronome make the note together.

You can also try merging visually - try to play so that it feels as if the splash is caused by your note. This may work well too, depends on how sensitive you are to visual / sound coordination.

When you are fractionally out, you may not know if you are ahead or behind the beat to start with. But you know it's not quite on the beat because your note doesn't quite "merge" with the metronome.

Look out for a sweet spot - or the metronome may seem to skip a tick

When you play a loud instrument (piano, drums etc played loudly) then the sound of the metronome may actually seem to vanish when you are exactly in time. May sound as if someone has switched it off, or as if it missed a beat.

Or if that doesn't happen - still, you can look out for a "sweet spot". The metronome should feel quieter, or the sound "merged" in a noticeable way, at the sweet spot when you are exactly in time.

You can get more and more sensitive to the exact timing of the beat

This is something you become more sensitive to as you continue to practice in this way. What sounded like merging originally may sound more ragged after practice as you hone your sense of being exactly on the beat.

Percussionists play instruments with a short and loud "attack" and also have to support the rhythm of the band or orchestra quite often, and with repeated practise they may hone their sensitivity to timing to an extraordinary degree. A professional percussionist may be able to detect a raggedness of just a millisecond or two.

Most of us don't need to be as exactly on the beat as that. If it sounds like merging to you - that's your best shot at it and all you need to do even if maybe someone could measure some very tiny time discrepancy still. The rest will come gradually with practise if it's needed.


Conundrum - when you are exactly on the beat you can't hear the metronome so clearly

As we just saw, if your instrument is loud, then the metronome tick vanishes when you are exactly on the beat, and even with a quiet instrument it may be less distinct. But that can be a bit tricky because then how do you continue to keep in time with it?

That's one of the ways Bounce Metronome can help, by showing the beat visually to help you play in time with it. Then you can play to merge with the metronome tick not just occasionally but on every beat (when you want to).

See also - The Vanishing Metronome Click.

The aim of this exercise is to learn what it feels like to hit the beat, not to play like a metronome

You may still need to play more exactly on the beat even if you are able to keep a rock steady tempo whenever you want to. And the other way around too, you can learn to play more and more exactly on the beat even with rhythms with swing, or tempi that change gradually or with bars that vary in timing in a subtle way (very common in lively music).

The idea is to become very familiar with what it feels like to be exactly on the beat. Not just now and again, but for every beat of every bar, to play so exactly on the beat that the merge sweet spot happens every time, on every beat (whenever you want it to).

Once you can do that, your beats within each bar will get steadier, because each beat is exactly where you want it to go to within a few microseconds - so you will be easier for other musicians to play along with as well.

You don't need to play on the beat in the actual music you play, and often you may be fractionally early or late just as the professionals often do, because that's what "feels right" just then. But to have the ability to play exactly on the beat whenever you want to will steady your rhythm and give you more options. It should also make it easier for other musicians to play with you.


Practice sometimes with swing

Too much practice with a metronome could make your timing too "metronomic" - clock-like or robotic. But it is of course very important to be able to keep to a steady overall tempo.

So try playing your tunes with the metronome set to swing or a lilt, vary the amount, and play in different ways in the same session. This may help counteract this tendency, make your rhythm more flexible - and perhaps even introduce new ideas into your rhythmic vocabulary.

You can also try the lilt bars too, this stops your measures from becoming too "robotic" too - just as there is groove and variation within a measure, so also there is variation in the timing of the measures too, in larger scale patterns. You hear this in all lively music played without a click track. For more about that see Tempo and Rhythm.

Merging with the metronome tick for music with swing or a gentle lilt

With a normal metronome with a steady tick, this merging may be particularly difficult to achieve, or impossible, if the music you want to practice has swing, such as Jazz or Scottish or Irish dance music. For more about this see Swung Notes.

The problem is, the rhythm you want to play is different from the rhythm the metronome play. There is no way to get the rhythms to fit each other exactly on every beat of a metronome no matter what tempo you set it to.

One way to do this is to set the metronome at a slower speed so it skips beats. Many jazz players when they use a standard metronome set the metronome to tick on only some of the beats in the bar, e.g. second and fourth beats. So - it doesn't beat on the bar beat or what would normally be thought of as the main beats in the bar.

Even better, you can use a metronome with swing and more subtle variations of timing. There Bounce Metronome Pro can help you as it has swing built in, and even comes with it's own special dedicated Swing & Lilt Metronome.

Or see: Higher resolution version

Or as counting words:

Or see: Higher resolution version

A good approach is to play the same piece through, sometimes with a steady beat, sometimes with a gentle lilt (which you can also do in Bounce Metronome Pro), and sometimes with a lot of swing, so you get to try out many different ways of playing the same notes.

You can also tap your own new rhythms and grooves to use (another option in Bounce Metronome Pro) then try to follow those too exactly on the beat, using the metronome.

With this flexibility in performance - you will then be able to play the same piece with many subtly different timings with ease.

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(By Robert Walker)