Rhythm Problems

What’s a “rhythm problem”? It’s the struggle some have with keeping the beat while doing all the other things that fiddle playing demands. The frustration shows up clearly when trying to play with others or with recordings. For those who have a serious rhythm problem (and I’ve seen this affect even some amateur performers), I will suggest an unusual antidote, but most learners don’t really have a “rhythm problem”; they have a priority problem. This article offers a few ideas about what might be going on and what to do about it.

Rhythm is an essential part of the natural world. We all experience it. It’s there in the sway of a tree, the gait of a horse, the beating of a heart. We feel it hearing the surf on a beach, and sense it with the tides, with sunrise and sunset. We move with rhythm all the time — walking at a very regular pace, breathing steadily in and out, and impatiently drumming our fingers on a table using a perfectly regular beat.

When we speak forcefully, our timing is unmistakable: speaking with unclear timing makes us sound insincere or uncertain. In fact, when we talk, we use much more complicated timing than music does. For example, if you say to a child, “GO to the CAR,” you are using a jig rhythm: ONE-two-three ONE. But if, just as you’re about to say those words, you spot a car speeding down the road between your child and the car, you will say, “DON’T go to the CAR!” This is a reel rhythm: ONE-two-three-four ONE. Seeing that car coming made you change instantly and naturally from jig to reel as you spoke. Musicians rarely attempt this, and certainly not without some planning. You manage complex rhythmic skills in everyday life that you probably take for granted.

If you have trouble playing in time, it’s not because you don’t have rhythm. It’s because you’re not applying it to your music. Somehow, with all the fingering and bowing and holding of the instrument and the cascade of notes we’re supposed to play, our natural rhythm has trouble fitting into the picture, or maybe we’re just not letting it in.

Difficulties with rhythm seem to always tie into overthinking, and involve trying too hard. High achievers, who believe they can conquer anything if they work hard enough, cannot perfect their timing by working harder at it. Instead, they need to back off from that grindstone, and find a way to allow their natural rhythm to possess them. Timing needs motion, and context. Think of something you do every day at work that is regular and rhythmic — there is always something of this kind at any job, whether it’s scooping ice cream, flipping through file folders, collating papers, climbing stairs or stacking boxes. Find a way to apply that rhythmic motion to some simple aspect of your fiddling. An earlier article compared moving to the beat to stepping on the gas as you drive.

Most of the time, those who have rhythmic trouble are focusing on getting all the notes of a tune first, hoping to put in the rhythm later. This never works very convincingly. It’s like drawing the eyelashes of an eye before you know where to place the eye on the face you’re drawing. Getting the details before the basics. You’re likely to end up redoing the whole drawing, often multiple times. Rhythm is the foundation, not the final touch.

Write words to your tune, words that naturally match the rhythm of the tune. This may be all you need to feel the beat.

Allow yourself to miss notes, as long as you congratulate yourself when you feel the beat and trust it. Notes can always be fixed, sound can be improved. A faulty beat is hard to work with; it skews the feel of the tune, the placement of notes, and makes it difficult for you to play with others.

Rhythm is in the body. That’s why fiddlers move to the music, pounding the floor or tapdancing in their seat or marching with the beat. The physical motion carries us through, regardless of how cooperative our fingers choose to be at any given moment.

This is why, in extreme cases, there can be a physical solution if there is a real rhythm problem. I read about this and applied it a few times successfully when I ran across people who really worked at keeping a beat but couldn’t manage it. One person was a harp player who had performed and recorded with several groups but always found timing difficult and unreliable. Another was a fiddler who invariably rushed the beat but worked so hard at her playing that she became the leader of a small fiddle group in spite of her problem. Both of these musicians, and a few others over the years, were helped by an odd “treatment” — cross-crawling. In both of these cases, I learned that as babies these musicians had skipped the process of crawling and gone straight to walking. For one it was because she had an accident where she burned her hands. The other had a different reason that I can’t recall. Both of them tried the idea of relearning how to crawl — the right hand and left knee must land together, and the left hand must land with the right knee. Amazingly, this really helped them regain their natural sense of rhythm. The physicality of crawling with good rhythm set them up for feeling the beat in music.

We are not metronomes. Our sense of musical beats does not come with a metallic click. It is instead a heartbeat, a pulse. It’s a “ba-boom, ba-boom”, not a “tick, tock.” There is a rise and fall to every beat — an anticipation, an attack, a decay. If you can sort out for yourself which exact moment of a dancer’s leap is the moment of the beat, you will understand rhythm.

©2018 Ed Pearlman

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