No matter how beautiful the notes, it’s timing that’s at the heart of the music, so it’s no wonder many players tap their toes. Notes played badly but with good timing still present a recognizable piece of music, whereas notes played beautifully but with careless or unanchored timing can be confusing to listen to, or even unidentifiable.
How do we make certain of good timing?
There are many angles to that question but for the moment, I’d just like to comment on how musicians reinforce the beat with physical movements, such as tapping feet.
Those who play with the clearest sense of timing move physically in some way, as they play. Those who have trouble with timing almost invariably sit or stand nearly motionless. It seems that even a little motion in time to the music can bring a player down to earth, away from constant worries about how to do everything, and into the realm of feeling the music.
Probably the most important way to reinforce timing is by being more aware of the rhythms we use in physically playing the instrument. For example, for string players, the bowhand is like a conductor keeping the beat. This is one key reason the direction and speed of the bow are so important.
But I think it’s important that, in addition to just playing the instrument rhythmically, we have some kind of physical backup system. We can’t afford to rely totally on counting in our head. This way, if confusion or distraction arises–someone sneezing nearby, or someone walking through the room–the beat can go on.
Typically, musicians tap their toes or heels, or move at the waist, or with the head.
In classical music, it’s frowned upon to make noise while keeping time, so many musicians move their instrument noiselessly in time to the music, or mark phrases with exaggerated breathing. You can sometimes hear in recordings when the musicians in an ensemble all take a loud breath before playing. In some musical traditions, making noise isn’t an issue. For example, in French Canadian fiddling, it’s common for musicians to actually step dance in time to their music, while sitting down. Other players go all out and stomp their feet when the music gets rolling.
Moving to the beat not only helps the player feel the pulse of the music, but also conveys that player’s sense of the beat to others, including listeners and fellow musicians. Musicians playing in ensembles, from duet on up to large group, do best when they can see or sense the movement of others in the group, especially if some of the players are far away on a large stage, or across the room in a session.
It’s interesting to note that different movements convey different kinds of beats. Marching gives a strong beat, since the foot comes down right on the pulse. But walking or swaying can be ambiguous because the foot comes down first and body weight follows afterward–it may not be clear which part of the movement is the beat.
I like students to tap the toes or heels–or move in any way they choose, as long as it helps them intensify their feel for the pulse of the music.
Some students have trouble with this idea because they mistakenly feel that moving to the beat is yet another movement to coordinate, on top of all their efforts to play their instrument. In fact, the movement has to come from inside, from a desire to emphasize and communicate the beat. That’s why no one can dictate which movement will work for any individual; players have to find out what works for themselves.
If a player can’t move to the beat, it may well mean he or she is not sure where the beat actually is. This is one big reason I think it’s important to tap a toe or heel or move in some other way. By moving through space, we have a much surer sense of timing than if we just count numbers in our head. For example, tapping a foot means the foot has to come up in order to come down, just as we take a breath before speaking or singing, or the way a conductor lifts the baton before coming down on the beat. That physical motion guarantees our timing.
How people choose to move to the music doesn’t really matter, as long as the movements help focus and reinforce the musical pulse. The ultimate reinforcement is when you get your listeners to tap their toes, or when you see dancers enjoying moving to your music. Some of the best musicians are dancers themselves.
If you feel the beat strongly enough, you will move, and your playing will get a good beat across to yourself, to your fellow musicians, and to your listeners.
© 2016 Ed Pearlman