To a drummer, time is everything… it’s the single most important role we play as a musician.
How do we develop solid time BESIDES working with a metronome?
In this article, I’ll address 6 common problems that can cause drummers to play with bad time.
More importantly, I’ll offer specific action steps that you can take in order to fix each of these problems. Enjoy!
PROBLEM #1 - ADRENALINE HAS GOTTEN THE BEST OF YOU.
Have you ever played a show where all the songs seem SUPER slow? It’s most likely because your adrenaline or nerves shift the way that you PERCEIVE tempo. This can cause all sorts of timing issues for the working drummer!
The good news is that you don’t have to only experience this phenomenon on the gig; it’s possible to practice playing with adrenaline away from the stage.
YOUR ACTION STEP > THE “DRUM AND RUN” EXERCISE
During your next practice session:
1) Play any groove along with a metronome.
2) Leave the room immediately and run around the building 2-3 times. Stop when your heart-rate is high.
3) Come back into the room and immediately play the same groove you played earlier.
Do you notice a difference? Does the groove feel slower now? Learn how to adapt to adrenaline or it will get the best of you!
PROBLEM #2 - ONE OF YOUR LIMBS ARE INCONSISTENT.
Are your backbeats ALWAYS placed on the same part of the pulse, or are some backbeats slightly late? When you crash, does your bass drum foot line up exactly with your right hand or is it a little different each time? It’s these types of subtle inconsistencies that can cause significant fluctuations in solid time-keeping.
YOUR ACTION STEP > THE “RECORD AND ISOLATE” EXERCISE
1) Record your next performance. When listening back, DON'T listen to the big picture but instead, focus on each limb SEPARATELY.
2) Being honest with yourself, answer the following question: "For each limb, what are my timing tendencies?" Work to adjust these tendencies. (EX. My bass drum foot always plays ahead of the beat)
PROBLEM #3 - THERE’S A BETTER WAY TO FEEL THE TIME.
Yes, it’s possible that the way you FEEL the time is preventing you from playing solid time! Billy Ward’s DVD “BIG TIME” is an EXCELLENT resource as he goes into this concept in great detail. For instance, in the DVD, he discusses the example of playing extremely fast up-tempo swing and how rather than counting each quarter note individually (1234123412341234!!!), he will count/feel every half note, every bar, or even every 4 bars. (1……..2………3……..4…….). This mental shift will make your time-feel much smoother overall, and free you up to see the big picture rather than focusing on each quarter note. This is hard to explain in an article, so I'd really recommend checking out the DVD.
YOUR ACTION STEP > THE “BIG TIME COUNTING” EXERCISE
1) Play up-tempo swing time (~200bpm)
2) Feel each quarter note on the ride cymbal individually as the pulse (Say out loud: “1234”)
3) Feel each half note as the pulse (Say out loud: “188.8.131.52.”)
4) Count each bar as the pulse (Say out loud: “1…2…3…4…”)
5) Count every 2 bars as the pulse (Say out loud: “1…….2…….3…….4…….”)
6) Once comfortable with all variations, practice shifting between all 4 without stopping.
PROBLEM #4 - YOU AREN’T REAAAAALLY SUBDIVIDING THE PULSE IN YOUR HEAD.
Yes, we know that subdividing is important… however when’s the last time you consciously FOCUSED on subdividing in your head during the gig?
Sometimes the reason our time isn’t solid is because we’re not paying close enough attention to subdividing the pulse! We know we should be doing it, but we often forget to subdivide in the moment.
When we actively focus on subdivisions, it becomes quite difficult for our time to fluctuate because the subdivisions act as frequent “checkpoints” that keep us in time.
YOUR ACTION STEP > THE “BRAIN-METRONOME” EXERCISE
1) Imagine that you’re turning a metronome on in your brain. Before playing your first note, hear the subdivisions looping in your head. For example, if you’re playing a swing tune, feel the triplets running in your head first. When ready, begin playing.
2) While playing, verbally count these subdivisions out loud ( “1 E A 2 E A 3 E A 4 E A”).
You will be surprised at how quickly this exercise can expose fluctuations in time.
PROBLEM #5 - YOUR KIT SETUP SUCKS.
It’s possible that the way you’ve set up your kit makes it difficult to play in time because the amount of energy required to move from piece to piece is more than necessary.
YOUR ACTION STEP > COMPLETE A “DRUM KIT MAKEOVER"
Yep... we’re going to re-build your kit from scratch. Remove all drums, cymbals and hardware from your setup area.
1) Start with the throne. Is the seat height set comfortably?
2) When seated, notice where your feet naturally rest. Add the bass drum and hi hat stand in these spots (you may find this goes against the conventional setup as the bass drum may now be angled a bit).
3) Next, set up your snare drum comfortably between your legs.
4) Set up your toms. How can you position them so that it’s easy to move between the snare drum and the toms?
5) Set up your cymbals. How can you position them so that you don’t have to spend a lot of energy in order to reach them?
PROBLEM #6 - YOU HAVE TROUBLE DRIVING THE TRAIN.
In a dream world, everyone in your band has metronomically perfect, rock-solid time. Hooray!
But in the real world, it’s not that simple. Let’s face it… everyone feels time differently. Maybe a bassist tends to lay back while a singer tends to be on top of the beat. We all have our own tendencies, and we have to remember that everyone else does as well.
But, we’ve all been in a situation at least once in our career where someone in the band just seems to have terrible time. When these situations happen, it’s YOUR job as the drummer to become the unstoppable train that keeps going no matter what!
YOUR ACTION STEP > THE “SILENT METRONOME EXERCISE"
INSTRUCTIONS: If you’re in a band, try playing a song you usually play, however this time, you’ll be playing along to a click track / metronome. The twist: the rest of the band will NOT hear this metronome, only you will. No matter what, your job is to stay locked in with the metronome and the rest of the band is to follow you.
This will not only help the other members in your band to improve their ability to lock in with you, but it will train you to develop the confidence to LAY IT DOWN when you need to keep the band locked in.
BONUS EXERCISE: “LISTENING EXERCISE"
It’s important for us to know how to LEAD, but it’s also equally important for us to know how to FOLLOW.
INSTRUCTIONS: Repeat the above exercise but have another bandmate listening to the click this time. Now your job is to follow THAT band member!
This exercise can be extremely difficult for a drummer, and many embarrassing train-wrecks will ensue… but after a bit of practice, you’ll notice your ears opening up and will find that you and your band mates are locking in with each other like never before.
100 RULES FOR DRUMMERS
Thanks so much for reading this week's article! Each week, I select one person from "100 RULES FOR DRUMMERS” and write an article based on the three-word rule they offered. My goal is to provide questions, thought experiments, and specific action stepsyou can take in order to improve both your DRUMMING and LIFE!
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ABOUT FRANCISCO DEAN
Thank you to Francisco Dean for offering his 3 words of advice for drummers (TIME IS EVERYTHING) and for inspiring me to write this week's article!
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Francisco Dean now resides and teaches in Chicago, where he has served on the music faculty of the University of Chicago Lab School since 2010. Receiving his Bachelors in music education from Texas State University and his Masters in jazz studies from Indiana University, his performing ensembles have received numerous awards. At the Lab School, he conducts the high school concert band and jazz ensembles, as well as teaches music technology courses in music production, recording, mixing, and film scoring. In collaboration with other electronic musicians, Francisco currently performs as a guest artist for Chicago’s house music label, S&S Records.