If you are frustrated in your progress on your musical instrument with regards to rhythm, for example, always speeding up or slowing down, you need some help in keeping to a steady tempo. Those who want to improve musically but have neglected working on their sense of time, will encounter difficulty later when attempting to play new material with more advanced rhythmic structures.
While not exhaustive, we present you with some points to help you get your groove up!
1. Use the metronome (correctly!)
The metronome. This simple trusty device has helped countless musicians develop a keen sense of time yet most people do not use it for the following reasons:
It's so boring to play to the metronome.
The constant clicking sound drives me nuts!
It seems my tempo is fine. I don't need it.
I don't see musicians using one while performing on stage anyway!
I get confused trying to play to it.
We get it, it's not fun to practice to a metronome. In some cases, students will use a metronome simply because their teachers told them to, not actually realizing the benefits of it themselves. Also, I've seen people leaving the metronome on and then play something completely out of sync with it!
You need to know what the metronome is for and how it can greatly develop and improve your sense of time.
Musicians use the metronome to practise playing to a regular pulse.
I would recommend using the metronome anyway, because once you start using it, you realize how inconsistent in tempo you can be! Professional musicians can pull off what they're doing on stage well because they have practiced with a metronome off stage for countless number of hours. While we probably will not be practising at their level, it is still good practice to use the metronome during your practice time.
If students are confused about how to use the metronome, it's time to read on...
When you set the metronome, make sure you know the meter of the song (eg. common time 4/4, 6/8) you are practicing. Set the first beat of each bar a different tone from the rest of the beats. Most analog and digital tuners have such a function. This is important because some people tend to skip a beat not knowing that they have done so. You will be more aware if you have skipped a beat when you hear that the first beat click coming in earlier or later than your playing. Make sure you get your first note or strum of each bar corresponding to the higher/accented tone of the metronome.
Practise your songs at a slower tempo than the original desired speed. I will explain this in the second point below.
2. Start slow (to internalize the rhythm!)
Most of us are highly impatient creatures, especially those of us borne in the millennial generation. The use of social media and having information at our fingertips mean we want things fast fast fast all the time! Unfortunately that doesn't bode well for your practice time. GO SLOW to play well.
If you are having trouble playing a particular rhythm, start at 50% of the desired tempo of the piece. For example, if we want to play the song "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles at 120bpm, we will start off practising the song at 60bpm.
Once you have perfected your parts (be it just a piece of melody, or being able to strum and sing simultaneously) at 60bpm, increase your speed by increments of 10-20bpm. I would perhaps practise the song at the following bpms: 60, 80, 100, 110, 120. As I practise at increasingly faster tempos, I drop my increments in tempo from 20bpm to 10bpm.
3. Break it down
If a part is really tricky rhythmically and you have no idea how it fits together even when you are playing it fairly slow, analyse what you are doing or simplify it further and then build up tempo gradually.
A common challenge for guitar and ukulele beginners is to strum a particular rhythm and sing the melody at the same time. To accomplish this effectively, we teach our students to use a table to subdivide each bar into smaller beats and to fill out the corresponding lyrics (see below). Next we make sure they can sing the melody first, then strum the rhythm at the correct beat subdivision, before combining the two. Listen to a short clip of "Joy to the World" played with a 'calypso' rhythm while singing the song!
4. Record Yourself
One of the best ways to observe your own progress in music is to record yourself and listen to the playback! Try recording both with the metronome on and off. Often times, you notice much more than if you just hear yourself while playing. You will be able to pinpoint the exact point where you have made a mistake and practice that particular segment over and over again until you nail it.
5. Acquaint yourself with groovy music!
Last, but not least, tap along or dance to groovy music like samba, jazz, rumba and pop. When you listen to music, your brain subconsciously picks up the rhythm nuances. The more you listen to such music, the more adept you get at recognizing syncopated beats and swing rhythms. When the time comes for you to learn those rhythms, you will find it much easier!