Why Rhythm Matters (At Every Step of the Way)
By Steve Aho
When performing music, focus points like note reading, technique, articulation, phrasing, bowing / fingering / sticking (for percussionists), tempo, and body position all come into play, adding complexity to the act of playing the instrument (or singing). One single element—rhythm—ties each of these focus points together by giving each and every musical event a clearly defined place on the timeline. However, without solid rhythm, even the most beautiful melody finds itself lost, as if the notes, having arrived slightly too early or too late, miss their intended destination, often negating the otherwise beautiful aspects of playing.
Rhythm holds equal, but contrasting significance for both performers and their audiences. For performers, playing with solid rhythm means that the fingers, body, and mind coordinate with elegant precision. For audiences, hearing solid rhythm provides clear auditory focus points so that they can better absorb and appreciate the music they are listening to. Solid rhythm creates a sense of order and clarity for both performers and audiences, translating to balanced, stable, confident, and well executed playing.
We, as musicians, are all responsible for being good rhythm keepers, whether we are pianists, string players, wind / brass players, vocalists, drummers, or (even!) conductors. Without clear rhythm, notes meander timelessly from the instrument, resulting in a weak-sounding performance that leaves the listener feeling unsettled. As instrumentalists or vocalists in an ensemble, we must also all be good rhythm keepers for the sake of our fellow musicians. Our commitment to maintaining good rhythm not only makes other members of the ensemble play better, but also results in a far better experience for the listener.
For professional musicians, it goes without saying that those who have poor rhythm rarely get invited to play (or at least get asked back a second time!). Playing in an ensemble with a colleague who has unsteady rhythm would be like having a teammate who can’t be trusted to catch a ball in sports. In an ensemble, playing with poor rhythm undermines the integrity of the entire group. It makes ensemble members uncomfortable because they do not know if their colleague’s rhythmic sense will be reliable, or if their unsteady playing will muddy the passage. Poor rhythm destabilizes ensembles.
On the Big Stage
As one example of the importance of performers keeping good rhythm, I was invited to play at the Oscars a couple of years ago with Adele. The orchestra, which consisted of about 25 members, was to perform her song Skyfall. The entire performance was synced to timecode with all musicians wearing headsets and hearing a click track (basically a fancy metronome) so that all show elements (choreography, lighting, camera movement, stage / set movement etc.) could be carefully coordinated. In the orchestra, we were expected to perform the song the exact same way in each rehearsal (there were about 50 run-throughs!) so that everything looked and sounded the same each time. In such a setting, exacting rhythmic precision is absolutely essential in order to facilitate a successful show.
Two (Contrasting) Recitals
Last year as an audience member, I attended two piano recitals of very young piano students, many of whom were performing similar pieces. At the first recital, I knew that the students’ private teacher had been heavily stressing rhythm studies for the year prior to the recital. In addition to teaching notes, technique, and phrasing, she consistently spent time during lessons counting and clapping with her students, persistently reinforcing and furthering the development of solid rhythm. The resulting performances in this recital were compelling and captivating. Even beginning students performing very short pieces conveyed an air of confidence, expression, and fluidity I have seldom heard among students in this age group (3-11 years old).
By contrast, at the second recital (which was a compilation of students from various studios in the area), the performances sounded tentative, unpredictable, and wholly uninteresting. Why? Simply because rhythm was virtually ignored and all emphasis was placed on other areas of performance, namely notes and technique. Although both groups of students were performing similar/identical pieces, the difference to me as a listener was astounding. As a percussionist I will admit that I am especially sensitive to rhythmic dissonance, but it felt as if the notes I was hearing were stuck in a quagmire of arrhythmia! Quite simply, solid rhythm is what made the first recital succeed in musically reaching the audience, while lack of rhythmic clarity is what made the second one less persuasive.
Student & Teacher Activity:
Improve Your Rhythm Using Subdivision!
Let’s try the following simple, short exercises with to see how you can improve your rhythm by counting subdivision.
Starting slowly at 50 BPM, try clapping the rhythm below while counting 1, 2, 3, 4 aloud.
Now try clapping the rhythm again, but this time counting with 8th note subdivision (say: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and). Notice how much more accurate your rhythm is.
Next, as an added challenge, turn on the metronome, again to 50 BPM. Clap the first exercise, counting only the numbered beats (1, 2, 3, 4). Are all of your clapped downbeats sounding precisely with the metronome, or are some of them early, or late?
Now try the second exercise again, but this time counting with 8th note subdivision. Take note of how much more precise your rhythm is when you subdivide.
Try these simple exercises at various tempos. You may be surprised by how difficult it is to be one hundred percent accurate (at first)! What this difficulty reveals is that even the simplest of rhythms can be challenging to execute without concentration, and that subdividing always helps to improve accuracy. Applying this type of attention to precise rhythm will make your performances (and / or your students’ performances) immeasurably more pleasing to fellow ensemble members and to listeners.
As a general rule for music students, once they can play the right notes with good sound, focus must go towards rhythm. Timing is paramount. All musicians—both students and professionals—have a responsibility to keep good rhythm. Developing the ability to keep good rhythm is not difficult. Learning to count all types of rhythms, understanding (and using!) subdivision, and consistent practice with a metronome is really all it takes to develop and hone one’s sense of rhythm.
As musicians, let us serve both the music we’re performing and our audiences by being the best rhythm keepers we can be!