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How to Improve your Rhythm (for non-musicians)
My friend Mario Rosales is a professional singer who used to make $5,000 per week singing on cruises. He taught me the one difference between a great karaoke singer, and a professional singer: phrasing.
Phrasing is deliberately toying with the tension of a musical phrase; the space between notes. Professional singers will often wait a little longer than they "should" to come in on a note, as it creates a little twinge of anticipation in the listener, a subtle but important tension.
To understand phrasing, listen to a children's song — most of them have a total absence of phrasing. Every note will come in right when it's "supposed to," staying on the beat. This is how children's musicians create a tangible lack of sexuality, a sense of simplicity and innocence; they purposefully avoid creating and releasing tension through phrasing.
Imagine singing Fly Me to the Moon by Frank Sinatra as if it were a children's song:
"Fly - me - to - the - moon, let - me - play - a - mong - the - stars..."
Now listen to Frank sing it:
"Fly me tooo, the moon -- letme playyyyyyyy a-MONG thestars..."
The difference between these two is Frank's phrasing; his toying with the tension. The words are the same; the notes are the same; the difference is in subtle shades of timing. He stretches some notes, shortens others, and pauses for various lengths of time between notes.
Paying attention to these subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences in timing will wake up a world of ability to "feel the beat." Noticing the difference between a drummer or a singer who stays on the beat and one who toys with it skillfully is an important first step.
Here's a simple exercise:
Put on a song you like. (It helps if it's a funk song or a rock song with a "groove.") Tap your hand along with the beat. Now, practice waiting as long as you can between each tap of your hand.
There is a precise moment at which the tension reaches an apex. If you tap too soon, you'll be cutting it off too early, not allowing it to express itself, the way a children's song does. If you tap too late, the tension will deflate like a balloon; it will be weak.
Here's a great song to try this on:
Duh-nuh-nuh (WHOCK!) duh-nuh-nuh duh duh-nuh-nuh (WHOCK!) duh-nuh-nuh da duh-nuh-nuh (WHOCK!)...
Tap along with those "WHOCK"s — the snare drum — and wait as long between each one as you can without sounding ridiculous. You'll notice that John Bonham, widely considered one of the best rock drummers of all time, waits extremely long between beats. It's nigh impossible to out-wait him, but you can get a fantastic sense of what he's doing, and why it's so effective, by imitating it on this song.
As you get better at "stretching" the beat, you will become more sensitive to subtleties in phrasing, and you'll start to notice it everywhere; skillful comics pause before the punchline for the precisely perfect amount of time -- before chiming in. They let the tension build to its apex, and then release it. This is not a mental calculation, but a physical sense of rhythm, felt in the body.
A few days after I discovered this exercise, I was riding shotgun in my friend's car when Stayin' Alive by the Bee Gees came on. I was drumming all over his car and actually "making sense" rhythmically and having a blast. I had never remotely been able to do this before.
Let me know how it goes.