Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Tuning Slide: 2.7- Feel the Rhythm

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
Last week I quoted one of the ideas from this past summer’s Shell Lake Trumpet workshop:
There are three characteristics of a great trumpet player:
1. Every time you play you have a great- not a good- sound.
2. You have great- not good- rhythm.
3. You have great- not good- ears to hear the sound.
This week we focus on rhythm.
Life is about rhythm.
We vibrate,
our hearts are pumping blood,
we are a rhythm machine,
that’s what we are.
—Mickey Hart (percussionist, Grateful Dead)


For us, we start with this simple definition:
Rhythm is the arrangement of sounds as they move through time.

We know the synonyms. They are common in our musical language:


We are not just talking about the groove, though. Groove is a basic part of rhythm, but it goes beyond that. Rhythm is not just what a “rhythm section” does. What, then, IS rhythm? I asked Bob Baca, our Trumpet Workshop director for his thought:
Rhythm is the underlying pulse that creates initial emotion far greater than color or attack can achieve. All music, including cadenza must have an underlying pulse. In Western European Classical Music that pulse is some sort of a duple or triple subdivision. In classical music, although solid tone is of first importance, conscious rhythm is a close second.
That’s a good start. Rhythm is not just the beat, it is one of the ways that music creates emotion. All the standards we think of in music- crescendos and decrescendos, tension and release, accents and slurs, major and minor chords- are part of the rhythm of the music. That brings the music to life. Without those elements, a straight, non-changing sound would put us to sleep. Just plodding along at a steady level allows not tension and interest. Using only one chord without variation would get dull.

That is rhythm. What does it mean, though, to have great rhythm? Back to Bob Baca for a very simple answer.
Conscious Rhythm. We want to feel but not hear rhythm.
From the perspective of the listener, a song with great rhythm is not in what you hear, but in what you feel. It makes you move in response to what is being played. It can be overpowering to our senses if the rhythm is forced into the forefront. Sure- a good drum and rhythm section solo can be fun, but not for a whole song. Watch a Buddy Rich video, for example, and you will see conscious rhythm at work- and Rich doesn’t even look like he’s doing anything all that difficult when he is not doing a solo. You watch him and you feel the rhythm as all the other instruments play. The band without Buddy, if not dull, probably chaos. Together- the rhythm works.

From the perspective of the musician, rhythm is what we find when we move beyond simply playing the notes and trying to get them right. We move to playing the right notes, at the right time, in the right place, in the right way. The right way being in the rhythm of the song.

Rhythm can be easy to lose, of course. We’ve all heard a band or group get “out of rhythm” for any one of a number of reasons. Sometimes it is difficulty in communication across the group. Sometimes someone wants to jump in too early or misses the beat too late. (That is way too often me!) That’s where being conscious of rhythm is most needed.

Actually, if you think about it, rhythm is part of the language we are trying to learn. In jazz - eighth notes swing is a piece of the language-rhythm. The feel of a Sousa march is a piece of the march language- rhythm. Feel the pace and pulse of a Bach chorale- that is a piece of the language of the music- rhythm.

Part of our work then is always in the fundamentals. As Bob Baca explained:
Where rhythm is most lost is usually at the ends of phrases, especially if the phrase ends with a long note. If a note is held full value, the rest in-between phrases become part of the rhythm and sounds musical.
In our fundamentals we learn how to phrase our music. We learn the importance of “playing the rests” as much as playing the notes. Rests are essential to the rhythm, They help set the tension and release, they help give movement to the notes.

As I was writing this, an a Capella choral version of Amazing Grace came on my iTunes shuffle. Not a drum within hearing. I can imagine the conductor moving his arms in tempo, but beyond that it was all done by voice. Every rhythmic impulse of the song built through the melody line, the rise and fall of the solo voices, the droning vocal bass accompaniment laying the foundational rhythm. What did I do as I listened? I moved. Not just because I know the song so well, but because the singers kept the rhythm alive. It had a living pulse.

So how do you get it? Said Mr. Baca:
Always have a legato subdivision in your head.
It seems that audio visualization is never far from our thinking and playing. How do you hear it before you play it? What I have found is that just picking up the trumpet and playing the notes is not often a helpful first step in learning the rhythm. Several instructors have talked often about
1. Reading the piece
2. Singing the piece
3. Listening to a recording of the piece.
4. Maybe repeating the process a time or two, and then
5. Pick up the instrument and play.
I am not sure that anyone has a natural ability to know and feel rhythm from a printed page. These steps of practice and learning help focus us to feel it, then hear it, then play it. Yet we are naturals at rhythm. We are born with it. We hear it in the beating of our mother's heart while in the womb. We hear the tide-like rush of blood traveling through her system. It is the original music.

In full harmony with the overall theme of this blog- reflections on life and music- Mr. Baca had one more thought:
Life is about rhythm.
The very earth that we live, rotates runs in a steady rhythm and music, our most positive expression of who we are, must as well.
Music, as Mr. Baca says, is the most positive expression of who we are. Throughout history people have made music. Throughout history music has started with rhythm. That rhythm is the heartbeat of life itself. Whether the sound of ocean tides or the “lub-dub” of the human heart, it underlies everything around us. It may even be that the very idea of sound- frequency, etc.- is a rhythm itself. What we do in our lives is find our place in that rhythm.

Once more from author and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
In the beginning, there was noise. Noise begat rhythm, and rhythm begat everything else.
We are part of the physical expression of that rhythm. Translate it, hear it in your music, share it with others in your actions, make music! Philosopher Lao Tzu said once that the music of the soul can be heard by the universe.

Stop and listen for a moment and it may also be that the soul will hear the music of the universe.

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