January 6, 2010

Marking Time

Well, it's the beginning of the year and so we're all quite mindful of time.  And as musicians, that couldn't be more essential.

Thelonious Monk is reported to have said something to the effect of: just because you're not a drummer doesn't mean that you don't have to keep time.

I am often struck by how many musicians don't keep time.  They actually don't count - they "go with the feel".  They believe that because they aren't drummers (or because they are playing alone) that they don't have to be a slave to the beat and can play tunes as the spirit moves them.

But this misses an important point about music: music is a form of communication.  Whether you're playing for an concert hall audience or your mother, you are sharing a message.  Isn't the message worth getting across correctly? One of the essential tools for this is time.

Music isn't just about the notes.  And we'll talk later about various ways to convey those messages.  Today, let's focus on counting and time.  If you don't currently count, if your timing comes from the "feel", I heartily urge you to begin...right now!

One of the reasons many people don't count is because it is challenging - when you're learning a new piece, you are doing a lot of work - reading, finding the notes on your harp, learning the relationships, determining the message, trying to learn some of the tune so it will be easier to play the next time, thinking variously how much you love this piece of music (if you love it) or how much you hate this piece of music (if you're being made to learn something that is not coming easily), breathing, thinking about your posture and your hand position, etc. 

See, I told you there was a lot to think about - and so we often don't bother with that pesky timing.   We want to get on to the tune, we want to play (after all, we don't say, "I work the harp" do we!), we want to do all this quickly.  And so, we let the timing go.  But, this is one of those gotcha's - because we never go back, we never work on the timing, we just keep pushing along.....until, eventually, the message gets lost - and so do we.

So, the next time you sit to learn a piece (or if you're really dedicated, the next time you sit to a piece you already know), start with the timing, work that out before you spend a great deal of time on the notes.  See how the timing is really the key and not the prison.

Let me know how you come along - I'd love to hear it.

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