Talking Rhythm Sense

Applying the Internal Metronome...

You would do well to read two articles before going on:  this one on the Internal Metronome and this one on Time Signature Philosophy.  This article focuses more on application; they focus more on concept.  Of course, an appreciation of both will serve you best.

This article goes hand-in-hand with this video:

In a nutshell, the internal metronome is that feeling inside which keeps you playing in time.  Further, it applies to any tempo and any time signature; that's its charm.  However, it is somewhat paradoxically detached from the conscious mind, lives alone and must be utterly unperturbed by conscious interference to operate at maximum capacity and this is exactly why some people find it difficult to play in time: they're thinking, trying and concentrating.

The difference between the terms internal metronome and sense of rhythm is that the former refers to steady 'ticker' inside, the latter to the freedom one has when playing 'on top of' it.  This is the reason the image above is of waves; they are steady, one simply 'surfs' atop them how one wishes in the same way one has the internal piano ticker stable yet can play around and perform anything in time without ever falling off that underlying steadiness (read: getting out of time).

The challenge in achieving this state of mind if you're one of those born without a 'freed' sense of rhythm is not the actual doing but believing it's possible.  If you believe, read on.  If not, read this instead... then read on!

The first thing to understand is that one's sense of rhythm can be executed by the body through every limb, from a bop of the head or tap of the foot to a complete piano performance with ten fingers but many piano newcomers believe, because the left hand traditionally 'sets the rhythm', that the sense of rhythm somehow resides in that left hand.  It truly does not; it can show itself throughout the body.

A guitarist may think the strumming hand sets the rhythm but it doesn't; the internal metronome sets the tempo and time signature, then the body executes according to that and 'demonstrates a sense of rhythm'.

Have you ever considered body percussion?  This Tedx Talk will enlighten you.

I have devised three techniques away from the piano and three techniques at the piano which will help to remove your conscious interference and allow you to 'ride the wave' of the internal metronome, freeing your body to move around (sense of rhythm) and do whatever it wants, without ever falling off that wave (internal metronome).

Away from the piano:

1.  Count to 4 (and then try, 3, 6 and other odd time signatures if you want) in your own time if sitting or making dinner or, if walking or jogging, count using each step, in time, as one beat.  Do this at every opportunity.  Just like a muscle requires repetitions to strengthen, so too does the mind to release habits from futile conscious control.

This exercise of steadiness is first because it is so important for the conscious mind to be 'eased' out of control; to learn to trust that steadiness already exists within and that no conscious involvement is necessary.  It's all about trusting in the usually distrusted or neglected unconscious mind.  Working on this so-called 'habit muscle' first and foremost will take you a lot closer to releasing control.

2.  When comfortable counting to your number steadily, start missing out some of them.  This is like taking stabilisers off a child's bike and pushing them a few meters; it's about letting them see that the ability to ride already exists within and that 'the bike works' without stabilisers, too.

Count "1 x x 4 / x 2 3 x / ..." - It's a little like walking with the light off for a few seconds then turning it off again but this exercise will go even further in the exercising and strengthening of your habit muscle and trusting that, even with a few spots of absolutely no conscious control, the timing still existed 'in time' and nothing tragic happened.  When running or walking, count only one of the steps consciously and let a few happen without counting.

Subconsciously, a detachment is starting to take place and the level of trust is starting to rise... but coax it out slowly!  The ego is a hungry tiger, indeed, and won't let you steal what it considers to be its belongings.

3.  After some days or even weeks of doing this, you will find yourself being very confident and able to genuinely feel a sense of steadiness in rhythm without thinking about it too much.  This can be tested of course at the piano but that is the next section.  You could test it by playing your favourite songs but with the volume at zero, playing it simultaneously on your internal jukebox and seeing if you finished at the same time!  The same can be said for counting to 10-60 seconds without looking at the countdown timer and seeing how accurate you are.

Now, try feeling off-beats.  Since you've somewhat established fixed posts or, using the analogy from earlier, have managed to stand up on your board and surf, or ride your bike quite far now without falling off without stabilisers, move around.  This final step gives you the chance to see how reinforced step 2 is... if you're still losing count, do not count off-beats yet.  It will come.

Say 'and' instead of '1, 2, 3, 4...', meaning, say and feel the 'and' rather than the number because that should now be very steady indeed:  "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and..."  Sometimes, say only or two two 'and's - the point being, you're surfing with your eyes closed and doing some moves, rather than standing rigid like a robot on your board until you reach the end/beach.

All of that, of course, can take place away form the piano.  You are also strongly advised to personalise these ideas.  Perhaps you do an activity which has a kind of in-built steadiness.  Even tennis, you could start counting from every time you hit the ball during a rally and count on or off the beat until you hit it again but feel/observe if the return hit is ON the beat or OFF the beat.  That could be fun.  Swimming lengths could also be used, as could something as innocent as needle work, if you're good enough!  Rhythm can be found everywhere.  I even try to find rhythms in birdsong.

It's important to be in tune with nature's orchestra because it plays for You.

At the piano:

1.  Without using an artificial metronome (which is a good idea for finding your natural limit but not for this particular set of exercises since we're using the internal metronome only), tap your left hand as you play notes of each of the twelve major scales in time (using your own natural fingering, of course, and closing your eyes!).  Play the notes on the beat, then on the off-beat, then leaving larger spaces.  See how it all stays steady thanks to what was taking place away from the piano!?

Now do the same with the right hand tapping and the left hand playing the scales.  As always, personalise the teachings and try it with chords, arpeggios, differing tempos...

Remember that the sense of rhythm is an off-shoot of the internal metronome and does not reside in the left hand but throughout your whole existence!

2.  Playing random notes (to remove conscious interference even more), or using chromatic melodies, see if it is easy to play freely but never losing the 'reset point' - that feeling of 'back to 1', no matter the tempo or time signature.  This does not need the tapping; in fact, playing different groups of notes with both hands will show that you don't need the 'steadiness' to be set by the body externally since it's set internally by this point!

This may prove a little difficult but if you do it having built up a trust and strong habit muscle in advance, you may surprise yourself.  By starting with random notes rather than whole pieces, you are yet again proving to your conscious mind that it doesn't need to be so in control.

3.  Take chord progressions (I, IV, V / vi, ii, V, I, etc...) and melodies together or repertoire if you have one yet, using both hands, and see if you can play in time now.  If you can record yourself or have somebody listen, even better.

You should have reached a state now where you are observing what is happening consciously rather than trying to control it all.  In a way, your mind's eye is looking inwardly at the internal metronome ticking away steadily on its own and then looking outwardly at your hands playing whatever they want, whenever they want, yet always firmly rooted and in context with the internal metronome.

If so, you have finally released your sense of rhythm and taken a huge load off you conscious mind.

So finally, take every chance you get to strengthen your habit muscle.  The habit is trusting that you can count/feel 'in time' as you do something which is not playing the piano.  Keep it simple first by staying on the beat then feeling the 'off-beat'.  When you eventually take your developing freedom to the piano, do not give the left hand any more authority than the right; they are equal.

Sense of rhythm comes from inside and spreads through the whole body; it does not reside in the left hand!