There can be a big difference between knowing where the beat is and having a real relationship with it. My younger students are often excited just knowing where one is. What I’m talking about here is developing a sense of personal, powerful connection to the beat, as though it’s a unversal constant, the heartbeat of creation. In the Western musical tradition, meaning from Europe by way of the Puritans, there is a tendency to approach music as an intellectual exercise, a transcendent emotional or spiritual experience separate from body movement. Body movement, aka dancing, is still discouraged in some religions in America as inciting lustful thoughts and the eventual ruination of purity. Musicians who have grown up in this culture have either a strict, almost punitive relationship to the beat “I’m going to practice this pattern 50 times with my metronome until I get it right!” or perhaps look to an outside arbiter of rhythm, like a conductor.
One problem I often see in young commercially-oriented singers is a confusion about where the beat is and where to find it. Once they figure out that the beat can be determined by the kick drum, they may still float their voice as though above a sea of sound. Newbies often hear the kick drum as some random low sound, only faintly audible, murmuring beneath the waves their producers call the track. Floaters lose track of the beat, their conception being that singing is a kind of horizontal stream of sound, an emanation more important than all that supporting music vaguely underneath.
When I’m working with a rock singer, an R&B singer, a pop singer, I sometimes pull out the old pyramidal metronome. Not to recreate the water torture of my piano practicing days but rather to create a big-daddy-beat we can relate to.
There are three basic ways to relate to the beat: directly on the beat, dragging or rushing. That’s it. Keep in mind that the metronome rules. You are only its obedient servant. Begin by clapping exactly with the metronome. That’s called being in the pocket or in the groove. It’s not that easy to do. Once you think you can be rock-steady exactly with the beat for more than 15 seconds or so, then try to lay back, meaning clap ever-so-slightly late. React to the beat. Stay steady with that behind the beat clapping. It’s all quite Zen actually. Now go back to on the beat for awhile. Now try to rush, just a bit. Lead the beat, pull the beat, subtly and steadily. FInally end the exercise by clapping directly on the beat again.
This simple exercise helps train the body and brain to realize that the beat is the root, the godhead, the foundation in pop music and it’s our job to align with it.
Once you feel like you now have a deeper, more connected and conscious relationship with the almighty beat, I’d like to recommend a great counting exercise I call the finger method. You know when you’re clapping along to a song, the only thing the clap can show you is where the beats are Simple. But not which beat? Aha- that can be a problem, especially when you’re sight-singing or trying to transcribe onto paper a melody off a recording. Take one hand (I strongly suggest training your left hand to be your beat hand so that your right hand is free to play melodies on the piano) and whack the outside edge of your hand (the part that’s south of your pinkie) on your leg. That’s one – say “one” loudly. Now touch your fourth finger tip on your leg, That’s the second beat- say “two’. Your middle finger touches for the third beat and your index finger is the fourth beat. Then whack goes your pinkie and edge of hand for the downbeat again. Since one is most important beat, it gets the big whack. Counting out loud is a crucial part of the finger method.
Once you get used to counting this way, you can ease up on the whacking (your reddened thigh will thank you) and your finger motions will become almost invisible. But you will have ingrained the mannerism and your brain will register the number of the beat with the finger and you will have a much better chance of not getting lost. Unlike your singing compatriots, you’ll at least know where the next one is. Obviously this works better for singers than two-hand musicians, but it does work for those plunking out a melody with their right-hand while keeping track of the beats with the left.
One last thought on aligning with the almighty beat. And that is to know what your tendency is. Some people are rushers, some are draggers, some are always’ right on the money’. Also keep in mind that different styles or moods can help you determine what’s right. Rock singing, for instance, is often helped by rushing the vocal over the groove. Keeps that energy moving forward. Romantic R&B or blues can be helped by laying on back, meaning spending many melodic moments behind the beat to create a “Im in no rush- I’m digging the moment right here, right now and the future ain’t no better looking’. Behind the beat also works well for languid or depressed and sometimes funky. However, some funksters sing right on the beat, like James Brown, as though he’s the metronome, the center of the planetary movement. Check out your favorite singers and see if you can determine what their relationship to the beat is nd how being ahead, behind or in the pocket serves the performance.