Art Levine. Where It's Art! Rhythmic Training.

Doing two things at once: the joys of rhythmic training.

For North American music students, “rhythmic training” forms an important part of the musicianship curriculum. The way it usually works is that the teacher assigns exercises from a book, one either specifically written for that purpose or one in which exercises of this sort have been included. These exercises vary in length and complexity, but in general they are intended for solo performance, as befits the demands of an evaluation-based curriculum. I have used a bunch of these books over the years.

At the U. of Toronto (and among a few teachers at the Royal Conservatory) the book used was “Rhythmic Training” by Robert Starer. The exercises have very little repetition, and gradually become more complex, but they are not very musical, and they do not really prepare one to deal with the problems of real music except, I suspect, that of Mr. Starer and his buddies. In fact, I have always thought that a better title for Starer’s book would have been “Timing training”, since the mechanical quality of his materials doesn’t relate very intimately to a human sense of pulse and rhythm or, indeed, to why I personally like music at all. Basically, a case of the notational tail wagging the dog.

Much better and more musical is Louis Bellson’s “Modern Reading Text in 4/4”. It’s all solo stuff, but it is evident from page one that Mr. Bellson did not live in an academic cocoon. It sings, it’s grounded, and it grooves. Pretty much all drummers and percussionists have used it and regard it with reverence, neither of which will ever be said of the Starer’s stiff little tome and the like. The reasons behind the adoption of certain demonstrably inferior books by universities and conservatories deserve a close historical and sociological analysis by some brave soul, but not me.

Now, let’s talk about how to practice rhythm, according to yours truly. The average exercise in Bellson’s book is long enough that you might think of it as an actual composition, the trick supposedly being to get from one end to the other without making a mistake, whether you clap, or sing it somehow, or whatever. And of course, the book relies on notation (after all, the word “reading” is right there in the title).

But there are quite different ways you can think about developing a rhythmic sense than learning to manage notated compositions. The analogy I use is one of “breadth” vs. “depth”. For me, the Bellson stuff (and remember, he is one of the better ones) is still like paddling across a biggish pond that is only a couple of inches deep. It’s possible to imagine as much water in a smaller, but deeper pool. In terms of rhythm, the parallel is to do two or three things at once. For example, to be able to sing a tune and clap a rhythm at the same time, or to do two rhythms at once. After practicing a couple of bars-worth of this sort of thing for a few hours (I spent a fair bit of time on Brazilian & Afro-Cuban music), your whole concept of what it means to work on rhythm, or even to “practice”, is overhauled, not least because reading and notation have nothing at all to do with the process. Again, I guess the operative word is “ensemble”, although in this case, a special buzz comes from doing all of the parts yourself.

Following partly in Bellson’s path, I have written a bunch of rhythmic exercises of the “composition” variety, eighteen of then 4/4 and another fifteen in 6/8. I have included two of each (Example 1 in 4/4, Example 2 in 4/4, Example 3 in 6/8, Example 4 in 6/8) here, plus my two-page collection of Latin-ish ostinati which might be called “claves”. If you’re interested in the whole package (41 pages, of which you’ve just downloaded 6 for free), you can squander your allowance on the file below. I wish you hours — no, years! — of brain-splitting fun and deep meditation.

rhythmic training downloads
Intro. Rhythm exercises: some suggestions on how to use them click here
Rhythm exercises: how to use them, etc. con’t
CDN $5.00
click here
Ostinati, Claves, Bell Patterns click here
4/4 exercise #1 (cells 1, 8, 16, 19) click here
4/4 exercise #2 (cells 1, 5, 8, 16, 19) click here
6/8 exercise #1 (cells 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 17, 27, 63) click here
6/8 exercise #2 (cells 42, 47, 49) click here

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