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Quantize Me! How I Got Rhythm.

Rhythm is the pulse of music; the backbone.  It separates music from noise.  Coherent rhythm brings more harmony into our bodies, and into our lives. Different rhythms suit us at different times. Some are good for waking up, for exercising,  for studying, and others for going to sleep. Our personal rhythms vary with the time of day, the phases of the Moon, Sun, and so on. Rhythms affect people differently. Each of us has a unique rhythm in our lives. If we listen well, the flow of our lives can be smooth.  Awareness helps us.  Do you move to a different drummer?

I began recording my music in the early nineties. I had a burning desire to hear the music that was in my head, so I put together a series of bands, and tried to get my songs recorded any way that I could.  I ran into many obstacles.  I didn’t have a budget, technology was expensive, and, altho I didn’t know it, I lacked a solid sense of rhythm.

When I say that I couldn’t sense rhythm, I mean that I literally couldn’t feel the beat, I couldn’t hear it.  Listening back, sometimes I could hear myself playing in time, but at other times, I couldn’t.  I was oblivious, and recordings don’t lie!

Rhythm is the foundation of music, and, in my opinion is more important to our well-being, our sense of community, and our communication, than melody and harmony.  Rhythm includes knowing when to stop and listen.  In shared improvisation (jamming) players have to listen to each other for it to be good. Then, one can build on what the others are doing.  In communication, one has to really listen to what the other is saying, or they can never give a meaningful response.  Without a common rhythm, there is no communication.

The first time I went in a recording studio, around the year 2000, the engineer asked me to work with a click track. This freaked me out!  I tried, but I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t used to practicing with a metronome (recommended!) or a drum machine, and I would always get off the beat within a few bars. I had to do my bed tracks without a click. Top professional musicians could overdub to my recordings, but other folks couldn’t play along very easily.

The need to play with a click track has arisen a few times since. Playing with a loop station has forced me to lock onto the beat. I’m gradually getting better at it.  One thing I’ve learned about playing with a metronome or click track is that if I keep losing the beat, I often need to simplify the parts that I am playing.

As I edit this, years after the initial writing, I just heard David Crosby say to a live audience:  “If you can’t hear the beat, please don’t clap.  I know that you’re moved, but you’ve got to be moved in time!”

Once I can keep the simpler parts “in time”, it becomes possible for me to get more complicated, and still keep the time.  I’ve learned to strategize my recording process. I’ve also come to recognize that sometimes my right hand is keeping time differently than my left hand.  This comes with playing music that is complex.  The two sides have to be synchronized, brain and body, for rhythm to be flowing!

When all else has failed, technology has now made it possible for me to move my mis-played notes forward or backwards in time.  Photoshop for music.  I can “change the color of individual pixels”, if I want to.  I can zero in on the most minute “bit” of the music, and move the time, or pitch.

This may sound like cheating, but it isn’t! It’s hard work!  After spending many hours at this odd activity, my timing has gotten better, plus, it has made me push myself to play better the next time, so I don’t have to waste time moving notes in tiny increments!

The application of recording technology to my work has helped me to better understand what I do, and how I do it.  It’s helped me to develop a more steady sense of rhythm.  This is  good for my body!  I can feel the difference.

It’s also helped me to better accept my own unique style. Being able to see the beats, the accents in my performance, laid out for me on a screen, has helped me to appreciate my quirky ability as a composer.

I’ve become much better at counting.  I can map the structure of a song in my head, and stick to the map, much more than I had even considered possible before. This has revolutionized my life!

To be continued…

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