Timing Techniques: Listening Over People, Rhythmically Resisting, And Super Rhythm


There’s a spot in the show where I have a solo—a moment to set the time for everyone else. The conductor thinks he’s in charge, but no, he’s actually following me in my moment of laying it down, which is simultaneously my moment to test a hypotheses. The hypothesis is this: at some point in the next three minutes, the musicians around me will sway and drift timing-wise. My timing will move around too, but not as much. It used to move around quite a bit, but not anymore.

In the context of the my solo in the show, there are two tricks to keeping a steady timing. The first is listening over people. I’ll ignore an off-time sound in my foreground and move my attention to the background where there’s another musician more on-time (or with my time). I first wrote about this technique in my blog post Listening Over And From Afar, but it’s become even more vivid since then. Now I visualize my listening—like an easily thrown baseball arcing towards second base, or a sweetly struck seven iron cruising high before dropping softly on the green. When I listen over someone I listen to something else in the music to keep myself locked in. It’s the listening equivalent of throwing one’s ear from here to there, in a great trajectory. You could call it ventrilo-listening.

The second trick to keeping a steady timing is keying into the tempo of my hands so that I not only hear their time but acutely feel it. I suppose all drummers do that: drumming is a cadence, a rhythm of regularity, a study in steadiness. Ever watch the walk of a disturbed person as they move down the street? Their movement has no smoothness to it—it’s jerky, or oddly lurching, unstable and unmeasured. Their tempo is off. When my hands get into a flow they become like well-adjusted antennae, alert to any disturbances in the groove system. And as I said, at some point in the three minutes there will be a disturbance. 

Depending on the musicians playing on a particular night, the rhythmic disturbance may or may not be contagious. In my experience, novice musicians are more prone to being swayed, and when this happens the musical texture can quickly become unstable—a little like a disturbed person lurching down the street. I look forward to noticing the onset of this moment of instability, trying to track its dynamics while at the same time holding down my part. It reminds me of an exquisite line in Russell Hartenberger’s book about performing the music of Steve Reich. Hartenberger describes the feeling of being in the middle of a long rhythmic phasing section in which two drummed rhythms gradually go out of sync and create musical tension: “I sometimes stay in an irrational relationship for a while if I feel comfortable there” (97). At the show, the most common way a moment of instability plays out is that someone begins dragging the time and this causes other musicians to do the same. Maybe this happens because it’s natural for us to try to stay in sync with one another, as if to demonstrate our sense of empathy. My impulse is to immediately adjust myself to what I hear around me, but my experience with this repeating situation has changed me. Now I resist, sometimes quite forcibly. Like, I’m so over this.

It took me years to learn how to rhythmically resist and to know what this feels like. It can be hard going, because when you don’t go with someone else’s dragging time there’s an audible moment of rupture, where it becomes apparent that something is amiss. Through their playing, each musician is asking the same question and answering it: Whose time is the right time? Well, I think mine is! What is hard is maintaining one’s flow past the moment of rupture to the point that the other musician(s) wake up a bit to what is transpiring. Musical time is a constant negotiation that way, with each musician giving and taking, over and over again. Once you pass the moment of rupture—where two time senses are phasing by one another in the night—clarity follows: this is where the time is. It’s not perfect time, though. As I play, I listen to other musicians move in and out of my time, some of them more fluidly than others, and every movement around me affects my timing in small ways. Yet I keep insisting on my time, and by doing so give the other musicians something to push off of. Or maybe they’re not really listening. In any case, it works.

In contrast to rhythmically resisting and moments of rupture, there are, thankfully, occasional moments of super rhythm. Super rhythm happens when a musician is keyed into my time and all of a sudden our combined rhythm feels much more than the sum of our parts. There’s a genuine meta-groove interlock between us—our notes respond to one another and the time pushes and surges, almost rushing and always energized. Usually I start smiling when this happens, because it feels so easy to play under these conditions. I wish it happened more often.

2 thoughts on “Timing Techniques: Listening Over People, Rhythmically Resisting, And Super Rhythm

  1. Well said Tom, I totally relate to this. What’s awesome for the gyil part is that the conductor is not conducting the gyil. He/she is in a different meter (after trying to set the tempo at the top). That leaves our hands free to conduct the pulse for the orchestra, just as you describe. It is hard to find partners in groove in that piece. I lock best w the drummer on triangle, the most reliable comrade in groove. When I’m playing berimbau if course I lock w you. Most classically trained players get their beat visually not aurally, which is why they’re usually behind. This piece is like playing “telephone “ with the beat. The conductor getting the message from the gyil aurally (not always a strong suit) and then trying to pass it along visually (just not a good idea). But like you, I’ve come to enjoy the rhythmic looseness – probably expected by the arranger when putting different simultaneous time signatures. It’s exotic and unpredictable, rhythmic threads fraying in different places each performance. The other players should be listening to the primary source of pulse (all the time!) especially in this number, but that’s not how they make music. More than most other songs in the show, this one is like having a conversation among 24 people with different mother tongues.

    I like your article and your terms! Rock on! See you soon, Robert


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