February 4, 2011

Wooten's metronome games

Philip Hii's been writing about rhythm a lot on his blog lately, and so I feel like it's a good time to work on my rhythm (it's always a good time to work on rhythm). I think I have pretty good rhythm, but I would rather leave no room for doubt about it.

I recently read Victor Wooten's excellent book "The Music Lesson" (thanks to Doug Young for the recommendation!) in which he discusses 10 fundamental aspects of musicianship in ways that I think are not often dealt with. He's a jazz bassist, of course, and the book is written somewhat from that perspective, but pretty much all of it applies in one way or another to any other kind of music and instrument. I'll write up a review of it at some point, but for now...

Victor Wooten offers some interesting exercises for working on rhythm in "The Music Lesson," and there's a nice video on Youtube where he demonstrates some of them.

Watch this:

Applying this to classical guitar

I've taken La Catedral: Allegro Solemne and prepared the following example. The accent marks show where the metronome should click in relation to the music. The first example is how I typically feel the piece; the next two are a bit harder and then the rest are even harder.

For each one, start by counting out loud so the click lines up with the right beat. Victor demonstrates in the video. For a lot of us that will be a great exercise in and of itself.

Once you get that going, start playing the example on the "one" and work on it until you are comfortable with the beat placement. Then, if you know the rest of the piece, continue on and see how far you can keep time with the metronome on that beat. Or, apply it to a piece that you do know.

If you can make it through the whole thing without losing the beat, I salute you!

The rest of us should persist with it until we can.

I can't yet get all the way through the piece this way, but after an hour of working this way, I found that I was playing with a rhythmic clarity that I hadn't realized I was lacking before. But I also found that I could play way faster than usual without any tension, and barely made any mistakes. In fact, I felt like the music was playing itself!

Why? As Victor says, when you work on this exercise, you're no long just playing along with the metronome. The rhythm has to come from within you. It's one thing to feel like you're playing in time, and another to know with absolute confidence that you are. The metronome will tell you.

I would be surprised if anyone who tries and sticks with these exercises doesn't have a similar result. It just makes sense to me... It IS a mentally taxing exercise, but it's aimed directly at improving the most fundamental of musical skills.

You might not like hearing this, but the more difficult and frustrating these exercises are for you, the more likely it is you really need them. The upside is, you will be really glad you did!

Also, feel free to start with simpler music, I just chose what I happened to be working on this morning.

Good luck!


  1. Great post. I'll have to check out Wooten's book. Jazz musicians are well-known for their rhythmic precision and it sounds like Wooten is no exception. This really takes rhythmic training to the next level. I think it expands on what I had to do at Berklee, tap my foot on the 2 and 4 instead of the usual 1234.

    Strange coincidence. I just worked on that same piece with a student. He was having trouble playing the sixteenths in time. What I suggested to him was to tap his foot on every eighth note and make sure that he played every sixteenth precisely, right on and off the beat. After a week of this, he came back and the sixteenths were absolutely perfect.

    I took a class with Gary Burton when I was at Berklee and he said something to the effect that every professional musician has to practice on his rhythm at some point in his training. And there's also the famous story about how Pat Metheny would leave the metronome on the whole day in his apartment, while he went about his business.

  2. I think that shifting the click to all the beats and off-beats helped me pay more attention to each of the notes. I was playing the beat steadily before, but now I am less likely to neglect any of the notes.

    I like the idea of using the metronome to keep you in check, but not just playing along with it. When I first started using a metronome, I found that I had to pretend that it was my playing that caused the click, rather than trying to follow it, that taught me how to play in time. But I think I ended up using it as a crutch.

    I spent some time the other day playing scales in 8th notes with the metronome clicking on a 16th between my 8ths. The urge to sync up with it was amazingly strong, but after a while I could hear the click as the upbeat and do it with no problem.

    Given how much better I sounded on Thursday than I did on Monday before I started this work, I am going to stick with it for a while. I understand your point about developing too mechanical a rhythm, but I think that's a fault of listening more than rhythm.

  3. Great post. I so need a metronome. Getting one on Monday! :)

  4. Rhythm is so important!
    Here's a great example (also showing unbelievable virtuosity):