5 Skills You Won’t Learn in School, Skill Three: The Secret to Great Time

Ever feel like something is missing from your solos? You spend hours learning tunes and transcribing solos from your favorite recordings, you’ve memorized the chord progressions and diligently practiced the tricky fingerings, but when you listen back something is off. And it’s frustrating because you can’t quite place your finger on the problem…

You’re playing the same songs, the same chords, and even the same notes, yet that player on the recording sounds shockingly better.

Each musical phrase is confident, each note makes you tap your foot, however your own playing sounds flat and unexciting.

The problem isn’t your grasp of music theory, it isn’t your note choices, and it’s not your sound. So what is it?

The culprit is your time.

One of the most ignored aspects of musicianship, especially for struggling improvisers, is what we call “time” – swinging, rhythmic feel, and groove. In fact, the core of modern jazz education is centered around an intellectual approach to harmony – scales, chords, and harmonic progressions…

Thelonious Monk quote

All of those classes and lessons essentially teach you how to count. You play four beats in a measure, you learn about dividing each bar into quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, 16th’s…

But improvising isn’t just about playing the right notes at the right time, it’s about sharing a message, telling a story through music. To do this you need to develop the rhythmic element of your playing.

However, time often gets overlooked because unlike harmony, it’s hard to place into words or diagrams. You have to feel it, you have to absorb it from the recordings. Below we’ll show you how to develop great time in your playing.

So let’s dig in deeper…

Why is time important for you?

Just like your sound or your note choices, the way you place your notes and shape your phrases is unique to you.

Musical elements like rhythm and phrasing and swinging come from that voice inside of you.

You see, time can’t come from an external source and it’s not a mental exercise, it’s a physical one that you feel.

…and it’s something that your listeners will feel in your playing.

The control you have over time reflects how much you’ve listened, how much time you’ve spent playing with a drummer, and how much experience you have performing with other players.

Time makes your music listenable, it makes people tap their feet and dance.

And this is something that the best improvisers have put a lot of time and effort into mastering. For instance, listen to Michael Brecker as he talks about time in the video below (5:15):

“For me, I think the most important thing is time. Without that it doesn’t matter what notes you play…If I’m not somehow really connected in a meaningful way to what is happening in the rhythm section, it really is pointless.”~Michael Brecker

The subject of time and rhythm often gets a back seat in the classroom, however it requires as much focused study as any other aspect of your playing. The truth is, you can play all the “right” notes in your solo, but if there is no rhythmic definition, groove or connection to the time it won’t matter one bit.

So how do you develop great time?

The 4 Keys to great time

1. Internalizing Time

The first element of developing great time is nurturing an internal sense of time. You need to have an acute awareness of time and rhythm in everything that you practice or play.

Here are some exercises that will help you internalize time:

  • Start by listening to recordings and focus intently on the time. Notice how these players utilize different accents and rhythms, 8th notes, triplets, 16th’s, odd meters, and rhythmic freedom
  • As you listen, tap on 2+4, clap on 4, tap every beat
  • Try singing a simple melody and clapping on 2+4
  • Incorporate a metronome into your practice routine
  • Learn to hear the metronome on 2+4 then play a melody as you feel the metronome on beats 2+4
  • Turn on the metronome and subdivide the beat into 8th’s, eighth note triplets, 16th’s, quarter note triplets, 5 over 4, 7 over 4.

Remember, the metronome serves to give you an awareness of the time, but a true mastery of time comes from inside.

2.  Articulation and technique

This second element of time often goes unnoticed. Your technique and the way you articulate notes directly affects your the feel and swing of your lines.

The way you press a key, the way you use your air, the way you pluck a string…

Every aspect of your instrumental technique contributes to the time. Think of it like this: Sloppy technique, sloppy time.

And for a wind player, your fingers have to line up with your tongue. Here are 3 articulation tips for horn players.

Every player should practice scales with different accents and articulations along with the metronome. Check out how Wynton Marsalis combines articulation and rhythm in this video:

3. Concept of swing

The next element of time for an improviser is harder to define with words: swinging.

But like any artistic concept, you must immerse yourself in great work to find the answer. As a musician this means listen to great players and groups. Specifically listen to how they approach time, where they place eighth notes, where they place accents…

Imitate the time and swing feel of your favorite players as Chick Corea states in this video:

As you listen, notice how time is fluid, some soloists are laid back, some on top of the beat. Where an eighth note is placed in a measure is not defined, it’s personal.

And every great player has a different concept of swing. Compare the time and swing feel of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, the touch of McCoy, Herbie, Mulgrew…

All different approaches to time, yet all correct in their own way.

Check your own time by recording yourself frequently.

4. Phrasing

Improvising is like telling a story.

And the sentences in this story are your phrases.

You wouldn’t want to listen to a story where the words and sentences run together, just like you wouldn’t want to listen to a solo without phrasing. Great stories present ideas that draw you in and lead you through a logical sequence of events.

One idea…

…leads to another idea.

And it all makes sense.

Brad Mehldau on Jazz Phrasing

Don’t just plug scales into chords in your solos, aim to make a musical statement that you develop.

Check out these articles for more on jazz phrasing:

Time is personal

Your time reveals your connection to the music, your connection to the players around you and to the people listening to you perform.

A solo with bad time is as abrasive to the listener as a bad note choice, this is why time merits as much study as the harmonic elements of music.

You develop great time in the same way that you learn how to play the blues, learn a new tune, or transcribe a solo. Absorb this music with your ears because no amount of words can describe what you’ll notice the second you turn on a recording of a great player.

And listen to great players like Chris Potter on what it takes to develop and practice time:

“Playing drums, listening carefully to your favorite recordings from a purely rhythmic standpoint, tapping rhythms and having rhythms in your head all day long, etc. Also, practicing with a metronome of course. Rhythm is a very deep subject, I feel like I learn something new about it every time I play, and I learn a great deal about rhythm from every great musician I’ve ever played with, on any instrument, it’s such a personal thing.”

It’s been stated throughout the years in many different ways, yet the fact remains that every great musician has devoted serious practice to developing great time…and you should too.

Good luck and stay tuned for Part 4 in our series The 5 Skills You Won’t Learn in School coming soon…

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