There are few musical building blocks as foundational as time and rhythm. Mastery of each is critical to both giving polished-sounding performances and being a great ensemble player. Addressing such broad concerns can sometimes be intimidating, and leave one searching for a place from which to start, so I'm going to share a pair of my go-to approaches for making improvements in these areas.
While closely related, I approach time and rhythm separately.
To me, time is the overall sense of pulse, or how we feel beats and measures flow together. A passage that unintentionally slows down or speeds up as it's played is a classic symptom of a poor sense of time.
Rhythm refers to what happens within that sense of time, or how precisely the notes we play fit into the big picture. Four sixteenth notes that fit exactly into the space of a quarter note but are uneven relative to one another would be an example of a rhythmic problem.
Time and rhythm can affect each other, but being strong in one area does not necessarily equal strength in the other: a performance might convey a keen sense of pulse while feeling rhythmically lazy, or could feel precise rhythmically but suffer from instability overall.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the steps I most frequently take to hone my time and rhythm skills involve a metronome. A metronome is an invaluable tool, but only if used correctly. In order for metronome practice to be effective, the device must be used to check and calibrate your internal metronome, in the same way a tuner is used to calibrate your pitch. The idea is that by regularly comparing your pulse to the perfect pulse of the metronome, you'll be able to identify and correct the tendencies that cause problems. If the metronome simply replaces one's internal sense of time and rhythm during practice, it can be a waste of time at best and detrimental to one's development at worst.
1. Improving time by subtracting beats
If I'm seeking to solidify my sense of time in a given passage, my first step will be to set the metronome as it's normally used. For example, if I'm working on an excerpt that's marked at quarter note = 100 beats per minute, I'll set my metronome to beat those quarter notes and play the part. While I'm playing, I'm focusing on my internal subdivisions, and every time the metronome clicks, I'm evaluating how accurate my pulse is. I become conscious of spots that seem to consistently push ahead or fall behind. I'll repeat the same passage several times until I feel extremely comfortable that I can consistently repeat the passage with my sense of time firmly aligned with the metronome.
As is the case when practicing anything, the amount of progress you make will be relative to the standards you hold yourself to. Resist the temptation to "let things slide" in order to move through an exercise more quickly. The quality of your results will reflect the quality and consistency of your repetitions.
Next, I reduce the frequency of the metronome's clicks. Using the example above, I'd dial the metronome down to 50 bpm – every two beats – and repeat the excerpt as before. I'm just as attentive to how my own counting relates to the metronome, but now I'm doing a little more of the work on my own with fewer points of reference. Once I'm comfortable with this level, I'll move on to the next logical number of clicks, and so on. In audition preparation, I've often worked excerpts to the point where I can reliably play them with a metronome in the vicinity of around 10 bpm.
(Note: you'll need an electronic metronome or metronome app with a wide tempo range and/or an accent option if you're going to operate at these low speeds.)
If I find that locking in to the metronome with fewer clicks is quite challenging, I will revert back to the previous speed and double check that I'm being as precise as possible before continuing.
When reducing the metronome tempo, it's important that the location of the beats vary. For example, if the metronome is set to beat once in a bar of 4/4, it's best to change the beats on which it sounds periodically. If the metronome is only beating on the downbeats, it's possible that one could overlook time issues within the bar that cancel each other out and result in a “false positive” if one's pulse still lines up perfectly on beat one.
This process can be somewhat time-consuming but it takes a big issue and reduces it to a well-defined task with a clear goal, and provides a process by which progress can be easily measured. In my experience, the presence of these factors makes for effective, efficient, and productive practice.
2. Improving rhythm by adding beats
If we broaden our focus to look at time, we're going to narrow it to work on rhythm. The easiest way to put things under the microscope musically is to slow them down. To fix rhythmic issues, I reduce the tempo to a point where I can examine the placement of each note within a figure. Additionally, I add metronome beats to align with the smallest subdivision I need to play. If I'm working with sixteenth notes, that's what I'll have my metronome beating. By adding metronome subdivisions, we set up a grid on which each note can be precisely laid.
Problems often originate in thinking of and treating multi-note rhythmic figures as a group. Sometimes a figure (eg. two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note) gets practiced so much in context that it locks itself into muscle memory at certain tempos or with a specific phrasing, which reduces flexibility and precision. The key to improving rhythm is to slow these figures to the point where the individual gestures can be independently manipulated to suit the context.
Once I'm satisfied that I'm consistently achieving rhythmic precision, I gradually increase the tempo, maintaining my focus on accuracy. It may be necessary to reduce the metronome's subdivisions as the tempo increases – varying the placement of the click within the beat (eg. offbeats, the second sixteenth note, etc.) will be helpful in maintaining rhythmic integrity.
As I approach my target tempo, I usually devote some extra time to tempos slightly above and below it to make sure I'm flexible and adaptable if the tempo varies in performance.
If done diligently, this work will bring significant gains relatively quickly.
Metronome off, recorder on
The last step in any practice mini-project like these is to check your work. If playing with good time and rhythm is not reproducible without the aid of a metronome, it ultimately doesn't do much good. It's important to get accurate feedback, and for that I trust an audio recorder. If I've done the metronome work carefully, the playback usually confirms the improvement I've observed throughout the process. If it doesn't, I can identify specific trouble spots and isolate them using the same exercises.
Bonus practice tip
If you're like most musicians, you probably have a number of exercises that make up a regular warm-up routine. These could include scales, long tones, rhythmic drills, etudes, or anything else. There's no reason why an exercise for improving tone quality or intonation can't also be an opportunity to turn on your metronome and work on your sense of time. These extra hours spent with a metronome each week and will likely reduce the amount of time needed to address time and rhythm issues in other parts of your practicing.
Personally, I find it beneficial to do most of my warm-up routine with the metronome set to big beats (usually in the 40-60 bpm range). This forces me to be aware of and responsible for the time between those beats and fine-tune my sense of time, while still achieving the goal of the exercise. I also vary the tempo slightly from day to day with each exercise to avoid having it get locked in to a given tempo.
Occasionally, I've heard of a (non-percussion) teacher who discourages their students from practicing with a metronome too often, suggesting that it will inhibit their musicality and freedom. To me, this makes about as much sense as telling an aspiring stunt driver that they should never follow the rules of the road and avoid first mastering the basics of driving.
Improving your sense of time and rhythm can only be beneficial to your sense of pacing and to your ability to manipulate time in an organic and musical way. As your control increases, so will your musical freedom. Improving your command and understanding of time and rhythm means being a more reliable, flexible, and responsive musician – all characteristics that any musician would find desirable whether in an audition candidate or a colleague.