Welcome to Week #2 in the improvisation tip series. Starting this week, we’re going to discuss a few topics related to rhythm. In today’s music education, most people can agree that rhythm is one of the weakest areas for students. Today, I’m giving a “2 for 1” special on rhythm because I couldn’t decide which rhythm topic to start with! So let’s dive in….
#1: Beats 1 & 3. There’s so much to talk about with just this topic that I’ve decided my next book will be all about rhythm and this could easily be a chapter or two. In 4/4 time you have strong and weak beats (or tension and resolution). Beats 1 & 3 are the resolution and 2 & 4 are the tension (we clap on 2 & 4). The majority of harmonic changes happen on beats 1 & 3 (resolution). Melodically speaking, we want our lines to end on resolution (or targeted) points most of the time (unless you’re extending the line, etc). However, many struggling improvisors tend to start their melodic lines on beats that make their resolutions awkward. One way to resolve that problem is to feel 4/4 music in “half time” or by feeling the pulse on beats 1 & 3. This does two major things. First, it’s easier to conceive ideas at “slower” tempos. However, you will need to remember that while you’re feeling it slower…the changes are still going by at the normal rate. Secondly, by feeling beats 1 & 3…they give you great launching pads for your melodic line. Notice how many great lines you transcribe start on the “and of 1” or the “and of 3.” They also tend to make your line resolve in logical places. There’s more we can discuss on this, but I’ll save some of that for another week.
#2: Syncopation. When we hear the phrase jazz rhythm…the first word that should pop in to your mind should be-syncopation. Jazz is FULL of syncopation. It’s what gives the music it’s forward movement. I don’t know about you, but when I hear someone improvise, I want to hear more than just a string of eigth notes. Don’t get me wrong, continuous eighth note lines are important and every musician should be able to do them. However, they’re not the end all. If you look at a lot of the bebop heads that were written, very few of them were quarter notes and half-notes (like many of the American Songbook standards). They were full of syncopated rhythms (i.e. Confirmation, Donna Lee, etc). In an interview, Dizzy Gillespie was asked what he thinks about when he improvises and he said, “I fill my head with rhythm.” If you talk with those who were around Dizzy the most…they would tell you he filled his thought process with syncopation. For an exercise, take a song you know the most and forget about what you would do harmonically. Fill your head with jazz syncopation (if you need help, sing what a drummer would play or sing the rhythm to a bebop head). Keep that syncopation flowing in your mind and then start to improvise over the changes. For the first couple of times you will either revert back to your melodic sense (you stopped thinking the syncopation) or your lines will sound awkward and wont resolve in a logical manner. Don’t worry about it…because it’s an exercise. However, over time, the syncopated rhythms and your melodic sense will start working together and your lines will make sense and they’ll SWING.
Next week we’re going to continue on the topic of rhythm. Also, if you haven’t checked it out already, be sure to either click the link to your right or click below for more information about my book, “Targeting: Improvisation with Purpose.”