I believe that “rhythm is a muscle” and it is possible to perform “rhythmic weight lifting” in order to strengthen this muscle. There are many aspects to improving rhythm: strengthening beat and subdivision; learning to avoid “rhythm traps” – transitions where you might unintentionally speed up or slow down; practicing odd meters; learning about the “Three P’s”: polyrhythms, permutations, and partitions; practicing “time feel” – how you can push or lay back to influence the feel of the groove. Over the years I have gathered together approaches to improving rhythm that you might not find in a typical conservatory setting; these ideas come from studying with drummers in non-Western traditions, drum set players, and from experimenting on the job playing with a symphonic orchestra or small combos. I would like to share these ideas with you.
Here are some introductory exercises for you to strengthen your beat and subdivisions. This download contains the exercises in western music notation.
This first exercise uses South Indian drum syllables called “Solkattu”, which I learned from my teacher Sangita Kalanidhi Dr. Trichy Sankaran.
Traditional “Solkattu” Exercise in Adi Tala (8 counts)
The purpose of this exercise is to strengthen your sense of the beat and the pulse subdivisions within the beat. Start with a metronome 60 – 80 bpm. Clap the eight beat Adi Tala (the most common South Indian rhythmic framework or “meter”):
X = Clap, O = Wave (back of hand), I = finger counts (start w/ pinkie, then ring finger, then middle finger)
Adi Tala: X I I I X O X O
On top of this vocalize the drum syllables: “TA KA DI MI TA KA JO NU”
While keeping the tala clapping constant, you can practice vocalizing the syllables at three speeds: 1 -1 relationship (quarters), 2 – 1 relationship (eighths), or 3 – 1 relationship (16ths). We can also say “slow” speed, “medium” speed, and “fast” speed. Be careful when you are doubling the speed, this is a possible “rhythm trap” where you might unintentionally speed up. One remedy is to already feel the faster subdivisions before you transition.
Glen Velez Inspired Stepping Exercise
This next exercise was inspired by another of my teachers Glen Velez, frame drummer extraordinaire.
Glen was a big exponent of stepping, vocalizing, and playing the frame drum – all at the same time! He felt that rhythmic training that incorporated more lower body movement increased rhythmic awareness – it helped to ground everything else.
So we can step lightly to the metronome, vocalize our TA KA DI MI’s at the “fast” speed (16th notes), and then practice clapping on different syllables to explore the various parts of the beat.
- Clapping on TA: This coincides with the step itself and should feel very grounded, with the most weight. Some people call this the “downbeat”.
- Clapping on DI: This coincides with the mid point between the steps and should feel very light, almost weightless; it’s the point where you shift your weight and you start to descend to the next step. Some people call this the “upbeat”.
- Clapping on the MI: This is the part of the beat immediately leading to the “downbeat” and should feel like gathering momentum, being pulled by the gravity of the “downbeat”.
- Clapping on the KA: This note happens immediately after the “downbeat” and feels like it needs the most energy to pull yourself into the air away from gravity. It’s also as if you’re helping a bouncing ball lift into the air. It can feel very sudden, like a tap to the forehead.
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