by Fran Merante
There has never been one student of mine that has accepted this concept without resistance. I have students that have been with me for years and still have a problem with it. They just don’t want to do it. What is the reason? After careful examination, I think I have found it. It is just easier not to count. I mean c’mon!!! You have to play with four way independence, establish a groove, play in time, with dynamics, and now count on top of it all?? It’s just too difficult to count. So the reason not to count becomes all the reason in the world why we should!! Let me explain. The reason counting out loud when we practice is so difficult is because it involves a great deal of focus and concentration. These are two key elements to develop if we want to master our instrument. It’s not easy mastering these two elements but lets be rational. I think it’s safe to say that any exercise or concept that has drastically improved your playing skills was probably not easy to do. However, after sticking with it and getting used to it, it has made you a much better player. So let’s count!
Our single most important role as drummers is to keep great time. Therefore, it is imperative that what we play as a groove or fill falls correctly against the time being stated. Counting out loud when we practice is one of the greatest tools we have to develop our abilities in this area. Before I explain why, I need to touch on my definition of "good time". Having good time is the ability to play a groove feel or pulse (whichever you prefer to call it) that feels good to everyone involved with it while it remains consistent throughout the tune. I hate to view good time as playing perfectly to a metronome. Although I recommend playing to a metronome to my students to start their development of good time, musicality and feel becomes an afterthought if we never stray from this as we progress. I do think it is important to practice to a metronome as long as you realize that it’s not the only step involved with developing good time. It is a great tool for making us aware of how much space is involved between beats at various tempi and to reference your playing to but it does not lend itself to the creation of "life" within the time that is stated for any given piece of music. This is the main reason why the lifeless drum machine never took the place of the drummer like everyone predicted it would when it arrived on the music scene. It can’t breathe. There is a tool however that will help you accomplish both good time and great feel. Your voice!!! Let’s play a groove and count with 16th note subdivision. 1 e an du 2 e an du… etc. You can hear perfectly if your note placement for each instrument being played is off by where it falls against the syllables being counted. The best part is that the time being established is provided by you and only you. Not by a machine. So how do you know what tempo you’re playing at?? Who cares?? The more important issues are: Does it groove? Does it swing? How does it feel? Use your metronome as a reference for your desired tempo. Listen for a few measures then turn it off. Feel what you are playing. Don’t let the machine tell you how to feel the music. If you do, you will end up like the machine. With no life to your "pocket"! I have never listened to a drummer and made a remark like, "Wow!! That guy’s groove at 120 beats per minute is great". Have you? I only ever talk about is pocket (where he feels and puts the groove against the time). How do you know if you’re speeding up or slowing down? The fact of the matter is, if you are playing without a click, your time could fluctuate. But again, who cares as long as it feels good!! Now I don’t mean to imply that if you are playing with a variance of 10 or more beats per minute within an exercise being practiced that this is ok!! It’s not!! But you would obviously recognize this if you were counting out loud by the mere sound of your voice speeding up and work to keep the speed more under control. Let’s put this into perspective. If you listen to a song that starts at 120 BPM and it fluctuates to 123 or 124 BPM, and you can tell the difference, don’t be a drummer!! Get a job with a circus freak show! You’ll make more money!!
Can you count to yourself? NO!! You need to have an audible reference for what you are playing so you can hear and notice obvious tempo change easier as well as if your notes are being placed on the right syllables or subdivisions of the beat. Your reference for time must be audible. If you were using a metronome as your reference source, would you set it on your desired tempo and then never turn it on?? No, you have to hear it to play to it!!
Counting out loud also improves your independence. Now, instead of concentrating on just 4 way independence, we need to concentrate on the voice as well. To get a full understanding of this concept, count quarter notes against a nice anticipated funk or Latin groove and you’ll see what I mean. To take full advantage of this concept, play all of your exercises count in with all the various subdivisions, quarters, 1,2,3,4… Eighths…1+2+3+4+ …and Sixteenths… 1 e an du 2 e an du …etc. Your awareness of the pulse that is the common thread that runs through any song which is usually the quarter note, will reach a new level!! You’ll now understand that it’s not the notes we can play that makes us great, but how these notes we are playing feel and fall against that pulse within the tune.
I can not stress enough how counting out loud will build you a solid internal time feel. You will establish your own personal consistent groove and feel that will become evident in everything you play. The sooner you utilize this concept, the sooner you’re "pocket" will arrive!! Just count out loud!!!