How to keep to time playing piano/other musical instruments


When learning a piece of music do you get carried away in wanting to hear the finished product even if you’re only halfway through the work and can’t play it properly yet? If so, you probably alsp get either excited or impatient to move the music along. So you rush ahead and invariably feel tied down in keeping to time and playing the piece slowly.

The problem with this attitude is that is sows the seeds of bad habits, notably an inability to keep to time. When you play along with your teacher, friends, family or to a CD/tape, the risk is always that you run ahead of the music you play to. This creates chaos and ensures everything sounds off-kilter and the music is a mess. In these cases, what needs to be exercised are CDSC – Concentration, Discipline and Self Control.
Now if you’re put off by these last four words, don’t be! These are great qualities which can be integrated into your learning to help you play music in time. 

Time, speed and rhythm are essential in learning and playing any musical instrument. These are all important because what would seem like a bunch of notes to the listener, now becomes an understandable and identifiable tune. Time speed and rhythm act as the framework, the ‘skeleton’ if you like.
To get a sense of time and rhythm when playing a piece of music, you need to have/develop good hearing and a feel for beats and pulse. Some people say ‘I have no rhythm’ (mainly referring to dance) however, nearly everyone has the ability to nod their head to the beat of their favourite tune.
As an example, if you were to play your favourite song now and had to sing to it, you’d probably make a good go of copying the rhythm of the words so they fell on the right beats.
This same approach should be adopted for when playing an instrument. In the case of piano, it means transferring how you’d sing your song into how you’d play it on the keyboard.
The simple way to develop your rhythm is with simple clapping exercises.
First, get someone (friend, family, music teacher/tutor etc) to clap anything to begin with. Your aim is simply to copy the clapping. The more accurate you are, the more you’ll be able to copy rhythms you hear. Make sure they make their clapping progressively more advanced so you know at what stage you can still copy what you hear.
Get someone to play a rhythmic melody (piano or any other instrument will do) sand see if you can copy the rhythm played with clapping. Then respond but this time with playing your instrument instead.

1. Listen to your favourite piece of music and nod your head

This can be done by listening for the bass line (the lowest-sounding part of the music) which can be bass guitar, drums, or any other deep electronic beats/sounds underpinning the music. Start clapping or clicking your fingers. This is when you feel and ‘get’ the beat.

2. Get a metronome 

Listen to the particular ‘beeps’ (if electronic like the Qwik Time QT7, Boss DB60 Dr Beat or any Clip-On Digital metronome that will help you play in perfect time) or ‘click’/‘chimes’ (if a traditional pendulum-style one like a Wittner Classic). To begin with when listening, see if you can clap on those beeps/chimes only. After a while, test yourself by increasing the speed and see if you can still clap exactly at the time these sounds occur.  

3. Develop ear training and aural skills

Aural test CDs can help with this. Again, when playing the CD, you will have exercises for singing back a melody which will be sung in a certain rhythm. Sing it back exactly the same way, including the rhythm. For example, if I were to sing “Twiiii-nkle, Twiiii-nkle, Liiiii-tle Star”, then you would aim to sing it back the same way, e.g. slowly. An understanding of basic music theory helps as when playing, you can see if you’re holding notes for longer or shorter than necessary according to the time signature given at the start of the music.

When learning to play in time, start slowly so you can understand the concept of falling on the beat. If you have a metronome and set it at too fast a speed, you’ll simply learn bad habits, so make sure you can nod to the beep/chime/click etc as well as play to it.

4. Record yourself

You need to hear when you’re going out of time with the music you’re playing to. It could be a basic guitar riff or baseline or some simple chords played with your left hand. If you have lessons, get your teacher to record you while you play the music together. Make sure he/she doesn’t tell you if you’re out of time. After playing back you’ll soon know if you were in time with your teacher’s playing or not. 

When listening to your favourite music, try nodding to the beat, then clapping or clicking your fingers to time. Record yourself doing this then play back. What were the results? If you’re not sure, get someone with ‘better ears’ to comment and help out. Do regularly until you’ve developed an understanding of coming on time.

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