Rhythm & Timing

If you want to become a good musician, it’s necessary to develop your ear for rhythm and timing. Musicians often have problems with their rhythm and timing because they don’t match the level of their skills with the complexity of composition they chose to play. If you fall in this category, here are some things you can do to improve.

  • Count out loud. Amazing Grace is written in ¾ time. In other words, when you play it, you will count 1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3 etc. But I have written a hammered dulcimer arrangement of that hymn in 4/4 time. Sometimes, even with all my experience, to git’er going in the new meter I need to count out loud: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.

  • Divide the beats. You may have noticed how I divided the beats on Amazing Grace above. What it means is that even if the beat is a simple “1, 2, 3, 4” you can count something like “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.” This represents dividing the beat in half. You can divide the beat into quarters by saying, “1 e and a, 2 e and a, 3 e and a, 4 e and a.” Or you might count triplets as “1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a”.

  • Use a metronome. You can Google a tune and find out what the proper BPM (beats per minute) should be. Then set up your metronome to that particular tempo and count along. If you can’t keep up, reduce the tempo on the metronome and try again. Keep on moving BPM on the metronome back to a slower tempo until you can play the tune accurately. Then gradually bring the tune back to the proper BPM.

  • Play with a backup track. If you tend to rush through the easy sections or slow down for the more challenging measures, play along with a backup track. This works the same as a metronome for keeping your timing accurate, but I think it’s more fun.

  • Record. Use your smart phone or tablet to record your playing with the metronome or backup track. Then play it back and see if you were playing in sync with your “assistant.” If you identify any sections where you’re not solidly on the beat, don’t ignore them! Go back and practice those sections in isolation.

  • Use body cues. Now put the metronome away, and play without a backup track. But tap your toe or nod your head to feel the tempo better. You have probably seen many professional musicians do this when performing live. It helps them keep a sense of accurate timing.

  • Focus on each hand alone. If you play mountain dulcimer, I recommend you start with the right hand to feel the strumming pattern. Then focus on the chords or melody patterns to be played with your left hand.   Most hammered dulcimer players are right-handed, so their left hand tends to be slower and less accurate. You may want to do some drills or technical exercises to strengthen the weaker hand, so it won’t cause you to fall behind. 

Final Thoughts

Rhythm and timing are so fundamental to music that they are skills you will be continually honing and developing as you improve as a musician. Always be aware of them when you are practicing your dulcimer.



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