September 07, 2003

#60: Teaching basic timing

Roger on the acutab list wrote:

I will be working with a student tonight who has learned all the rolls and he has cripple creek and a few other tunes down fairly good, I'm having a hard time getting him to hear the rhythm and timing. That is something that is hard to learn if you don't hear it. I have tried chopping the rhythm while he plays and gave him recordings of me playing it real slow to chop and play to but still working on it, any suggestions?

I think the answer is to play along with real music that is done correctly. The ideal thing is to have a recording of the song, at a workable speed for the student, like maybe as low as 70 bpm. If the student just keeps playing along with it, they have to get the timing after a while. If a student isn't getting it, I'd turn the recording up louder.

Recordings like these are hard to come by. In the last couple of years I've done DVDs/videos providing slow versions of well-known songs. There's not much else currently available. I'm not speaking of the *banjo* playing the songs, I'm talking about rhythm tracks with singing, for the banjo to play along with.

Since there isn't much available, rather than try to create slow rhythm tracks for all songs, I decided to *teach* people to make rhythm tracks. They can do that for any song they choose (like band in a box, but sounds better). I do this at every basic banjo camp I present, and I oversee not only the tracks being recorded, but also making sure people can play along with them. On the recording, they either chunk or strum chords (about 70-80 bpm), and sing or at least say, the words, along with the chording. Most people will learn to do this right after a set of tries or two, and then they can play along.

Among other things, making this tape forces them to play rhythm behind a song. That is a good skill to check a player on. If they can't do that, then what are they doing learning to pick leads? The teacher needs to be sure they can do that. After that, playing with the recording by rolling along and just staying with the chord changes, is another important skill to solidify. By then, getting the sense of the rhythmic demands of the lead break should be a lot easier.

Re the metronome, most timing problems are not a matter of important slow-downs or speed-ups. They are when stumbles or uncertainties happen and the picker goes on without regard to the beat, and especially they are when a person doesn't realize he/she has added, or left out, some notes or spaces. In that case, a metronome doesn't help nearly as much as a recording of someone singing/saying the song (note that I'm talking about songs, not instrumentals) in correct timing.

Now, if the person has trouble singing and chording in time, then I recommend the metronome. Each strum goes on a metronome click. That works well. Then ... can they keep that timing while changing chords and singing/humming/saying the words?

I feel this set of steps is a fail-proof method if the student is willing to do the work.

The entire method is spelled out on a two-page sheet I distribute to my banjo campers. It's also available to print out from my web site, JUST CLICK HERE (also can click to Teaching Beginners article Rob mentioned). I am happy to offer these articles as a public banjo service. I love it when it helps someone start to really play and jam with other people!

Pete Wernick