As a saxophone player, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of using practice time to find the hippest licks, work on burning tempos, and exercise the altissimo chops. And sometimes it’s just as easy to forget that without playing with good time, none of the other elements that you’re practicing will come off as well.
When a drummer does something funny to the time, whether it’s as dramatic as a dropped beat, or as subtle as a bass drum that’s slightly late on an accent, the other musicians, and sometimes the audience, perceive this as the drummer not doing their job or holding up to their responsibility. But, if a horn player messes up the time in their solo, it’s often not seen as such a bad offense or as affecting the groove as much as when the drummer does it.
However, the rhythm, or groove of a song depends on everyone in the group being in sync and having good time shouldn’t be the responsibility of just one player. One of my old teachers once pointed out that when listening to Bird or Diz, you might occasionally hear a questionable note choice, but you never hear them mess up the time – that’s something we should all strive for.
About a year ago, I was frustrated with my time. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t really good either. When I studied with Dick Oatts, he told me that drummers enjoyed playing with him, and I figured that would be a great goal to set for myself. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how rhythm is felt and portrayed on the saxophone and how to make sure I’m playing with the best time that I can. My time certainly isn’t perfect, but I’ve made noticeable improvements by concentrating on some of the following areas.
Articulation isn’t always thought of as being a rhythmic concept, but having strong articulation can do a lot to affect how a rhythmic line is “portrayed.” By portrayed, I mean that technically, you may place the eighth notes in exactly the same spots regardless of the articulation, but adding the articulation can provide some key accents that serve as stronger markers for where the time is.
Try this as an example: put a metronome on at 120 bpm, and play a C major scale, going up and down as slurred eighth notes. Now, trying doing it again, but tongue each downbeat. Then, try it again using the standard “bebop” articulation of articulating offbeats. Lastly, try tonguing every note.
Even though you may have played the eighth notes right with the metronome each time, the rhythm of the scale has a different feeling based on the articulation. The slurred one feels more like it’s floating on top of the time. Tonguing on the downbeats makes the scale feel heavy. And, tonguing the offbeats gives the line a forward motion.
When playing jazz, whether playing written lines or soloing, these articulations can be extremely useful in portraying a certain rhythmic feeling. Oftentimes, it’s also important to use some of the expected articulations from the genre (like the aforementioned bebop articulation) in order to be stylistically appropriate. For saxophone specifically, I think that the Lennie Niehaus etude books are a great way to get this engrained in your playing. Unlike many written jazz charts, he specifically writes out each articulation as would be appropriate for the style. By reading and practicing the etudes, over time this articulation style will become a normal part of your vocabulary and you’ll find yourself playing with it in situations where the articulations are improvised.
Embouchure positions and styles go hand in hand with articulations. Not only can your embouchure effect the sound of your tongued articulation, but it can also effect the transition from note to note when slurring.
Play that slurred C major scale from above again and loosen your embouchure while dropping your jaw slightly. This usually has the effect of slightly smearing the notes together. Now, tighten up and bring your jaw back to its regular position. The notes should sound more separate and defined, though they’re still slurred. Even when tonguing notes, a change in embouchure position can affect the beginning and ending edges of notes and how they blend together. Both techniques have different effects on one’s perception of the line, as the smear can be useful for a gliss, or a floating feeling, while the defined notes give a more clear indication of exactly where each note is placed rhythmically.
Another area not always associated with time is breath support. In fact, at first glance, it’s hard to see what it has to do with time at all. But, the reality is that breath support has a lot to do with time on the saxophone, because it effects how quickly the notes speak from the instrument.
For example, you can have your fingers set on the keys and intend to play a low Bb right on a downbeat, but if your breath support isn’t ready, that note may speak slightly later than you expect, leaving you behind the beat. Using good breath support will lead to the notes over the full range of the saxophone speaking quickly, giving you a much better shot at being able to place them exactly where you want on or within a beat.
As most of you know, the metronome is the tool that we go to (or should be going to) to work on rhythm and time.
The most basic way to practice with a metronome, of course, is to set it so that it clicks on every beat. This provides a very clear foundation of time to practice with. But, it leaves little rhythmic responsibility to the player. Because each beat is dictated, you get a new chance to lock up with the metronome each time it clicks. Once you’re away from the incessantly-clicking metronome, though, you may find that without that guidance on each beat, your time isn’t as strong.
One common way to wean yourself away from the constantly-clicking metronome is to play with the metronome on every other beat. With jazz music, it’s often suggested to practice with the metronome clicking on just beats 2 and 4. Then, you have twice as long between the “reminders” that the metronome gives you about where the time is. More responsibility is on you as a player to keep the time going during the spaces and thus some issues like rushing or dragging become more apparent with the metronome set like that.
Of course, the next logical extension of that exercise would be to set the metronome so that it clicks on just one beat maybe just beat one or if you’re looking for more of a challenge, just the last beat of the measure. Dave Liebman has advocated practicing with the metronome just on the & of 4.
When I started concentrating most of my practice on rhythm, I decided that I wanted to spend a lot of time concentrating on metronome techniques like the ones just mentioned. The goal was to train myself to have good time and use the metronome clicks as more of a test to see if I was still with the beat, rather than as a conductor, telling me where each beat was.
Eventually, I decided that normal metronomes didn’t have enough features to really practice the way I wanted and I ended up developing an app for iOS called Metronomics. Metronomics has a ton of features devoted to this type of practicing.
For example, you can set the metronome to click for 2 bars and then be silent for 1, leaving all of the time responsibility to the player until the metronome comes back in. Also, you can set each subdivision to play only some of the time. For instance, you can set quarter notes to play a random 25% of the time. That means that in a bar of 4/4, only 25% of the quarter notes will provide an audible click. Metronomics also provides ways to practice even the most complicated rhythms, such as odd tuplet types (5/7, 21/5).
Check out the website for a list of more features and ideas for how to practice with it to improve your time.
As saxophone players, especially in a jazz setting, it’s important to have a good understanding of what the drummer is doing. When I lived in New York, I took some lessons with Bob Mintzer, and he would often get on my case about not knowing how to play drums.
While it’s not necessary to become a great drummer, sitting down a learning some of the basics about how a groove is put together, how a ride cymbal pattern feels, etc, can be a very useful tool for learning to sync up with a drummer when back at the saxophone. It can also be a useful way to diagnose your rhythmic feel without the saxophone. When you play quarter notes on the ride cymbal, are they steady? Do you have a tendency to rush or drag?
When I asked drummers what I should practice in order to try to start building an understanding of the drums, almost every drummer suggested getting a copy of Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer. Playing the exercises in this book using your left hand on the snare while playing a ride cymbal pattern in the right hand, 2 and 4 with the high hat with the left foot, and feathering 4 on the floor with your right foot on the bass drum (in other words, the standard swing groove) is great way to build some limb independence and start understanding how the different parts of the drums work together in the groove. Later on, John Riley’s The Art of Bop Drumming will provide a lot more information about the roll of the drumset in bebop and jazz situations.
As a side note, obviously on the saxophone, limb independence isn’t really an issue that we have to deal with. But, the mental exercise of dealing with independence will prove useful when playing saxophone and dealing with polyrhythms and rhythmic displacement that require the same type of thinking.
Practicing and perception
When concentrating practicing time and rhythms, don’t always trust your own ears while playing. Recording yourself practicing with a metronome, for example, can be a very useful self-diagnostic technique. You may find that when listening back your relationship to the beat isn’t what you thought it was while playing; maybe you have the tendency to stay slightly ahead of or behind the beat.
Also, ask other players about your time. Ask drummers if they feel like you are pushing or pulling in a certain direction. Ask the rest of the band whether your time is clear when you’re playing. You might get some useful insight that helps you lock up with them better.
Rhythm and time aren’t concepts that you’re either doing right or wrong. Just like most elements of music, they’re things that we can get better at with concentration and effort, but perfection isn’t possible. Whether your time is already strong, or whether it’s a weak point that you’re struggling with in your playing, the important thing is that enough attention is paid to make improvements over time.
Photo by jronaldlee