Have you ever tried to put together a cake without a recipe? I have. It wasn't pretty.
And now my six-year old daughter has also been initiated into the "I'm going to just wing it" school of baking with just about the same result. She was off to a great start - flour, sugar (of course!), fruit flavored water (creative!), milk, and I believe some mushed up strawberries but that was about it. No baking soda, no baking powder. When she was convinced that she was done the cake went into the oven and we waited, and waited, and waited. After about 5 hours of intense cake watching, my daughter decided it was as done as it was going to be and we pulled it out of it's misery. What we had was not a spongy, texturally decadent confection, it was a gooey, slimy, jiggly, shapeless, and pretty tasteless mass of creativity. But it was while trying to swallow a bite of my daughter's "cake" that I was struck with an analogy to music making.
Music without accurate rhythm or a steady pulse is like a cake without a recipe.
Crazy? Perhaps, but hang in there with me and I'll try to explain myself...
I play with a lot of musicians thanks to my profession as a piano collaborator and it has been surprising to me how often I encounter folks that don't really know what they're doing when it comes to rhythm. Sometimes it's just a few places here and there where I suspect they are completely guessing at what it's supposed to be, but other times it is quite apparent that the musician simply doesn't understand the mathematics that are behind the rhythm. It's almost as if they think that rhythm isn't something concrete but that like musicality, it can vary from person to person, or that it's negotiable. Now please understand that I'm not saying there isn't room for a little give and take, that rhythm can't be played with for expressive purposes. I'm not saying that it all. What I'm saying is that in order to play a piece of music in a way that will capture the audience and get those feet tapping, rhythm must be understood. It's like baking a cake. Just as you need so much baking soda, salt, and baking powder per every cup of flour, you need 6 eighth note pulses in a 6/8 measure...not 8, not 7 and-a-half. And if we don't follow the recipes, whether it be musical or culinary, what we end up with is a mess that most likely won't appeal to anybody.
I realize I'm being a little more confrontational than I usually am but it's because I think this is really, really important. And yes, I know rhythm can be hard. Yes, it takes time and discipline to sit down and figure out what those dots and bars mean. Yes, it sometimes takes clapping, walking or dancing to the music in order to internalize it and yes, it can be a pain, I realize. But rhythm can be conquered, I promise. And when the lightbulb clicks and suddenly rhythm is part of a young musician's life, wow, is it an awesome experience! Their ooey gooey musical mess suddenly puffs up with air and becomes...
|Image from Wikimedia Commons|
So let's pull out those cookbooks, measuring spoons, and conversion tables, and let's bake us some cakes...
And eat them too, of course!
Note: If anyone has any suggestions of ways that people can work on rhythm - websites, books, methods, etc...please feel free to share them here in the comments section! Many thanks.