I had an interesting experience with time today. We had a Dark Follies Not Just Rhythm Orchestra band practice this evening, outdoors in a lovely grassy park near the ocean. The group was working on learning a new song, and the drummers were asked to hold the beat while the guitar, violin, and accordion players figured out the melody and how it all comes together. It was a fairly simple beat pattern, one that we use for another tune, yet they wanted us to play it more slowly. This was surprisingly difficult!
I’ve been complimented by other musicians on my ability to “keep good time,” which has seemed like sort of a cheat as it’s something that came naturally, and also because I’m so new at this whole musician thing that I don’t know if it’s even true. For me, time and rhythm shows up as a feeling in my body (which does include my head, but not just in my mind, if that makes sense). I could tell that I was speeding up the pattern, and it felt like my hands just wanted to play it at the tempo we normally use. Yet if I slowed down on purpose, it sounded wrong or off or something.
When I expressed how hard it was to keep the riff slower, our music director nodded and laughed, like he’d been there before. Then he pulled out his phone and started up a metronome. I’d never played with one, but soon figured it out. What a revelation! Obviously, it kept me (and the other drummers) to a steady tempo. But the really interesting part was how it illustrated so clearly the subjective experience we each have with time.
Sometimes it felt like the tempo of the metronome was changing, like it had slowed down. It hadn’t. Why did it seem that way, then? Maybe because of something I was hearing in the rest of the tune being played all around me. Perhaps my mind wandered off (a sample: “Wow, this metronome thing is so cool! It would be great to use in yoga, when I’m counting breaths in a longer hold…I wonder how variable each breath is, really; I mean, it works out to six deep breaths being about a minute, but perhaps that’s just an average, blah blah blah…”). For whatever reason, I occasionally became distracted from the groove.
Now bear with me here, as I try to draw some parallels to life in general. When we’re in the groove, feeling our own rhythms in tune with those of nature and the world as a whole, we cruise along, keeping good time. Yet when we get distracted, perhaps by those around us (the other musicians), or even by our own stories (mental chatter), we fall off the beat. Our timing isn’t spot-on. And I’m not saying it always has to be. In life, as in the most creative musical collaborations, we can mess around with our own riffs and then merge back into the stream of shared time. The metronome is a guideline, not a law. In one of our other tunes, I was told I was holding too firmly to the beat, and not letting it “swing.” And I could, on reflection, feel what they meant.
Perhaps keeping good time has to do with knowing when to hold the line and when to go with the flow, feeling your way along so that you know when you’ve fallen out of sync. It also takes a lot of practice, so you can, as our director says, “internalize” the rhythms. Much like life.