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Being on Time

By David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

There are about 1,000 drummer jokes; my hope is this post doesn't fall into too many of them.

As a percussionist, I just might have an obsession with music being on beat and steady. I notice this obsession when I'm performing or practicing but especially when I'm teaching individuals or classes. There are several resources to get my students to coordinate to a steady beat.

www.metronomeonline.com  is the first place I send students. It's simple to use (if  featureless) and free, which means it is instantly accessible. Also there are several fine metronome apps for iPhone and iPad.

However, the idea of "practicing with a metronome" often strikes fear (or loathing) into anybody who practices an instrument. We all know it's good for us, but usually get annoyed when it constantly points out our rhythmic faults. Arguments about students becoming reliant on and using metronomes as a crutch aside, I think all musicians needs to entrain to a reliably steady beat more often. 

But the sound of the metronome is not a particularly rich musical source. Reliable: yes, boring: also yes. A former teacher of mine referred to metronome practice as "playing with another musician who is really consistent but boring."

In other words the sound doesn't have much musical fiber. Also, studies in music cognition have shown that using synthesized musical stimuli (ex. sine waves) in studies aren't processed the same way by the brain as the real deal. Maybe its the same for metronomes too, I'd be interested to see some research. 

So with those ideas in mind and after noticing some of my students unsuccessfully entrain with a metronome, I started hunting for alternatives that were both reliable and musical. The most obvious choice was actual recorded music including things like Aebersold play alongs.  But sometimes actual music is too rich in content and can be distracting or disruptive to students; or maybe you just don't want to deal with the form of the song.  I then began looking for sound sources that fell in that goldilocks zone between too boring and too interesting.  

I began creating tracks with loops using Garageband and exporting them as mp3s.  I could alter the tempo just like a metronome and include just the right amount of musical content without going overboard.  As songs they are repetitive, but as steady beat sources they are reliable and interesting.  I paste the tracks into students Evernote (Garageband loops are royalty free) as mp3's or direct them to my Vimeo album where I have about 30 mp3's loaded up as movies. This way they get to pick a track they like. Here is an example.  

I wish this was the perfect solution, but these tracks didn't always do the trick. Sometimes they were too fast or too slow or just had the wrong feel or style.  Basically I needed a way to instantly create customized tracks that wouldn't interrupt the flow of the class or lesson.  

Maybe it was for the student who needed to hear how a drum groove went (I often teach drum set with only one instrument) or a general music class that needed a little encouragement that their four note recorder song was funkier than they thought.

The Garageband app for iPad has some drum machine-like features but still didn't give me the control I was looking for. The solution was Hydrogen Drum Machine. It is free, open source, and works on Macs, PCs, and machines that run linux (no iPad app though).

I've used Hydrogen during lessons as a live metronome (more on that later) and in group settings to show how three or four rhythms might fit together when played correctly.  The program takes just a second to figure out and is infinitely adjustable: Quarter note = 400? No problem. Groove in 15/16? No problem. Using your students voice as the metronome sound? No Problem (more on that later).

Here is a short video that introduces what drum machines are and shows how to get around Hydrogen:



Photo Credit: Metronome Nikko.jpg by Vincent Quach CC-BY-SA 3.0

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