Basic Musicianship Pt. 2: Finding Your Rhythmic "Spider Sense"

I remember when I first started singing seriously, knowing when to sing challenged me far more than what to sing. This shortcoming became evident as I began making music with others. I was either behind or ahead of them. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out how to get in sync, let alone deal with the negative feelings that arose as a result.
It wasn't until I started vocalizing rhythms that things fell into place. Even though I had grown up in the Hindustani tradition, where reciting tabla rhythms with vocables is commonplace, this didn't dawn on me. It took going back to school for music in the US to bring me this way.
By intentionally vocalizing rhythms against a steady pulse - preferably a metronome, otherwise a steady drum track - I could suddenly hear the correct placement of the various notes. And I'm not just talking about with my ears. It was like developing a spider sense and having short-term prescience. I could suddenly see the correct timing before the moment arrived.
Only after the fact did I realize that vocalizing rhythms is how we measure music as it moves through time. In fact, we quantify every aspect of music. Just as we learn to measure musical pitches in solfege or write out chord charts to teach a song to our band effectively, rhythms need to be vocalized out loud to be truly internalized.
The good news is that you don't need to go to music school to do this. There are many resources out there on YouTube that can help you practice these skills. Here's how you get started:

  1. Look up the most common subdivisions - quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, as well as eighth and sixteenth note triplets.
  2. Then, as you get comfortable with them, move on to rhythmic figures, and use sight-reading exercise videos to say or clap/tap the rhythms along with the instructions on the screen.
  3. If you want to challenge yourself more, increase the BPM (beats per minute) of the metronome or use YouTube's video player controls to increase the speed of the videos.
  4. You can also challenge yourself by using both your hands and feet and singing!

Just remember to be intentional about it and engage your whole body. Even 5 to 10 minutes a day of this practice will go a long way toward ensuring you are on time, every time!

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