Experiment #1 – Cartoon Gravity
I struggle with time and feel. I have a few theories about why this is, but it really doesn’t matter. Humans in general are naturally bad at time. Good musicians are not. Nothing tips my hand in a room full of “real” musicians quite as badly as my shaky time and rushy feel.
I didn’t always know this was the case, but now that I’m aware of it, it’s become my absolute #1 priority. Charlie Hunter once said that if your time isn’t absolutely on, you’re a burden to anyone you share a stage with.
So, to all the fine musicians I’ve played with over the years: I’m sorry.
Rubber Band Time
I’ve taken some lessons with great teachers. To a one, they’ve all been excited to have a dedicated, semi-talented student. So much so that not one of them mentioned to me that my time sucked.
I’ve played with some really phenomenal musicians, and only once has someone pointed out to me that I was ahead of the beat. I guess humans, in addition to being bad at time, are also reluctant to tell a friend that they suck.
Combine all of this with the fact that a) I mostly play solo and b) I’m mostly self-taught, and you get a guy with rubber band time. I speed up and slow down without any control, and what’s worse, I have almost no awareness of it.
But after a whole lot of ignorant struggling, I’ve found what (I think) is the best way to fix my time problem.
Introducing: Cartoon Gravity
This drill is named after cartoon characters that run off of cliffs, but somehow defy gravity until they realize they’re no longer on solid ground.
The basic idea is to play along with a click that periodically disappears & reappears (in time of course). So maybe 3 bars of click, followed by 1 bar of silence, repeated over and over.
After that’s no longer difficult, maybe 2 bars of click and 2 bars of silence. Expert level: 1 bar of click and 3 bars of silence.
I’m going to do one hour of Cartoon Gravity drills, each day for 39 days, different tempo each day.
Broken down as follows:
- 10m of eighth notes w/ 3 on-1 off
- 10m of quarter notes w/ 3 on-1 off
- 10m of eighths w/ 2 on-2 off
- 10m of quarters w/ 2 on-2 off
- 10m of eights w/ 1 on-3 off
- 10m of quarters w/ 1 on-3 off
A few comments:
- The first set of eighths I’ll be doing with my favorite warm-up exercise. I like to practice in the mornings, and especially as we move into the cooler fall weather, my hands aren’t particularly keen to obey orders right out of the gate.
- I start with eighths and move to quarters because, at least at reasonable tempos, playing slowly is actually harder. As I move into some faster tempos, I might reverse the order.
- I’m doing 39 days because there are 39 tempos on the face of an old school metronome. I’m starting in the middle (with 92 bpm), and moving outward. 92, then 88, then 96, then 84, then 100, etc. My guess is that 40 will be way way harder than 208.
Obviously I’m doing this in the hopes that it will improve my overall sense of time & rhythm. I’m fairly decent with a click now, but take it away and not only do I get all shaky, I don’t really notice it when I do. In theory, this should fix that.
I think this exercise will strengthen my internal clock, give me a much more solid & grooving sound, pave the way for getting the jazz feel happening in the future, and perhaps most importantly, relieve my friends & bandmates of the burden of hearing my errant timing every night.
If you’d like to set up your own Cartoon Gravity playground, here’s three different ways to do so.
The first and easiest way is to get the iOS app Timing Trainer. It’s not over-the-top amazing, but the ad-supported version is free and the Pro version is cheap (currently $3). If anyone knows if there’s an Android version of this, please let us know in the comments.
The second way to do this is to use my absolute favorite metronome, Tempo Advance (iOS/Android).
- Create a new setlist. Name it Cartoon Gravity. Set it to loop.
- Set the tempo.
- Press and hold the infinity symbol for the bar ticker menu. Tell it to count for 12 bars (really that’s 3 bars – 12 beats/4 beats per bar).
- Save it. Name it On.
- Now cycle through the click sounds until you get to the silent one.
- Pull up the bar ticker menu and set it to count for 4 bars (beats).
- Save it. Name it Off.
- Make sure that Auto Advance Setlist is enabled in the settings menu.
- When you want to change tempos, you’ll have to change it in both On and Off, and save using Overwrite Current Song.
The third way is to use your DAW. I’ve really grown to love practicing inside of Logic. This takes a bit more effort to set up, but it’s the easiest to use once you do.
I’m going to give the steps in a generic way so that you can use whatever DAW you’re running. If you have Logic or Garageband, you can just download the files I made for you.
- Make a new project. Name it Cartoon Gravity.
- Set the tempo. Turn the loop function on & set it to 4 bars if it isn’t already.
- Create a new track – you want a software instrument.
- It’ll probably come up as a piano. Change that to a drum kit.
- Bring up musical typing. Find a drum sound to use for your click. I use a side stick on the snare.
- Hit record and play your 3 bars of click, 1 bar of rest.
- Your timing here is probably shaky, so pull up piano roll (or whatever it’s called on your DAW). Select all, then quantize to quarter note. This should get all your clicks perfectly lined up with the beat.
- Create another track, bring up that drum sound, record 2 bars of click + 2 bars of rest, select all, quantize to quarter.
- Do step 8 again for 1 bar of click + 3 bars of rest.
- Mute all the tracks except the one you’re using.