In 1997-98, I conducted a series of interviews with percussionists to discuss their thoughts on rhythm. The following is an excerpt from my interview with Alan Abel that took place on March 29, 1998 in Wynnewood, PA.
RH How did you develop an accurate sense of time?
AA When I was really young, we had one of the old Victrola wind-up type recorders, and my Mom had a big collection of Sousa marches. I was given a tin drum when I was three or four and I used to keep time, as they say, to these marches till I wore a hole in the drum. Of course, the marches had a good, solid steady pulse. I played along with these marches a lot so maybe that was one of my earliest experiences that gave me a solid sense of time. My Mom was a piano teacher and also did some vocal coaching, so I heard that music around the house, but it wasn’t what you would call real steady time because there was flow and push and pull with the rhythm and pulse.
I got started with the junior high band when I was in the fifth grade, and then I joined the high school band when I was in the seventh grade. Both of these experiences helped me follow the sense of time of a band. I did get some lessons from the high school students who were the juniors and seniors when I was a kid, and then I took lessons from other people in the Chicago area including Haskell Harr. I think the exposure to these various time frames of pulse played a strong part in developing an accurate sense of time.
I also think rudimental drumming, the marching, where you have a steady cadence, was extremely important. In those days they had contests – solo, ensemble and band contests – like they had for you in Oklahoma. I remember one year I was in seven different events and most of those activities involved rudimental playing where there was always a steady pulse. I didn’t use a metronome very much, although metronomes were around and being used by some people. For me, the metronome didn’t come into play very much until I was in college, and then it was not so much to develop steadiness as it was to get the tempo of a piece.
RH Did Haskell Harr play along with you in lessons?
AA Not excessively, as I remember.
RH Did he use a metronome in your lessons?
AA A little bit, but not a lot. Back then it might have taken a long time to develop a sense of time with a metronome, but now, with the advances in electronics such as Dr. Beat, it can be much more of a concentrated effort.
RH So you are a proponent of using a metronome?
AA Yes. I view the metronome not as a crutch, but as the sort of thing that is going to give you good time. As a percussionist, you are going to be following other people a lot, so you treat the metronome as the band or the orchestra. The metronome is absolutely steady, and this is what you have to go with. It is something to use until you can do it on your own.
RH What are other techniques you find useful in learning to play with good time, other than a metronome?
AA You need to discipline your hands so they do what the mind and ear say should be done, especially when you are playing mallet instruments with step-wise playing and leaps from one note to the next. This also goes for playing tom toms or timpani. It is a good idea to develop a good sense of time when you are stationary and your sticks are going up and down in the same spot, then you have to make sure it remains when you play on other instruments.
RH How about things like bodily movement such as foot tapping?
AA I definitely feel that the foot has to be a part of all this. You have to develop a sense of pulse going on in your body. It may be that the music is slow enough or obvious enough that you can stand in the orchestra and not tap your foot and be together with the other musicians, but anytime things get the slightest bit complex, my toe is going inside my shoe. It takes some time to develop the coordination so that the foot is regular and steady and is not interrupted by any physical things that go on in your hands. There are certain kinds of muscular independence that you have to work on until that is together, but the foot tap or toe movement is a stabilizing influence.
RH What other things do you find helpful in developing a good sense of time?
AA Once you have learned to play metronomically all the subdivisions – eighth notes, sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes, and what have you – you may want to stylize the time feel. For example, in jazz you might not play triplets in a precise subdivision. In rudimental fife and drum playing there is a certain kind of stylizing with elongated rolls and embellishments that happens between beats that distort the metronomic subdivision, even though you still try to place the pulses exactly where they would be metronomically. In these cases, and in many others, the pulse remains constant but the subdivision is adjusted for stylization.
RH So the spacing of attacks becomes significant.
AA Yes, and then there are other times when there are accelerandos or rallentandos in the music, or times when you want to phrase. You phrase not only by using dynamic shadings but also by pushing ahead or pulling back on the beat. That is especially necessary if you are trying to be expressive with slower pulses and slow movements of pieces.
RH Do you think some people have a natural sense of good time and others don’t, or do you think it can be developed in anyone?
AA I think it can be developed to a point in anyone. Sometimes that sense of time is distorted when they don’t have good hand co-ordination. Often when you have a weak hand and are trying to play sixteenth notes, the strong hand will be right where it belongs, and the weak hand will be trying to get in too close to the strong hand instead of spacing it exactly in between. There could be people who just have a much better sense of time than others, but it is all affected by one’s hand control.
RH When you are playing rhythms, do you think it is necessary to fill in the spaces with either a ghost stroke or some kind of pulsation in your mind to play the rhythms accurately?
AA I am a little nervous about putting too many things in there or thinking about too much because it tends to clutter and get in the way. I am better off with an outline. If you are playing with an orchestra, you can’t listen to every one of a hundred musicians and be together, you have to pick out where the lead is. You need to have a sense of triage – you can’t do everything, but you have to do what is most necessary. The more complex the music gets, the more you have to latch onto the right outline and then go with that. If you try to analyze every detail, you get bogged down and you are going to fail.
RH That’s a good metaphor; I like that. Have you ever tried to hear the spaces between the beats as a rhythm itself, as a kind of counter rhythm to the rhythm that you are playing?
AA Yes, when I practice, but when you are doing it in a performance it could be confusing.
RH Do you think the western vocabulary for rhythm is adequate to talk about the things that need to be discussed in relation to rhythm? Are the words specific enough to discuss what is important in relation to rhythm?
AA With the vocabulary I am involved with in symphony orchestra music, these terms help me understand things enough. Musicians from another culture may find other terms that are better for them.
RH Why do you think we feel music in 8-bar phrases rather than 5-bar, 10-bar, or some other length phrase?
AA Because we have heard so much music in 8-bar phrases and we have grown used to it. There are some cultures where 5s and 10s and other things are part of their music and the feeling is very natural to them. They may have a difficult time writing it down in our notation system.
RH Do you think that in our ancient folk music eight-bar phrases were the norm and that transferred into classical music?
AA Yes, but it is not that far removed from the present day. Bartók used Hungarian and Romanian folk songs in his compositions that have many different time signatures. I’m sure that the people who learned to do this by rote would be confused if they were to see it on paper and try to reproduce it.
RH Do you think all rhythms can be reduced to groups of 2 and 3 if you are analyzing rhythms and breaking it down into its constituent components?
AA Dangerous. If you are dealing with 5s and 7s and 9s and you start to break it down into 2s and 3s strung together, it gets too pulse-like. If you bracket patterns together with 2s and 3s with beams over the top, it is natural to give a light accent or light pulse on the beginning of each group.
RH So you think it might be better just to learn to feel groupings of 5 or 7?
AA I think the 2 and 3 thing needs to be taken as far as you want to go with it, but then you need to release yourself from those constraints when you are playing 5s, 7s, and other longer groupings.
RH When playing groups of 5 in orchestra music, you feel it just as 5 and not as a subdivision of 2s and 3s?
AA Right. And, of course, it depends on the situation.
RH What are some of the techniques you use in teaching to enable students to feel rhythms?
AA I take fairly basic rhythmic patterns and make sure the student can play them at a mezzo forte dynamic and a medium speed, then I have them play at much slower and much faster speeds. Then I have them play all the different dynamic levels because the feel and the hand control it takes to play them at various dynamics is very different. If you only practice at a mezzo forte level and a medium speed, which is what most people tend to do, you won’t know what to do when you play in a real situation because you haven’t practiced it and you don’t know what to do. It is important to take basic things and stretch them out dynamically and speed wise both ways.
RH Are there any particular rhythms that fascinate you?
AA I try not to think that way.
AA Because I have been trained to reproduce what’s on the page. It is like people who ask me, “Who is your favorite conductor?” or “What is your favorite piece?” If you are trying to be professional, you do everything in your power not to come to those conclusions. At least I do.
RH Are there any areas of rhythm that you wonder about?
AA I find it interesting that duple rhythms are generally easier to play than rhythms with a triple base. The triple background is more complex and less easy for people to deal with.
RH Is that because of the predominance of duple-based rhythms in Western music?
AA Yes, that’s a Western music perspective that I have noticed with students. Triple patterns and the subdivision of these patterns give most orchestra musicians more trouble; they don’t encounter them as much, so they find them harder to play.
RH Do you think this is a matter of training and not a natural phenomenon?
AA Yes, it’s probably a combination of training and that it is more complex and takes longer to feel comfortable with it. Or maybe it’s just harder.