Studying and teaching rhythm over the years has helped me see that rhythm is a part of most activities, if not in some way metaphorically or literally all. Its application can be quite tangible, but looking at it can be very abstract and confusing to the student. This is why I’ve always enjoyed seeking out new and interesting analogies to present to students when looking for ways to express the subtleties of rhythm. With one of my current adult students we are working through how to relax our time, as it is coming across very stiffly and uncomfortably. He is a jogger, so we took the time to look at jogging. Since this is an activity most of us are at least somewhat familiar with, for a moment imagine a few different scenarios:
1. You take the time to stretch your body, you feel warm and loose, and begin to jog.
2. As stiffly as possible, you try to move at a similar speed to the jog, but instead marching with your arms rigidly by your side.
3. Perhaps inhibited by alcohol, blindfolded, or as if in a dream, you are jogging barefoot on the sand of soft rolling hills.
Now consider for a moment that in each of these examples we are moving at the exact same speed. But the feeling of that movement is very different in each example. We can use this as an analogy for the expression of rhythm. Our first example is generally my target feeling for my students to acquire. The second example is a great way to demonstrate what stiff playing sounds like through the analogy of feeling. The third example is perhaps an opposite analogy for what we might sound or feel like when our sense of rhythm is unhinged and we are playing sloppily.
So back to the aforementioned student, what we are attempting to do is learn an unfamiliar and less tangible concept through something familiar and physically understood by the body, as well as conceptually easy to grasp. We know that a stiff body can make jogging uncomfortable. When the body is loose and relaxed it is easier to capture a steady rhythm and get into the groove of jogging.
Okay, now consider the breath as we jog. Over how many jogging steps do you take to inhale? To exhale? It depends a bit on our tempo, but I know for myself, at my most comfortable jog I breathe in on two and a half steps, and out the same or possibly a step more. Matching the rhythm of our breathing to our jogging step is both a way to delve a little deeper into the trance of motion and also to build consistency into the practice. This is no different with drumming.
When learning new and complex rhythms, our mind is often bogged down with various aspects of our playing. The overactive mind can sometimes interfere with steady breathing and we will suddenly find ourselves breathing erratically or holding our breath. This is something we should immediately seek to resolve when we find it, because it affects the feeling of rhythm as much as stiffness in the limbs does. So again, our analogy holds true, and we find that through the familiar we can more readily explore the unfamiliar. As a practicing drummer, one should seek to find rhythmic analogies in all aspects of life. This benefits us in both directions. From the side we have been discussing, we will find ways to more easily analyze our playing. But from the other angle, what we learn on the kit can inform and expand our understanding of how to perform other tasks in life with greater fluidity and relaxed effort.
If you'd like to dig deeper into this kind of approach to the kit, I highly recommend Billy Ward's DVD Big Time. His approach is a bit different than what I'm saying here, however he brilliantly addresses the root of feeling time while playing.