Q: I have a hard time not sounding stiff when focusing on my time. Any suggestions?
A: I’ve been noticing this phenomenon lately, especially with students who are working on various cello suites. There’s a tendency to try and play the piece metronomically as opposed to musically. Remember that, while we are expected to have good time, we are also expected to play musically and that means that phrases have to breathe a bit!
Take any piece of music that you are playing and take note of how you are tapping your foot. Are you tapping on every beat? Every other beat?
See how you play the piece if you tap only at the beginning of every phrase. Get yourself thinking about emphasizing every phrase (whether it’s a melodic phrase, every two or four bars, or a rhythmic phrase).
This may better apply to classical music than jazz, but I believe even trying to be conscious of our emphasis and phrase length will help greatly.
How are you breathing? Try to breathe in time to the music and with special regard to the phrases you are playing.
Giving a line shape with dynamics can help, too. Try overdoing it at first but starting a phrase slowly and building both in speed and in intensity as you play the phrase. You can hear the shape of it now. Just make sure to use it in a musical way and one that makes sense with what you are playing.
You might also find that it helps to sing along with yourself. Play the way you’d want a singer to sing the line. I bet this helps.
Have fun and always remember to listen to what you are playing and try to be as musical as possible! While music is science and math in one regard, it is always meant to be music first and foremost. Record yourself and critique your musicality and then really examine what you could work in order to be more musical.