Ask Damian Erskine: Reading Rhythms

Q: My question is pretty simple but complex at the same. What is the best or most efficient way to practice reading rhythms?

A: Great question! As with many aspects of the learning process, there is no one way (or quick way) but having the proper perspective can make a world of difference.
As when you read words in your native language, if you had to sound out every word, letter by letter, we would read VERY slowly and would never be able to read or speak at the speed and efficiency that we do in our everyday lives. This is because we’ve learned to recognize various combinations of letters having a certain sound and mentally group them together, we begin to see entire words as simply THAT word and not a series of letters we need to think about. In other words, we’ve practiced it and utilized it in our everyday lives so much that it has become second nature. Developing the ability to read notation and rhythms is much the same way. It takes a daily repetition so as to expand upon the little bit of material we retained from yesterdays practice and add just a little bit more. Everyday, honing the skill until we no longer need to think about it, but simply do it.

Rhythm is the trickiest part of reading for most people. The key is to gain familiarity with the written rhythmic values and (most importantly) the way they SOUND. So, for example, when you see two dotted quarter notes and a quarter note, you simply hear the rhythm of the phrase rather than have to count internally or stop all-together and figure it out. Just like when learning a fast lick, how to read notes or internalizing the pattern of a scale, it’s best to start slow and build on one chunk of knowledge at a time.

There are a million ways to practice this. Here are some of the ways I personally worked on this stuff (in no particular order):

1) Read music EVERY DAY!
I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating. Even 10-15 minutes a day (every day) will serve you better than sitting down for 3 hours at once, but only once every few weeks. We need to build the skill-set block by block, little by little every day.

2) Buy books of transcribed lines to songs you are familiar with.
It is much easier to internalize the sound of written music when you know how it is supposed to sound BEFORE you look at it. This is one way of helping to make that connection.

3) Transcribe a LOT of music!
Figuring out what someone is playing by ear is a greta way to develop your ears. Then taking the time to try and laboriously figure out how to notate is an equally great way to familiarize yourself with all aspect of notation.

4) Bach cello suites are a good way to exercise the reading muscle.
It’s also not overly complicated. Many of the lines are linear (don’t jump around too much) so you can reference notes you don’t know as well with the ones you do know.

5) If you’re struggling to figure out a rhythmic pattern…
Use the written counting system (1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, etc..) and write it down underneath the music. It will help you figure out where something should lay.

6) This exercise works in two directions…
Drum patterns on the table and record them. Transcribe the rhythms and write them down (notated properly)

You can also, just simply notate various rhythms on a page and then try and play them. I’ve learned a lot by putting my instrument down and trying to do things visually and then playing them to see how my visualization matches the reality of what I’ve done.

7) Don’t forget that every note has a beginning and an end as well as every rest!
Pay close attention to where everything starts and stops. Don’t rush the rests!!

8) There is one book that I always recommend to everyone that wants to work on their reading.
The Latin Bass Book by Oscar Stagnaro. This book is my favorite. It comes with 3 CDs of a great band playing wonderful Latin jazz tunes which progress naturally from basic (but still tricky if you’re starting out with the reading or rhythm stuff) to downright hard. The music is slamming, the CDs are great, the book is laid out very well and the rhythms and styles are explained well but best of all, the rhythmic notation is challenging. I’ve seen incredible results from students who work with it and thru it, song by song, week by week. Not only in their ability to read dotted notes, ties, rests, etc… but also in their pocket and overall musicality.

9) Pick up a snare drum rudiment book (beginning level is fine).
Just mute the strings (or play scales, arpeggios, etc…whatever you can think of!) and play the rhythms to a metronome! Drum books are ALL rhythm. Take advantage of that! Great for rhythmic reading, time development and a nice way to experiment with different techniques (in order to pull of those rolls, etc. ;)

I may have not exactly given you any great ways to develop rhythmic reading abilities, because the only real way to do it is to do it every day and keep doing it.

Hope that helps a little!

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Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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