How Do I Stop Playing Ahead of the Beat?

Bassist and Drummer

Q: I’m finding it really hard not to play ahead of the beat. I can play on the click with a metronome or other rhythm exercises, but when I put a playback, I’m starting the beat most of the time! It is something to do with too much thinking about the notes I’m playing. Also as we have to think ahead to chose good lines, I tend to play ahead as well. Any ideas about how I can work that out?

A: Changing our natural tendencies can be tough. I think that you likely nailed the issue when you say that it has something to do with you thinking too much about what you are going to play and thinking ahead. I see this phenomenon most commonly with students who tend to rush rests. They get a little excited to jump in and play what they have planned and have a hard time giving rests the same respect that they do notes, but it sounds like you might be jumping the gun a bit with played lines as well.

While I can’t think of any cut and dry exercises that might help, I do have some suggestions. I think that more than anything, you will just simply have to really focus your energies on listening and relaxing.

When a player tends to listen so much to what they are playing that they don’t really listen to the group as a whole, I call it “tunnel vision.” When we are in the shed, there are a number of things happening, and depending on how we practice, not all of them are good.

We are training our brains to memorize and internalize information. We are problem-solving our technique and harmonic awareness. We are training our hands to become more nimble and efficient. However, we also tend to focus so hard on what we are doing that we can inadvertently train ourselves to get hyper-focused on what we are playing regardless of what is happening as a whole (often because we are trying to learn to apply new material). This puts us in that “tunnel vision” mode where we are no longer making music together but rather playing the music.

I would evaluate how you practice and try to put your focus on melding and blending with musical material. This might mean that you focus solely on playing tunes with recordings or with play-alongs. This might mean that you are transcribing lines and/or solos and recording yourself playing along with the recordings. This might mean that you work with music – books for a while (like the Aebersold books).

I think the absolute best thing to do is to put your energy into playing music with other humans as much as possible.
I also wonder if you are reading when you notice this happening, or if you have the material memorized.

Now, I’m a big reader. I read on most gigs, but I’ve gotten good at sounding natural and playing with freedom while I do it. Many people have a hard time playing organically when they are reading because they are so focused on the page. I would suggest that you memorize materials so you can shut off the visual part of your brain (aside from eye contact with musicians, of course) and really focus on listening.

You didn’t mention in your question whether or not you play with a band or if you are playing along with recorded materials, but it is much easier to lock with a group in real life. You can watch the drummer and actually see his stick hitting the ride or hi-hats. You can feel the kick drum. You can see everyone’s bodies moving into time to the music (hopefully). Making music live is an infinitely more visceral experience than playing along to recordings.

I sound about 50% as good in the shed or during lessons as I do on stage. This is because there is a much deeper level of connection to the music and the experience as a whole when doing it in real life.

So my suggestions to you are, essentially:

  1. Memorize material
  2. Focus on locking with material while you practice
  3. Breathe and relax
  4. Take your time
  5. Play with a band or other musicians as much as possible!

I hope that helps!

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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  1. Agreeing with all of the above, may I add a simple trick that has helped me a lot. When you hear a count-in, at a rehearsal, a concert or while recording, start a subdivision in your head on 2, 3, and 4, for instance by counting to yourself 2 and, 3 and 4 and while all the time listening to the person (or machine) counting in. In my experience this establishes a grid in your head that works against my tendency to rush.