Maybe you have trouble keeping a steady beat, like me.
If you have heard me play, you’ll probably know that I’m most comfortable with fast, expressive music—for a good reason. I can’t keep a beat in my bones.
Left to my own accord, I can’t even shake an egg shaker with consistent accents (I tried, for 35 minutes in high school, until the percussionist pried the shaker from my fingers).
It’s not that I don’t hear the beat; I do. I just don’t follow it. There’s an internal rhythm that I prefer.
“Listen to the music,” instructors are always saying. Okay, I am a better pianist than I am a dancer (thankfully) but it’s still a struggle.
I’ve been on and off dance teams for the past few years, in Vancouver and Hong Kong. It’s a hobby. I like it, but I’m still a better pianist than I am a dancer. I think.
Right now I’m between dance teams, just back from travelling Asia. I’m a bit rusty, but I like to think that I could have passed the auditions I never attended, as long as I kept from throwing up and forgetting all my choreography.
(Please, the throwing up happens before the audition so you fit into the tights.)
So I suck at following the beat and have long since accepted the inevitability of the situation. My sister is on a dance team and trains each week. One day, she is shuffling around the room blasting horrendous rap music with her arms bent at her chest, occasionally extending them.
“What are you doing?” I shout.
“Beat mapping,” she shouts.
“How does it work?”
She stops the music and explains it, then we switch to my music and become little soldiers marching to R&B for the afternoon.
Beat mapping is a rhythm exercise where you teach your body to recognize the beats. Once you become used to hitting the simple and complex beats and teach your body to listen, your playing will become more steady.
First, step your feet to the simple beat; this is the consistent beat that runs throughout the piece.
Then, hold your arms at chest level, bent, and extend them sharply when you hear the bass. This is the deep, inconsistent rhythm featured by many pop and jazz songs. Be sure that you are not hitting the snare instead of the bass—it’s difficult to differentiate at first.
This is most productive when done to R&B music (there are a million playlists on Spotify) because the bass is all over the place.
The following week, I take a dance class where we drill each move for five minutes—super easy.
When my sister sees the video of my dance, she says, “You’re a lot better at catching the beat.”
And it’s true – my moves hit the beats sharply. “It’s the beat mapping,” she says.
I’ve gotten used to listening for different rhythms.
If you play drums or percussion (ignoring the fact that the piano is technically a percussive instrument) beat mapping might come second nature to you.
For many of us, teaching our bodies to mind the beat is just that—teaching our bodies. Rhythm can be learned, my friends.
Additional resources on mastering rhythm: