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I've beatboxed for about 10 years and never thought about staying in time while improvising, and it sounds great. I can just make a beat and it sounds great without having any clue if what i just beatboxed was a 16 note or something else.

Now, in the last 6 or some months I've started to learn about improvising on piano. The instructions say that I have to change chords in my left hand for every bar in 4/4 time. This however, requires me to have an idea of where I am in time. I can achieve that through counting, but then I can't think about where I want to go with the melody and it's also just kinda annoying having to count constantly.

In addition, I don't currently feel like I actually have to have an idea of where I am in time, because I can just play a note and change chords when it seems right and it sounds great.

This leads me to my question. Will it bite me in the ass and hinder future development by not trying to stay in time while improvising and just play on instinct?

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    As an experienced beatboxer you will have aquired the ability to be in time without counting. I bet you hear and feel when a measure or four measures of a blues have passed. There are 2 ways of making music: aware/cognitive and unconsciously/intuitive. I estimate both approaches. – Albrecht Hügli Jul 10 at 11:30
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    "it sounds great" ... if you record yourself and listen to the playback? Sounds great to you and how many others who are not your family and friends, and who are musicians? – Kaz Jul 10 at 19:31
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    Not an answer, but test your time-keeping skills and find out how good or bad it is. Use a metronome click that clicks, only once or twice per bar. Or once every two bars. Can you play with that? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jul 11 at 17:46
  • if it's not in time then it'll be hard to perform it. it's okay on your own – Emobe Jul 12 at 14:54
  • "have to change chords in my left hand for every bar in 4/4 time" - this is generally bad advice for improvising - you change the left hand chord when the melody requires it. It may be part of a course on learning improvising, so as an introduction can help a new improviser "find the beat" - you're not new to improvising, you're new to improvising on the piano. Take this "requirement" with a pinch of salt and move on. – freedomn-m Jul 13 at 14:12

10 Answers 10

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While playing by yourself, you do what you want. In time, out of time, seems no-one cares! The potential problems will come when you play with others. I've played with many like you appear to be, and it's not hard work - it's almost impossible!

So, the decision will be yours. If you only ever want to play alone, probably for your own amusement, then take no notice, and carry on!

If you feel that you may eventually play with others - which is what most musos seem to prefer, then the 'discipline' of timekeeping is paramount. You won't necessarily have to know or understandd what a semiquaver is, as you can probably feel your way through, but understanding what a bar is, and how it affects what gets played, and its place in the whole scheme of things, is important. It's basically being able to count to four, in a steady way. That means others playing with you will have something regular to play their parts simultaneously.

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There are many other good answers here but I wanted to add one thing:

Get a Looping Pedal!

Besides actually playing with real people, nothing will improve your improvising, timing, and ability to experiment more than laying down some chords or riffs, trying it 3-4 times until you get the timing perfect, then playing other stuff over that, then trying to loop that perfectly over it, etc.

You can also practice improvising over chord-changes that go through 2 (or more) keys, unusual time-signatures, and more. It really is an invaluable practice-tool, especially in these times of social-distancing.

Some loop pedals can be found for very cheap, especially used ones on ebay or craigslist.

Edit:

This advice is meant as a supplement to more traditional advice. You should definitely learn to count time as well as practice with a metronome. Learn scales. Start with the basics. But once you feel fairly comfortable then a looping pedal can be an entertaining and useful way to continue your progress.

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    All very well, but if OP can't keep time even on the first take, how is that going to help with further takes? A good idea, but in theory. – Tim Jul 12 at 5:24
  • @Tim At the very least, the loop's length is fixed in time, and whatever is in the loop will be repeating exactly at the loop's frequency. That's quite a bit of robust rhythm, already. And the OP will be forced to make the looped groove match rhythmically with that loop's length if they want the loop to sound good. – cmaster - reinstate monica Jul 12 at 13:09
  • @cmaster-reinstatemonica - sometimes I get the loop slightly out of sync. Fair enough, I know. But OP seems to not have a good sense of rhythm, so with a potentially dodgy rhythm anyway, and not syncing at the end to the next beginning, how will it help? I sometimes have the pleasure of playing with folk who are quite capable of throwing in a bar of 5/4 or 3/4 in a 4/4 piece - andd are blissfully unaware. Can't see how using a looper would help them either, if you understand where I'm coming from. – Tim Jul 12 at 14:16
  • @Tim <nitpicking-mode> Well, a 4/4 + 4/4 + 5/4 sequence is a valid time measure as well...</nitpicking-mode> Yes, I understand what you are saying. It's probably not best to start with fancy time measures. But I guess, you'd start with a loop on only one or two bars anyways, and then any fancy time measures will feel weird enough for the OP to avoid. After all, this is a learning exercise, and I believe that the fixed loop length would nudge the OP in the right direction. (Fancy times can be beautiful, though: I know a rock song that uses a 4*3/16 + 4/16 time, and it's totally awesome!) – cmaster - reinstate monica Jul 12 at 14:41
  • @cmaster-reinstatemonica - point missed ! These guys aren't doing it on purpose - they don't even know what 5/4 is! Whole songs in 4/4 can have weird timings that they don't notice aren't fitting! And 'fixed length loop' will be fixed by someone who can't count too well. That's not helping anything! – Tim Jul 12 at 15:12
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This is something I struggled with when I played improv trumpets solos in my school's jazz band years back. I had always practiced at home without any metronome and I would just play around chord changes that I made up in my head rather than listening to an external source and improvise.

What did this do?

Well the biggest thing I noticed was that it was really hard to know when to start or when to stop a phrase, or when to lay into a specific note. If you listen to really good soloists, they will be counting and will have specific licks timed with matching background information from other instruments. This was something I could not do because I never practiced counting.

On the bright side, as a trumpet soloist, all I had to do to play a "decent" solo was listen to the rhythm (since I'm not comping chords or making important, independent changes), but It would have been nice to be able to do cool things, like switch keys or add some mode mixture if I were counting out when to do those things.

To answer your question, yes it will bite you, but yes it should also be instinct. But it can only become instinct after you practice it deliberately many times.

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Rhythm is a part of music. A very important part in today's popular styles. And, while rhythm CAN be free, mostly we prefer it when it's organised into a repetitive 'groove'.

I suspect your beatboxing IS 'in time', you just haven't formalised the concept.

This 'one chord per bar' thing sounds like the instruction for an elementary exercise in improvisation. Fine, as far as it goes. But it's certainly not a general rule. Several different chords in one bar, one chord over several bars, chord changes at irregular intervals - all are common. But when a sequence of chord changes IS set up, music very often sticks to it for the next chorus! Same chords in the same places in the timeline. So, you need to know where you are rhythmically if you're aiming for something more structured than completely free 'stream of consciousness' style improvisation.

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As others have said, it's important to train yourself to respect rhythm if you want to be able to jam with others. It's also important to be able to anticipate planned chord changes correctly.

However, starting with counting is probably not what you need. You already seem to have a feel for rhythm (otherwise your beatboxing wouldn't sound great), though not formalized, and not really connected to your piano play. And that's exactly what you need to do: Connect the way you are improvising on the piano with how you build a rhythm.

The piano is a great instrument to learn this. It basically allows you to play with yourself. You just need to take advantage of that.

So, here is what I would do:

  • Decide on a time to use

  • Create some grove in your left hand that is in time. I.e. the 1 is always heavy, the 3 not so much. Do some chord-like figure (only the fundamental needs to be present, and it should definitely be played on the 1), and only change chords on the 1.

  • Improvise some melody on top of that. Or chords. Or whatever comes to mind. Make it interact with the groove in a positive way. Both in rhythm and in harmony.

With the groove in place, it will be natural for your melody to fall into place with the rhythm, and you don't need to count to do that. You only need to feel the 1 and the 3. That's what you can do, that's what the groove will help you keep up while you concentrate on the melody. And you will feel when your melody has broken the rhythm, just as much as you will hear it when your melody has violated the harmony. And you will learn to recover from these mistakes, to turn the error into a stressful sound that resolves in an interesting way. But for all that to happen, some simple groove needs to be present.

Don't be too complicated with your groove at first. You need to be able to hold the groove without really thinking much about it. The classic 12-bar blues is a really good starter. Simple, but with all the material to build some real emotional solos.

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"Is it necessary to practice staying in time while improvising?"

Nothing is "necessary" in this context. Improv is improv, even time and tempo fluctuate during improvisation, as well as in orchestrated pieces. The real question is whether you are in control of what you do. In my youth I often heard young musicians respond to their own playing after a solo with "I didn't expect that", or "Wow, that sounded cool". Improv from an experienced player should not be a complete surprise. Sometimes we go in directions we didn't intend to in response to other player's input but the fact is improvising draws on examples that are already in the player's consciousness, and variation on themes already present in the music.

That being said a bigger issue, and a more important question is not one of keeping time but keeping track of where you are in the song as you improvise. This is critical. At a high level of development a musician might be able to recall the melody of the tune in their mind as they play over it. At the very least you should be able to remember the basic structure of the tune. Are you in the A section or B section, etc.

If you are truly exploring creative ideas free form then there is no reason to be concerned about where you are since you are likely composing as you go. But to be a player in a group you really do need to be able to keep time by yourself and know where you are in a piece. Experienced musicians can sometimes recall tempos without the help of a metronome. Two examples are (1) my classical bass teacher in high school (who was perhaps a savant) could tap 84 bpm on a metronome and it would read 84 +/- a couple beats, and (2) a marching band director for a bagpipe group. He could march to 78 bpm right on the nose every time. It was in his muscle memory. This is an expected skill of an experienced musician (to some degree). As my big band conductor used to say "everyone counts", and that was meant to be taken as direction.

I'd say it is very important to learn to stay in time on your own as well as recall the structure of a tune and know where you are at to the beat. There are way to practice this.

(1) try listening to a metronome and tap to it, close your eyes and mute the metronome. Then after some time un-mute it and see how close you match it.

(2) learn a tune you really like and see if you can recall it from memory in your mind without playing.

(3) play with recorded pieces, even if you don't know the piece just try to keep up in key by adding a small supportive part.

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  • Part of keeping track is keeping time, surely. – Tim Jul 10 at 13:03
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It may be annoying now to count, because you need to go through the training process, but eventually it will become instinctive and you won't need to count.

While doing the training actually count beats out loud. This can difficult at first, especially when one of the parts starts to use syncopated rhythms. But eventually it will come to you.

Keep in mind that with piano you are doing multiple rhythms simultaneously. Look into the idea of composite rhythm and incorporate it into your practice. One technique to get over the initial hurdle of playing multiple rhythms independently is to find the composite rhythm and coordinate it between two hands (or multiple fingers.) Doing so will get your hands synchronized and at least hitting the right keys at the right time.

After that you can work at making the separate rhythms sound like independent parts. Two ways to work towards independent parts is to play each one with some contrasting element, like left hand quiet, right hand loud or left hand staccato, right hand legato. When that kind of separation is achieved you can then return to playing the expression and articulation as notated, or if improvising let your hands work like two different players.

Give this all lots of practice time! It can feel kind of weird when you first achieve independent hands. It's like there some other person controlling part of you. At least for me it felt like that. Then you try to embrace it as exactly what you are supposed to do... oh, yes, ideally you want to be able to count the beat out loud while all this rhythmic independence is going on!

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Definitely a problem if ever you want to play alongside others. If everyone in a band picked their own timing then complete chaos would result.

May I suggest you practise by introducing a spoken count into your beat-boxing. So:

One ****, Two ****, Three ***, Four ****, One ****, Two ****, Three ***, Four ****, etc.

Also playing along with a metronome is a great discipline. This is essential if you ever need to play to a click-track. These are used frequently in recordings.

A click track is a series of audio cues used to synchronize sound recordings, sometimes for synchronization to a moving image. The click track originated in early sound movies, where optical marks were made on the film to indicate precise timings for musical accompaniment. It can also serve a purpose similar to a metronome, as in the music industry, where it is often used during recording sessions and live performances https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Click_track#:~:text=A%20click%20track%20is%20a%20series%20of%20audio,film%20to%20indicate%20precise%20timings%20for%20musical%20accompaniment.

If you can't follow a metronome then you can't follow a click-track.

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It will bite you in the butt and hinder further development if you are ever told to improvise on an established chord progression such as the 12-bar blues. Mess up and make the initial tonic chord section more than the standard 4 bars long, and listeners may no longer treat you so kindly. Shorten the first time the IV chord is used to 1 bar long instead of 2, and risk listeners thinking that you messed up a perfectly good chord progression. Make the chord progression 11 bars long instead of 12, and listeners will notice, perhaps unfavourably.

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Unless you plan to play solo and like rubato an awful, awful lot, yes you need to stay in time.

I would suggest using a metronome, beatboxing over that and then playing the piano over that. As has been suggested, if it makes it easier, beatbox into a looping pedal.

If you can't play in time, few people will want to play with you. In our band, having to set tempo for a band member who can't play in time is called "hauling the train." Because it's that exhausting.

James Brown explains it best. For most music, all instruments are drums.

But if you have good time and apply your beatbox rhythms to your piano playing you will be very much in demand.

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