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I can count: "1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and ...", I can tap "one-two-three, one-two-three, ..."

But I find it difficult to actually play and count at the same time.

And the more difficult part is, clearly, subdivision.

Do you really count in your mind to the smallest time value? In 32th? Or 64th, for the whole duration of the piece? or only for measures which aren't "easy" (only quarter or eights)?

What happens to me is that I am usually rather precise at the start of the piece, then I get carried by the flow, and then I am out of rhythm and everything falls apart.

I am playing a wind instrument so there is the added difficulty of having to "steal" some time for inhaling or exhaling. I am a self-learner, having private lessons with a teacher is not an option due to the demands of work, family, ... but I would really like to improve since I am unsatisfied with my current "sloppy" playing.

What approach can I try to improve?

  • Practice your rhythms away from your instrument. Be able to count / tap through them. Once you know how your rhythms feel, you’ll be able to “feel” your way through them while playing your instrument. – jjmusicnotes Feb 23 at 0:37
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I play both piano and saxophone, and in my experience it is much harder to keep track of the rhythm while playing a wind instrument.

The first thing I would do is write out the counting numbers and clap the rhythms while counting out loud. The subdivisions are very important and, yes, those with good rhythm will keep track of the subdivisions throughout the entire piece. They are necessary for understanding the proportions of the lengths of the different notes. Clapping the rhythm while counting with the subdivisions should help your ear hear the pattern of note lengths. You can add other body movements to help you feel the beat as well, like tapping your toes or nodding your head a little. After clapping out the rhythms a few times, try playing it while counting silently in your head.

Focus on small amounts, a measure or two, at a time. Look at the piece and try to find rhythmic patterns that come back. You will begin to get a sense of how those repeated patterns feel, so you won't have to relearn them each time.

A metronome will come in handy, too, but it is only really useful after you have gotten the hang of counting the subdivisions. Use the feature that will make a special ding on beat one.

A little more about subdivision: How the music is subdivided really depends on what is happening rhythmically in the piece. If the piece's smallest notes are mainly 8th notes, it is really not necessary to count a smaller subdivision than that. The occasional 16th notes can be counted in when you get to them. But if a piece has a lot of 16th notes, it is useful to continually use that subdivision throughout the piece. If a piece has even smaller note values, like 32nd or 64th notes (not beginner pieces!), it is useful to use something smaller than a quarter note to equal the beat and subdivide proportionally from there. Most do not count smaller than four divisions per beat.

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I don't think anyone really counts such a small subdivisions while playing. It's more like a rhythm of more complex and fast passages gets memorized as a "whole chunk" with practice. The more you are exposed to different types of rhythms the more natural they become.

Did you try playing with metronome and experimenting with setting it to click densely or sparsely and see how that helps to stay in sync.

Also try to tap and clap various rythms against the metronome to internalize different types of rhythms.

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Let your body do the counting (e.g. of quarter notes) and your mind will be free to think about your playing. How many musicians tap their foot, nod their head or shake any other part of the body? For a reason!

As soon as your body helps you keeping track, it will be easier to keep the rhythm. This experience was huge for me ;-) It has to be practiced of course but to me it came quite easily...

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I pretty much count everything. For simple pieces it's fairly unconscious, but if you stopped me at any given moment and asked exactly where I was, I'd know if I was on the and of 3 or whatever. If it's a highly syncopated piece my counting is much more active, and sometimes I'll even count aloud under my breath (I know, that's not practical for wind instruments.

I don't count anything faster than I can syllabify though - if it's 32nd notes or 64ths I'm counting the sixteenths.

In order to do that you need to be able to recognize the common ways things divide up. For example, one beat can divide into two eighths or subdivide into four sixteenths. You can also have eighth & two 16ths or two 16ths and an eighth, or 16th-8th-16th, or dotted eighth/16th or 16th/dotted eighth. So there aren't very many patterns.

To improve your rhythm you want to be able to feel any one of those patterns at sight. My advice would be to get a basic snare drum book (Rubank, Haskell Harr, Alfred drum method, etc.) and practice playing each of the exercises. Just pick a note and play the whole thing through articulating the one pitch.

Since snare drum parts don't have melody, you're removing a level of complication. I think you'll find your rhythm will improve after just a few days of doing that, and it'll improve quite a bit over two weeks or so.

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