What is the beat? Why is it important? How do we play on the beat? Why can’t we just rely on the drummers to keep us on track? In the Basic Training series, we are going to explore a variety of fundamental music concepts and principles and relate them to piping and drumming. So, let’s start by building a house!
What is the first and most important part to building a house? A proper foundation. Whatever materials are used, concrete, blocks, rocks, or bricks, they must be made of quality materials and laid properly to last for a long time and prevent future problems with the rest of the structure. In Music, this is equivalent to the beat. The beat is that which everything else is built around.
The beat is the basic time unit in music and marks the passage of time. Each beat has a beginning and end. The beginning is marked by the first tap of your foot or click on the metronome or count/command by a music leader. (When a Pipe Major gives the command to start, they state the command on the beat). The end is marked by the next foot tap or metronome click, which incidentally is the start of the next beat. This is often referred to as the Big Beat or Macrobeat.
Take a look at the lines below and ask yourself how many beats are represented by these marks?
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If you answered 4, you’re correct. Remember that each mark represents the beginning and the end of a beat simultaneously. In Music, we mark the first tap as the beginning of Beat 1 and the next as the end of Beat 1 and the Beginning of Beat 2. The next tap represents the end of Beat 2 and the Beginning of Beat 3 and so on until you start a new measure. Each of these points in time
As a piper or drummer you must be able to keep the beat by tapping your foot AND playing at the same time. By tapping your foot you internalize the beat. By internalizing the beat you are laying a foundation for being able to keep the beat, keep it steady and liberate yourself as a musician! I know there are many of you out there thinking the following:
--I’ve tried this and can’t
--My teacher didn’t make me
--I use a metronome to keep me steady
--The drummers will keep me on target
Allow me to address each of these concerns and explain how to get over each of these hurdles.
“I’ve tried to tap and play and can’t”
Yes you can! For some musicians it comes naturally. For those that don’t pick it up easily you will need to learn it “mechanically”. I’ve yet to meet a person who is so rhythmically challenged that I couldn’t teach them to tap and play and keep the beat.
Begin by just tapping your foot (It could be your heal and not your toes). It could be to nothing or to your favorite musician or band. Pay specific attention to when your foot is down and when your foot is up. Push your foot down and pull your foot up. As a playing exercise start with the scale and give yourself and preparatory command (while tapping your foot) such as: “Ready—Go”. On the NEXT tap you will start the scale and change to the next note as your foot taps. You are thus tapping and playing Quarter Notes. Try this with a very simple melody such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
Drummers play Singles right to left hand while tapping one foot.
The next step involves subdividing the beat into smaller parts (Little Beats or Microbeats) and knowing where your foot is while this is happening. When we discuss subdividing we need to know “How” the beat will be subdivided. This is referred to as Meter. For our purposes the beat can be subdivided by 2 or by 3. In Simple Time (Duple Meter) the beat is subdivided by 2 and in Compound Time (Triple Meter) the beat is subdivided by 3. I will discuss Time Signatures at a later date.
Next try this to eighth notes in Simple Time/Duple Meter. You could use the scale or any exercise involving 1/8th notes only. Exercise #1 in Jim McGillvray’s Rhythmic Fingerwork is very good for this purpose. Make sure you give a preparatory command and start playing the first Low G with your foot UP as it is a pick-up note. Your foot is tapping DOWN on the Low A or other scale note and back to the Low G when your foot reaches it’s highest point. (g | a-g-a-g | b-g-b-g | c-g-c-g | d-g-d-g | e-g-e-g | f-g-f-g | g’-g-g’-g | a’-g-a’- | a-b-a-b, etc). Be patient if you don’t get this right the first time.
Drummers try to Doubles or Paradiddles while tapping one foot.
The next step is to tap your foot while playing an exercise in Compound Time/Triple Meter. Drummers you will play Triplets. For Pipers, Exercises #2 & #3 in Rhythmic Fingerwork are a good starting point. In Triple Meter you will focus on the ‘flow’ of your foot moving up and down.
Pipers, you are now ready to try a very simple tune such as “Robin Adair” or “The Marine Corps Hymn” or “Scots Wha Hae”. If the embellishments mess you up, take them out momentarily to focus on playing TO your foot. Play at a rate that you can totally focus on your foot moving continuously to the beat. Remember: Your foot is in charge and it will tap steadily if you PLAY TO YOUR FOOT. If you find yourself tapping the rhythm (i.e. the notes) stop and re-start. You may find this frustrating but keep at it—with patience it will come. If you’ve played these tunes for a long time it might take a while to get over the hurdle of NOT playing to the beat.
Drummers, your next step is to tap while playing rolls. After that you can add accents to Singles, Doubles, Triples, Paradiddles and then shift the accent. It will be challenging to shift the accent on triplets AND continue tapping beat 1. Be patient. The next step you would add dots & cuts. Finally work on other simple exercise patterns and then simple scores.
“My teacher didn’t make me”
Then you must learn to do this yourself.
Teachers—I used to wait until a student could play a few tunes and then worked on incorporating foot tapping into the tune. Those days are long gone!! I started introducing this concept earlier and earlier and am now at the point where I start a beginner tapping their foot on DAY 1. You will be amazed at how quickly most people pick this up. IF you have a slow developer–so be it. You (and the student) will be much happier in the long run when you don’t have to deal with their inability to play to a steady beat.
“I use a metronome to keep me steady”
Metronomes are great to verify that you are playing on the beat. If you haven’t fully internalized playing on the beat, you can learn to play precisely to a metronome—that’s why there are so many varieties of Metronome. Somewhere there is the perfect metronome to keep us on the beat. The problem is that you won’t be consistent without the metronome!!!!
Case in point—last year, pipers in the Oran Mor Pipe Band were drilled in playing on the beat. We were asked to ‘march’ to the 2/4 Marches and Reels and 6/8 Marches. We had to do this in coaching sessions with Andrew Douglas and at band rehearsals. If we were off the slightest bit we had to start over. Let’s just say that I doubt Andrew was ever really happy with what I was doing and he often said that I changed my foot to accommodate my playing (tapping rhythms not the beat—this is very bad).
One day in July I got out the metronome and played both the Oran Mor and Scotia-Glenville 2/4 Marches and Reels with the metronome blasting away. Guess what? You got it—I was ‘with’ the metronome while playing the Oran Mor material and had to MAKE myself be precisely on the beat with the Scotia-Glenville tunes. I had internalized the beat on Oran Mor tunes but not the Scotia-Glenville tunes. Use the metronome to verify what you already can do and check out the spots that are still giving you trouble.
“The drummers will keep me on target”
The same holds true here as using a metronome---an entity outside yourself is doing the work for you, for which you will always be dependent. Plus……..how do you know the drummers are right? Even if your band has an awesome drum corps you (and/or the entire pipe section) will always be ‘reacting’ to the drummers and you won’t be together.
In piping and drumming, the root of our music serves a specific purpose of keeping the beat. If we can’t keep the beat, we aren’t doing our job. Historically, Strathspeys, Reels & Jigs are danced to, 6/8 Marches are played while soldiers are on a training hikes or danced to as a Quickstep, Retreat Marches while marching as the end of the military day is marked. Nowadays, most pipers and drummers are playing in bands or in solo contests or on their own. The beat is the foundation of any music and your ability to play to the beat and keep a steady beat will help with the next step in developing your playing: Understanding and producing accurate rhythms!