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Set the Groove


I always thought that setting the rhythm was someone else’s responsibility– until, years ago, I took an unforgettable class:

Rhythm 101.

My teacher, a truly inspired soul, split the class into two and had us clap different rhythms against each other.

I soon had to admit that this was rather fun; sometimes I actually ended up in hysterical fits of laughter as my coordination was tested beyond its limits.

Then there was that part of the lesson when my teacher would whip out a metronome—one of those electronic ones which you can set at a particular speed and turn the volume all the way off.

The Big Experiment

He’d single one of us out and have us listen to the speed he had chosen and clap on each beat.

Once we settled with that rhythm, he’d turn the sound right off (!) and the person would continue to clap for a few minutes.

Then, out of nowhere, he’d turn the volume on the metronome back up and we’d all roar with laughter as the student’s claps had moved entirely!

However, like any game you play a lot, you naturally become better and better at it.

After a year of this class, I found that I had gotten this game down to a tee… it became like second nature!

I had much more of an idea where that tempo naturally sat.

I didn’t fully realize the impact this would have on me as a vocalist: I was building my internal clock.

And it has become a skill I use every time I perform.

Your Internal Time

Imagine driving at the normal speed limit in your car, when all of a sudden your speedometer gives up the ghost.

I bet that, strangely, you’d have a very good natural sense of how fast you’re driving.

Or—perhaps not so strangely at all?

Internal time is being so aware of the meter (fast or slow) that when your drummer (or other band members) are speeding up or slowing down in a song, you know.

You feel it. You hear it.

Your internal clock knows exactly where the time should be sitting and the exact point in time when it moved from the original tempo.

The benefits of working on internal time are enormous – especially for a vocalist working with instrumentalists for the first time in new settings.

Internal Time Saves the Gig

I had a duo gig in a restaurant and, unluckily, my usual guitarist was booked for another gig.

I found myself with a new guitarist who had never played with me before and was unfamiliar with my songs; all I had were lots of chord charts and my own knowledge of how I like to do these songs.

Internal time saved the gig. Here’s how:

I sang the song silently to myself, feeling the groove and tempo I wanted him to go with. Then I gave him a very steady 4 clicks of my finger in which there was absolutely no doubt where those beats sat.

The outcome? I was able to take control of the tempo right from the word go (before I’d even begun to sing) and my accompanist was able to feel my certainty and clarity.

This resulted in a strong intro and an immediate bond with the accompanist.

Benefit 1: The tempo is set exactly where YOU feel comfortable…

Ok, still in the same duo situation: I’ve given a convincing and confident count in, but let us suppose that my guitarist’s internal time isn’t the best.

He’s speeding up and trying to play solo lines instead of laying down the chords and groove strongly – I’m in trouble.

Because of this in-built internal time, I’m now able to sing the melody really straight, emphasizing key beats rhythmically to keep the meter steady.

Really, I’m keeping the time and musically saying “here’s where it is”. Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t have to do this – I’m the “front-man”–my job is to sell that lyric and melody whilst subtly acknowledging where the time is with some delicious phrasing, but not rhythmically ground it.

However, this situation calls for me to think like an accompanist and lay down the groove. A strange role reversal but, hey, this has just stopped the song falling apart!

Benefit 2: You save the song from disaster by outlining the groove.

Getting Started

Next week, I will be sharing many different ways to strengthen your internal time.

But, for now, try this interesting challenge: practise singing songs by yourself, using just the click of a metronome.

Stay in the centre of the beats (“in the pocket”); try many different speeds until each one feels comfortable and you’re not racing ahead or falling behind.

Trying all speeds are important – don’t skip out the super slow! (This is actually more difficult than singing to a fast tempo.)

Remember, like any game you play repeatedly, you get better and better.

Next week, we’ll look at some added methods which will help you…

…set the groove.

London based vocalist, Joey Elkins, is gaining attention as a jazz, funk, soul and contemporary singer. As a child in Adelaide, Australia, she delighted her jazz musician parents and friends with her high register, a range close to six octaves and a commanding style. Joey’s first jazz recording attracted the interest of some of Australia’s finest jazz musicians and before leaving for London, Joey was already a respected and regular performer in some of Australia’s top jazz venues. Being a natural improviser and composer enables Joey to own a variety of styles. Joey is currently recording and composing original music which will be released as a CD within the coming year. Joey’s Music and Website

Useful Sites

Watch Joey’s Internal Time on “Nature Boy”

The Look of Silence

The Singer Who Dares to Listen

Photo of Singer by BdwayDiva – http://www.flickr.com/photos/bdwaydiva1/2346330640/

Have you ever noticed that when you and your band decide to play more quietly, the time often slows down too as a result? Or even the other way around with a louder dynamic ending in the song speeding up for some reason? Strange one isn’t it… Why do you think this happens? This is one I’ve been pondering recently and I’d love to hear your thoughts! (Leave a comment below…)

  • Dáithí Mac Siacais

    Fine article, Joey.

    And GREAT singing on the video clips and your website.

    Big WOW! to you.

  • Svet

    Nice article. Symphony conductors do this all the time. Less variance now on modern recordings, but I've got some live recordings from some very famous conductors. One is all over the place for tempo with dynamics, but it's funny that the length of the performance is within 1 minute of the one that's a human metronome. They do it for dramatic contrast.

    I've noticed the same thing. Ebb and flow of a song's tempo with the dynamics. Today it seems like the sense of natural flow of emotion in a song is being replaced by the click track. The click track of course makes editing easier, but what is the price? Emotion? And with the removal of that comes blandness, but it doesn't always have to be that way. A singer can stretch and truncate phrases, change timings, etc., so long as the pocket is solid.
    Jazz allows for those variances. Rock does not.

    Another reason people speed up when playing loud is adrenaline. Louder volume will trigger more adrenaline. Softer volume less. At a basketball game with the crowd screaming the home team seems to play harder, when the crowd is quiet the home team seems to play less intense. I think this is the bottom line.

    Super slow tempos are the most difficult. They are difficult for timing, and very difficult technically. The phrasing gets a lot more difficult.

  • Joey Elkins

    Hiya Svet,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment :). You bring up such an important area for discussion… Ebb and flow! Sometimes the time “breathes” naturally doesn't it. Kind of like the “tempered Scale” for tuning instruments… I've not delved into this area in my articles, but I absolutely know what you are talking about – Now we're really getting to the meat on the bones! I've overheard quite a few interesting conversations about this between drummers… Yes, as you say… once that “pocket/internal time” thing is strong, everyone can pull and push the time and return as it feels right and deliberately.

    I'd love to see/hear some links to the examples you were talking about re famous conductors… can you share?

    You may be onto something re speeding up and slowing down… I dig that!

    I agree, slower tempos are much more difficult… Why do you think this is?

    Thanks for getting into the “Nitty Gritty” of this topic with me!

    Best wishes,

    Joey :)

  • Joey Elkins

    Hiya Daithi,

    Glad you enjoyed them! I think the best part about music is that no matter how long you've been singing or playing… you can never know it all! Like a good book that never ends…

    Hope you enjoyed the read and find some helpful bits from my pool of knowledge thus far.

    Thanks for the lovely comments :).

    Best wishes,


  • Very helpful, I'm going to be practising this one! That's for sure.

  • Joey Elkins

    Let me know how it goes Maheekat, I'd be really interested to hear!

    Best wishes,


  • Pingback: Rock Solid on Rhythm | VoiceCouncil Magazine()

  • Jjj

    Some interesting views on metronomes can be found here:

    Highly interesting, seeing that I've been brainwashed into believing that I metronome is good for me.
    I no longer use one, and don't look back for 1 second!!

  • Hi Jjj,

    I really like the articles you’ve included…but they discuss truly exceptional artists who were trained by truly exceptional artists, who probably put it an insane amount of time in order to become so prolific. And hey, once in a while we are blessed by a honest to goodness prodigy, but this is a rare and momentous occassion.

    What the links fail to bring up is the varied types of metronomes that are available. I’ve never been a fan of the old wooden clock type metronome…it’s just too basic, stiff, and I hate the sound it makes. However, all of the rhythms and time differentials that are spoken of in link #1 can also be applied and practiced by use of modern, digital, metronomes. For instance, I’ve got a Roland TD-8 to hack around with and the metronome/tutorial feature is very deep, expressive, and will give back what you put into it. I feel it all boils down to how much one seeks perfection. Not all music makes the same statement.

    I’ve recorded and engineered a lot of bands/singer/songwriters and I can safely say that none of them had perfect timing…even the really, really good ones. Usually the primary song writer, and hopefully the drummer, ended up having the best rhythm or “feel.” I understand the age old gripe about metronomes feeling stiff but there’s a significant difference between working a groove and sucking as far as timing goes.

    Let’s talk production…I feel that in today’s studio environ artists are often asked to play to a click track for the sake of a solid and tight production. Applying delays, reverbs, etc…comes out much nicer when the whole song resonates in tune and time with itself. As an engineer, most of the difficult work comes by way of fixing sloppy performances, not getting a strong signal, applying EQ shelves, or the use of FX. If an artist or a band is adamant about not using a click, I don’t make them. If a band has never played to a click I barely push it past asking the question cos it’ll just kill the entire vibe, but it does hinder some of the magic that I could have offered if they had cared enough about their music to get it into shape before knocking on the studio door. When it comes to coloring a project, sound design, shelving…etc…the better the groove the greater the chance of making the production really stand out as something special.

    Ultimately these “questionable” rhythmic areas come up near end of production as the true clarity of a performance seems to jump out from the speakers. A lot of times artists have never heard their own performance or that of their band mates’ with such clarity. I’ve actually had bands break up right there in my studio because of this. It’s a weak but typical resolution to blame the engineer for timing issues or asking him/her “Well, can’t you fix that?” So, in the end, is it the engineer’s job to make them better musicians and performers by using tools of the trade to alter these discrepancies’, or should it be on the heads of the artists that can’t recreate the performance they are selling on CDs or Downloads without these studio tricks? Shame on those who cheat their audience!!!

    I know that your blog speaks of greats, who have already been tried and tested by the industry, but what of the novice, the beginners, who need to establish solid structures early in their career? I think it is a disservice to the artist, engineer, and listener to strive for anything less than the best. There are fabulous tools available to us in this day and age and it’s a great time to be alive…sorry but ya’ hit a pet peeve of mine. Practice makes almost perfect!

    I engineer because I love sound design…fixing laziness is about as far away from fun and passion as one could get 