I once noticed a curious phenomenon while listening to Bob Dylan. He was performing solo; singing while strumming his acoustic guitar. Here’s the thing: Even though he was strumming his guitar chords in perfect rhythmic time, his singing was the exact opposite. He never seemed to begin his vocal phrase at the beginning of a measure, and he constantly sped up some words and slowed others down, so that I couldn’t predict where any of his sentences would end. (And they always seemed to end either before or after his guitar arrives at the expected chord!)
I couldn’t figure it out! How could this musician, who obviously had such a steady sense of the beat, sing with so much rhythmic uncertainty?
Well, I’ve come a long way in my musical understanding since then, and I now realize that Dylan does this intentionally. In fact, he’s really only doing the same thing that the previous generation of singers, like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, did before him. He’s phrasing with “rhythmic flexibility.”
Over the years I’ve grown to LOVE the way Dylan does this, and I now notice it in the way that every great vocalist sings. And also in how instrumentalists play their phrases too. Unless you’re playing in unison with another musician, you have the liberty to phrase the melody and your solos in any way you like. In fact, you’ll sound a lot better if you fully develop this ability in your piano playing.
The kind of rhythmic flexibility I'm talking about here is simply the ability to vary your rhythms as you "go along." If the melody has 4 quarter notes in a measure, maybe you play the last two as an eighth note and dotted-quarter, anticipating the final beat. Or maybe you play the 1st one a fraction of a beat late, to give the phrase a more relaxed, casual feel. There are countless possibilities in every measure!
Learning to do this is perhaps the single most important thing you can do for your playing. After all, you can play the most complex music in the world and still sound amateurish. Or, on the other hand, you can play a simple melody and sound like Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, or Keith Emerson.
The fun thing is that you can use this technique on just about any song. I was once teaching the song "Royals" to a few teenage students of mine and I decided to see how far I could take it myself. I ended up playing the melody very flexibly and showed how you can even open up a pop song like this with an improvised solo.
Listen to how I phrase the melody and use the song as a vehicle for improvisation:
If you’re interested in becoming a more fluent pianist, I’d love to have you as my student. You can get started HERE. And if you know anyone else who’s looking to improve their playing please let them know about me. I love to teach and it gives me energy to hear people improve their playing so much!
Thanks for being here, and let me know if you have any questions about your piano playing.
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