Of course in many types of music, especially classical, it's quite acceptable and effective to push here, and pull there. Even while playing dance music, the tempo might imperceptibly speed up or slow down without being noticed. After all, we are human beings, not metronomes. We want to aim for a flow that is steady, but not mechanical.
While I was in college, I used to become frustrated at not being able to keep a steady tempo for any length of time. It seemed like every fast jazz tune I played ended up slowing down to the same moderate tempo. To work on this, I remember taking long walks around campus, trying to keep a steady pace. I also got a job accompanying dance classes on the piano. When I asked my composition teacher, Hale Smith, for advice, he just smiled with a twinkle in his eye and said, 'Listen!". At the time, I didn't realize just how right he was. By the time I graduated, I could keep a steady beat pretty well, but my sense of time still wasn't as 'organic' or 'ingrained' as with some of the more experienced musicians I came into contact with.
As a professional, I did well for a while, but then developed the habit of rushing from accompanying some vocalists who had a questionable sense of phrasing. I sounded good while keeping the beat together behind them, but the rushing became obvious when I played solo or in instrumental groups.
At this point, I began to reflect on the whole question of tempo, and specifically where a steady tempo might come from. Certainly we can try really hard to play steadily, and that can do the trick. But I began to suspect that there might be something else to it. After all, if you throw a ball, for example, the ball moves through the air in a manner that obeys the laws of physics. It will move at a certain speed that is then influenced by the air resistance, etc.
So I tried to experiment with my approach. I would play along with a recording and just 'go with the flow'. Not try so hard, but simply ride the rhythm as played by the recorded musicians. This seemed to work well, and my overall playing also relaxed a little. I also played with some of the world's best drummers around this time. I played a dance gig (on New Year's Eve, no less!) with the legendary jazz drummer Charlie Persip. His drums were set up right next to the piano and we really hit it off and had a great time. I also remember playing keyboards for the Broadway show, Smokey Joe's Cafe. The drummer, Brian Brake, played the groove in a way that I can't even begin to describe! After a while, I began to feel the beat a little differently.
I'm still deeply interested in this topic. For me, it's become like holding a raft and jumping into a river, then simply floating downstream. We don't CREATE the tempo, it's already there. We just have to listen for it, and then go along for the ride.
Let me know what you think! Does anybody else have any thoughts or experiences they'd like to share?
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