Playing up-tempos is one of the big challenges jazz musicians face at some point in their music learning process. The thought of dragging, turning yourself around or just tensing up and not being able to execute anything is frightening.
Up-tempos can be technically challenging, but as I matured as a musician, I realized that the technical issues that most people encounter are not the hardest ones to overcome, the psychological issues are the ones setting most people back when playing up-tempo tunes.
Many years ago, every time a bandleader would say, “let’s play something burning fast!” my heart would start racing and my insecurities would trigger. My thoughts were: “Okay, this is the one I’ll mess up. Hopefully, I won’t get turned around. I hope I don’t drag!”
These kinds of negative thoughts are the ones tensing us up and making us incapable of dealing with up-tempos.
For many of my students, as it was for me, the challenge of playing fast tunes was more mental than physical. In the practice room where there is no pressure, some of us can play great and relaxed on fast tempos. However, when we are playing with other people, all the doubts and insecurities come out.
In this article, I’m not going to talk about technical aspects of playing up tempos.
I want to help you overcome the mental issues, so you can relax and execute ideas better by having more rhythmical options to express when soloing at fast tempos.
The first thing I did to relax my playing on fast tempos was to change the way I see them or think about them. Check this out.
A. Try to read this rhythmic line at 240bpm. Here’s a great online metronome where you can enter in the bpms.
B. Now try to read this one at half of the tempo above, 120bpm.
I guarantee that most of you were more accurate and able to master line B, much faster than line A, even though they were the exact same rhythm.
If we feel fast tempos at a slower rate, it automatically will make us more relaxed. It is not the same to have 4 beats pounding away at fast tempos in our head than bringing that down to a slower rate.
It gives us more time to analyze information, thus making us more relaxed. Our brain is not feeling busy and quantizing each quarter note. On the contrary, we are giving it space and time to actually think about what to play and where not to play.
Let’s do it again.
A. Read this at 320bpm.
B. Now, this one at 80bpm
I hope you see what I’m doing here with these examples. I’m basically thinking or feeling up-tempos at a slower rate than they actually are.
In Reading 1, I made the half note my main pulse. And in Reading 2, the whole note becomes my pulse.
I count bars in that way as well. For example:
When I’m thinking about half notes as my pulse, two beats would be a bar, so either I count bars of 2/4, or just think one bar in my head would actually be two bars in the tune.
When I’m feeling the whole note as my pulse, every beat would be a bar. So one bar in my head would actually be 4 bars in actuality.
The challenging aspect of this exercise is that since we are now feeling our main pulse in 1 and 3 or only one 1, our playing can become heavy in the ones. And we don’t want that, not in jazz. So make sure that when you’re practicing this, the feel keeps flowing and swinging.
Also, as I said before, by thinking at a slower rate, we broaden our rhythmic possibilities for improvising on fast tempos.
Let’s say we develop a nice rhythmic idea to play over a slow ballad at 65 bpm.
We can stretch it out, to half of the tempo. And now we have a nice two bar phrase to play at 130 bpm. Like this:
Let’s stretch it even more. Now it’s going to become a nice 4 bar phrase to play at 260 bpm.
We can work out our rhythmic phrasing at a medium or slow tempo and then we can play it as is but superimposed at a faster tempo.
The second thing I did in order to feel more relax and calm was to stop relying on external, physical movements to keep tempo.
Tapping our feet while we play can be helpful and it is okay to do it some of the time, but we need to stop relying on it. Our tempo has to come from inside, from our brain. We cannot depend on the motion of our foot in order to keep good tempo or our place in the bar.
Also, when we play up-tempos, tapping our foot can be physically demanding. It can lead to more unnecessary stress in our body and brain.
Practice whatever you are working on without physically keeping tempo. No foot tapping or head nodding. Try to feel the tempo coming from within your body, avoid at all cost make any sort of body movement which would suggest the tempo.
This exercise for me was liberating, It did improve my internal clock and made me see tempo in a different way. A short time after working on it, I felt tempo in a more open way. I let go of the need of having to physically play all beats in order to keep my place, which as a result made my body more relaxed and my up-tempo playing more calm and precise.
These concepts are not something that are going to change your playing over night, but if you work on them constantly you will definitely feel the difference.
They were a game changer for me, once I understood and changed the way I saw up-tempos, my thoughts and fears about them were gone. My mind and body learned to relax and to eliminate all the bad habits that were holding me back.
Nowadays when a bandleader calls an up-tempo tune I see it as a fun opportunity to explore new rhythmic possibilities.
See you guys in the next one.