Music Keyboard Exercises: How To Improve ‘Feel’
This is part of the keyboard playing tutorials series. Use it to improve your playing skills.
What is feel? In music, feel is everything. The way you’re playing in relation to the musicians around you, or to the beat, or to the metronome is 100% as important, if not more important than the notes you’re playing.
I once had a teacher ask me: “what is music?” and I had trouble answering. He looked me right in the eye and snapped his fingers on two and four and said, “this is music. This is what makes people move. Everything you play needs to make this feel good.”
At first, this concept is hard to grasp, but when you start playing with a group and becoming more aware of what you sound like, the wisdom of this attitude soon becomes apparent. In many ways, it doesn’t matter what notes you’re playing, you could be playing the most inventive, inspiring solo the world has ever heard, but if it’s out of time, and has no “feel”, it means nothing.
This may sound grim, but the truth is, improving your rhythmic “feel” is not all that hard to do. At least in the beginning stages, you can use a few basic exercises and see improvement, quickly. The thing to remember is that these exercises need to entrench themselves in your practice, and improving your “feel” needs to become a priority like any other in your practice.
Many of these exercises can be done, or kept in mind, while you’re doing other exercises. And all of them should be a part of your daily routine. Let’s hit the woodshed!
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Ok, so back to ‘feel'. 🙂
1. Use A Metronome
As simple as it seems, using a metronome is the best thing you can do to improve your time and your feel. I literally never practice without a metronome.
Here are some creative ways to use a metronome.
- Practice making the beat “disappear”. Practice syncing your beats in so that you can no longer hear the metronome. Not only is this super fun, but it’s very useful. Start off with claps and then move to simple scales on the keyboard/guitar/whatever. Resist the urge to play complicated things. Be. Accurate. Also, the slower the BPM, the harder this will be. I like to start around 30 BPM.
- For most types of popular music, set your metronome on two and four. While feel is dictated by every beat, working on your backbeat will make you a pretty groovy cat. Learn to sync the backbeat in right on the beat (make the metronome disappear). Then, experiment with placing the beat slightly after the metronome. Listen to D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel” to learn more about placing beats after the metronome. Different songs place the beat slightly differently, and the more you practice this, the more you will be aware of it!
- Set your metronome to click once a bar… or less. Challenge yourself, and test your sense of time by setting the metronome to click once every bar. Then once every second bar. Then, try messing with your head by setting your metronome to click once every second bar, but only on beat three. You get the idea!
2. Shed Your Subdivisions
Follow these steps to shed your subdivisions:
- As always, turn on your metronome. Start out with your metronome set to about 35 – 40. Try playing simple scales as quarter notes. Then move to eighth notes. Then triplets. I recommend going through as many subdivisions as possible (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. Anything passed 13 things gets pretty tricky). This may seem like a weird thing to do, but if you pull out a lick that’s a group of 5 in a 4/4 song, it’s going to blow people’s minds.
- Work your subdivisions with your feet and hands. Playing music is physical by nature. So tap quarter notes in your foot, and the above subdivisions in both hands (separately). Step things up a notch and tap quarter notes on your foot, eighth notes on your left hand, and all of the subdivisions in your right. This is great independence practice, and will prepare you for the next step.
- Tap your feet and run your scales. With your metronome set on two and four, tap your feet on two and four, and play your subdivisions on a simple scale. I find this physical act helps the feel. Then try some variations. Play with where you put the metronome, different tempos, etc.
3. Work On Your Swing/Shuffle
A great way to develop a keen sense of feel is to work on your swing/shuffle. Nearly every modern song is either straight, or has a swing, sometimes heavy and sometimes subtle.
In high school, or earlier lessons you may have been told that swing is just a triplet with the middle note removed. However, this description is not very accurate in describing the real complexities involved with swing. The truth is, the notes can be placed anywhere from very close to the next sixteenth note, or very far away. This is referred to as “tight” and “loose” or traditional swing.
If you can grasp and execute a tight swing and loose or traditional swing, then you’ll be streets ahead of many musicians working the beat these days.
To better understand the subtle differences between types of swings, check out these songs.
Listen to “Before You Accuse Me” by Eric Clapton.
This is an example of a “wide”, traditional swing. Very close to the “triplet without the middle” feel you were once taught. To hear the swing in this tune, listen for the guitars interacting with the drums, and how they are feeling the same swing.
Now check out “Use Me” by Bill Withers
This song has a very loose/wide half-time shuffle, felt in the partly swung sixteenth notes. This one is a little harder to hear; note that the shaker is playing very straight, but you can hear when the guitars and clav subdivides, that there is a subtle swing to the sixteenth notes.
Now, observe “Love On Top” by Beyoncé.
If you speak (1 e & a 2 e & a etc.) the subdivisions in this song, you’ll quickly notice that it’s swung, but in a very different way. This kind of swing is very tight, and it almost gets to be a straight sixteenth note, but not quite.
To hear this more clearly, listen carefully to the bass and the hi-hats, both outline the swing at different moments.
This Robben Ford song, “Talk To Your Daughter” demonstrates a tight shuffle in a more traditional way.
While it’s not quite as tight as the Beyoncé song, listen to the kick and snare – they’re almost straight but swung a little too wide. This is a tough feel to nail! Try learning these songs, and playing along. Take it a step further and record yourself. Are you groovin’ with these players?
4. Work On Your Time
I’ll be honest with you, keeping a beat is not easy. Even if you think you’re good at it, you’ve probably still got some work to do. I know I sure do! If you’re a bass player, you understand how hard it is to play straight quarter notes for three to three-and-a-half minutes, make it feel good, and never waver. And yet people can do it perfectly. How?
Well the exercises above will definitely help, but here are a few more little tricks:
- Be aware of rests and sounds.You need to treat silence with as much respect as you treat sound. When you’re running the subdivision exercise, be aware of this, and try to put the same amount of space in-between notes as well as keeping the subdivisions accurate. If you practice this 10,000 times, you will notice a major difference in your playing.
- Use a chronograph to identify the lengths of spaces and sounds. This is a fun exercise in which you use a chronograph (essentially a very accurate stopwatch) to recognize the lengths of sounds and spaces. This may seem esoteric, but all of this directly relates to how you play; how long you hold something, the time between one note and the next. Just being aware of this makes a big difference.
Whew! It’s hard to have a great feel, but it’s worth it. Playing with people who have studied this stuff opens a whole new world of creative expression. So shed it, and spread it! Get out there and play, show the world your newfound obsession with time and feel!
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