Monday, April 3, 2017

Backbeats as a Vehicle to Steady Tempo (Groove)

Exactly where does the intersection of folk, rock, and jazz idioms and classical music lie?  To me, the answer to that question is "Everywhere."  Certainly, the experts in each of these genres can clearly articulate and perform their idiom's most important aspects.  But, how do we bring the best of each to the other.

I have been thinking about this a great deal lately, especially since my conversation with Chris Howes on his Creative Strings Podcast. 

Last week, my orchestra was in the middle of rehearsing the Double Clarinet Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn for our upcoming Concerto Concert. There are a couple of passages in the work that are very metronomically stable, but, somewhat rhythmically difficult to master. My string section was having trouble holding a steady beat without pushing the tempo. 

I decided to experiment a little bit with pulse and backbeats in an effort to provide context for my students to remain steady. This idea grew from the conversation that I had with Christian just  a few weeks ago.  Of course, I had done this before with student ensembles, but it has come to front and center in my thinking and it was time to get some data!  (Incidentally, I alwasy encourage my students to practice and rehearse like a scientist.  Limit variables and gain data with every pass though a section. )  

I decided to first have the students play the passage slowly without any oral or clapped pulse. Results: rushing and instability.  Then, I ran the passage, clapping on beats 1 and 3.  Results: about the same. Following the less than moderate success with that scheme, I decided to try backbeats. I clapped on two and four while the students were playing a very traditional classical piece. After running the passage 2 or 3 times the passage became beautiful and steady. The backbeats were the answer.  My friend Christian would be so proud!  He is definitely on to something here. 

I wanted to collect some more data, so I asked the kids about their reaction to the exercise. Here are some of the thoughts that they gave me:
  1. "Initially it's more difficult because it's unfamiliar."  
  2. "After getting over the initial shock and discomfort, it caused me to think more deeply about exactly what was happening."
  3. "It provided something that I could lock in to rhythmically and I had to take personal responsibility for the strong pulse."
  4. "It really helped to steady the tempo."
I am convinced that  there is something much deeper going on here, but am not sure how to articulate it yet.  I will need to do more study.  But, here is what I know anecdotally:  Providing backbeats helps to establish groove.  By the way, I am not talking about  swinging the pulse in any way.  We are simply providing backbeats or the "snare drum" in the pop/rock setting.  

Which brings me to my hypothesis.  Student musicians are used to hearing groove in dance music and there is always a backbeat provided there.  Conversely, in classical repertoire, the backbeat is rarely provided and students feel more compelled or premitted to "fudge" the pulse a bit.

More research is required here. but, I am interested in your experience with backbeats in classical repertoire.   Meanwhile, I will keep digging.



  1. Hi Scott!
    I use a Dr. Beat with 5 or 6 favorite patterns with significant back beats from beginners all the way up to my top players. I also use it in private lessons. All I know is that it absolutely helps all of us keep a steadier tempo and subdivisions make sense. I look forward to seeing what you write as you research it further.
    Best wishes,

  2. Thanks, Debbie! I am wondering why the backbeats are so effective. I will keep you posted on what I learn!

  3. Quick thoughts - helps/requires us to listen through the entire measure - you know how most of the rushing is to 1? Maybe.... Thanks!

  4. I feel like a great deal of the problem is built on dotted rhythms. (Not giving the dotted note enough total value.) That being said, it is not exclusive to them. Sometimes is build on not giving rests enough value. So, perhaps my thesis is that static portions of notes and rests (duration) is often undervalued.