Rhythm and sense of time are not the first things singers tend to work on, yet they are vitally important music skills.

Developing a great sense of time and a feel for accurate rhythmic subdivision should be high on the list for every singer.

In this episode, John gives some of his favorite exercises for mastering rhythms and developing your groove.

Episode Links:

Modern Reading in 4/4 by Louis Bellson

Episode Transcript

Episode 93 – Essential Rhythm for Singers

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another edition of The Intelligent Vocalist. I can barely say that. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Alright, today I am going to get on my soapbox. Not that I haven’t gotten on a soapbox before, but I went and bought extra soap so I can have a bigger box because I want to talk about singers and rhythm. I’m an ex- drummer. I will admit that. However, I still carry a passion for rhythm, and when I’m breaking down great vocals, the one thing that strikes me about brilliant singers is their command of rhythm. And here’s a problem that singers fall into, is a lot of times when we’re learning songs, what are we doing? We’re singing along with singers and we are following the singer. And then if we start going with musicians, we kind of follow the musicians, and singers should not be rhythmically following anybody.

You should be leading. The musicians are there to support you. You are really the star of the show as far as the listeners’ ears are concerned. When you are singing, they are primarily hearing and they are connected to the voice. The voice has lyrics and emotion. Not that instruments don’t, but it’s just the hierarchy of listening. They are going to be more focused on the listener, and the musicians are there to support you, and you have to take a strong command of the feel and of the song and just the groove and everything, and great musicians will love you for it. I remember years and years ago, American Idol– this is way back– Taylor Hicks, if anybody remembers him with his, what was it, The Soul Patrol, and I think it was the finale. And he was singing Try a Little Tenderness, and he was in no way that the best technical singer on the show.

But man, he sang with feel, and not just emotional feel, but rhythmic feel. And you could hear the band step up and play better behind him. And that’s a big reason why he won. He connected with the musicians and it made him sound better. Even though it was the musicians were digging the way he sang and they dug his feel and his groove and the way that he was able to precisely subdivide tempo and pop the notes in there, even if they weren’t the greatest sounding notes or the greatest range, man, it’s the feel. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

So I want to just give you some real primary things that you need to know about rhythm and what you should practice. Singers don’t practice rhythm enough. They really don’t. But the great singers do, and whether it comes from just years of singing and listening or whether they studied it– and what study is, is it’s just a shortcut. You can compress the learning time.

I mean, look, if you can go on the road and perform every night with fantastic musicians, your time’s going to get better. But if you don’t have that opportunity and you don’t have all those years and the luxury of great musicians around you, a bit of study and hard work will compress that timeframe and make it a bit quicker for you. So I want you to get acquainted with something called a metronome. You can get them on your phone, or you buy a metronome, but it is a little piece of gear that’s going to give you a nice little click. And I want you to go ahead– I’ve got this one set at 100.

You can set it to a hundred or right around there and then we’re just going to do an exercise where you’re going to clap with this metronome, but you’re not going to mentally follow the metronome. You’re going to listen to it and then you are going to feel as if you are leading the metronome. You are in control of the time and the way that you will be able to know if you are in control is that when you clap your hands, the metronome will disappear.

If you’re a little bit on either side ahead or behind or following the metronome, you’ll hear the metronome because you’ll be just that split second behind it usually, but sometimes ahead. And at first it’s going to drive you crazy cause you’re going to feel yourself moving and waffling around. But if you can get to that point where you can control and create this time and you are mentally making the metronome follow you, which of course is impossible, but from a mental standpoint, a musician standpoint, you want to start taking charge of tempo and time. Great musicians don’t follow each other. They agree on time. They agree on feel.

The drummer and the bass player start playing together and they both go, we’re going to put the beat here. We’re agreeing on this field. I’m not following you and you’re not following me. We’re both creating this. And so I want you to be involved in creating that. So it’s just a great feeling, a great groove, emanating from the recording or the bandstand. So let’s just take this metronome.

What I’m going to do is I’m going to clap with it. Now you can hear– you can barely hear the metronome as I’m clapping, which means I’m not totally locked in. I’m not totally leading it yet. So let me try one more time here. It started to disappear a few times there.

I used to do this a lot. I got really good at it. And then what you can do is take it up to 105, and then take it down to 95, and then fan it up to maybe a 110. Or maybe you should start this at 80 or 90 and fanning it up. But you fan it up a little bit, and then fan it down a little bit.

And so at the very top you’re maybe doing something like, let me see– You could go up to like 180, and then on the bottom I got it to where I could do it at 40 beats per minute. And man that was hard. And I didn’t do it with moving, you know, my foot or jiggling anything to count the beats in between. I mean I would just be– just feeling that beat. I’m not going to attempt that right now cause that does take some practice.

But if you start doing that, you’re gonna really increase your ability to feel tempo really, really quickly. And then what I want you to get into is, I want you to start feeling subdivisions. And so you can go back to the metronome and you can just start practicing 8th notes. So let me do this. I’m just going to slow this metronome down a bit. So I’ll take it here and we’ll just take 8th notes. So this is a quarter note feel. All right. So an 8th note is twice as fast. So an 8th note is 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. And then you start leaving certain 8th notes out, and you start breaking it up so you can start feeling all those different permutations — boy, that’s a hard word to say — of 8th notes. And then we can go to 16th notes. Now the 16th notes are going to be a bit faster. So I’m going to slow this down cause they’re twice as fast as the 8th notes, and they are 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and 4 e and a. Then you start breaking up the 16th notes. Now this is where it really starts getting fun cause it’s like– and you can start to feel all those different breaks.

You’re essentially, when you’re doing music, you’re usually doing quarter notes, 8th notes, or some variation of 16th notes. Most music is in 4/4, and the measures are broken up in that way. But there’s one other feel that I want you to get used to and that’s triplets. And we’re just going to start with 8th note triplets, and those feel like– what we’re going to do between each of these beats, rather than an 8th note where we have two, we’re going to put three. And that is one triplet, two triplet, three triplet, four triplet, and break them up. And that is the feel of swing. When something swings– Whereas 16ths is– a triplet is– It’s got this looser feel, and you need to be able to go in and out of what they may call straight time and swing time at will. And great singers, you will hear them. They’ll be in something that’s very, very straight 4/4, very straight 8th note or 16th note feel. And then they’ll superimpose triplets over it, and it creates– almost like the time slows down for a little bit. It’s a really good rhythmic device that you should really be aware of. If you want to get a hold of some books just to start working on your sight reading of just rhythms, oh my gosh, this will just open up your brain and it’s– I recommend it so highly for singers. There’s a book, I believe it’s Louis Bellson, Modern Reading in 4/4. I will put the link to it in the show notes.

But I’ve even had people who are looking at being studio singers, and they can actually sightread notes really well, but they struggle with rhythm. Most singers, when they’re become pretty good readers, it’s not the notes that throw them, it’s the rhythms. And I just have them start going through this book and just taking a page and running it again and again and again until you can just see it, and it’s like reading words. You can’t not see the word. If I showed you a word– I’m looking at a poster for my Music Academy, and I see the word Academy. I do not see A-C-A-D-E-M-Y unless I force myself to. I see the word and I can’t not read the word. You’re going to start to see rhythms and be able to not read them. They’re going to automatically pop up and you’ll feel those. And what it will do is it will just cement that in your musical body so that when you’re singing, the subdivisions will become so precise and natural to you and you’ll never be accused of having somebody who doesn’t have feel. I was working on the song– Beyonce, Sandcastles.

And that song is in a 6/8 feel, and the instrumentation is really sparse, especially in the beginning. It’s just a piano and it’s not playing a lot rhythmically. It’s just barely giving the pulse. And Beyonce takes all of the subdivisions and all of the rhythms and she’s just nailing it. And she’s not just nailing the beginning of notes, but when she holds a note, she’s very precise as where the note ends. Now I know that’s not how Beyonce is thinking. And in that song she starts getting very emotional and starts pushing the boundaries of what you would call good vocal technique, which I love. Vocal technique in and of itself, who cares? It’s just a tool for you. But she really starts pushing emotion. But even as she starts pushing and bending vocal technique and driving her voice, she’s still rhythmically precise. It’s so vitally important and it just adds to the intensity of the song. When you’re rhythmically lazy, man, you’re just not going to grab the singer in the same way.

They won’t know what it is. They just know that– it’s kind of like watching a dancer that just doesn’t quite pop the way a great dancer does. And the moves are just a little– it doesn’t have the same impact. Your singing will not have the same impact. I don’t care how great your high notes are, how smooth your break is, how wonderful your tone. If you’re rhythmically imprecise and dull, your performances– people will go, wow… yeah… you sound, they sound really good. Whereas somebody like a Taylor Hicks is gonna come in and rhythmically start popping in and the band’s gonna feel it, and man, musicians love good rhythm. They spend a lot of time on it. They spent a lot of focus on grooving.

And if you can groove and then play with that groove and phrase around the groove, you are going to start to be a very, very dangerous musician. You are going to really start to be a great singer. I’m so passionate about people really drilling rhythm and feeling rhythm and understanding rhythm, have commanding rhythmic sense. And when you’re on that stage in front of that microphone and you’re performing with musicians, you lead them. You are their equal musically and great musicians will respond to that. They will love you for it. I promise you. All right. I’m going to climb down of my very, very big soapbox. I need to figure out what to do with all this soap.

And if you want further information about me, you can always go to johnhenny.com. Sign up for my email list. I have different information about things going on. You can also check out, if you’re interested in lessons, we may be a good fit together if you enjoy this podcast. And until next time, to sing better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.