Keeping Track of Time

Using Tracks To Teach Timingimg_2429

Unlike band or orchestra musicians who learn to play with others from the get-go, piano students usually only ever practice alone.  A not-so-great consequence of this kind of solitary learning is that many pianists fail to develop a strong sense of time.  The usual remedy that is prescribed for this problem is to practice with a metronome, which, let’s face it, can be pretty boring.  This is where automated accompaniment (aka backing tracks) come to the rescue.  If you are not familiar with backing tracks, imagine a pre-recorded or computer-generated band laying down a steady groove as an underpinning for practice.  The value of this kind of work is that the beat is experienced as a kind of steady conveyor belt that keeps moving forward.  There’s no time for pauses to fix mistakes nor can the practicing musician zoom ahead without consequences.

As the technology of backing tracks continues to evolve, more options for automated background music become available. Here is a list of formats I have used over the years.

Vinyl – Perhaps you remember the Music Minus One series on vinyl LPs.  Or you may be familiar with jazz education pioneer, Jamey Aebersold’s recordings of swinging rhythm sections intended for underpinning at home practice of jazz standards.  I cut my teeth practicing with records. They were helpful but it was always a challenge to get the speed dial on my turntable to be in tune with my piano.

MIDI – Not so many years ago MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) accompaniments were available for popular method books.  You just put the floppy disk into a Clavinova or computer, hit the play button and you had instant background accompaniment.  I didn’t know about pre-made MIDI accompaniments so I made them myself using sequencer software learning a lot in the process.  With the advent of digital recording, MIDI’s relevance  and availability has faded but it’s still a great tool used by contemporary creative musicians at all levels.

Book/CD Combos – Regardless of whether they include backing tracks or model performances of the printed pieces, book/CD combos are a great way to develop the ear along with the eye.  As an author, I make a point of including either a CD or audio link in all my instructional books.  http://bradleysowash.com/?page_id=7

Band-in-a-Box – I’ve used this software for years for personal practice and with students.  It is a great tool for quickly generating backing tracks.  You just type in a chord progression, select a musical style and the “band” is ready to cook.  I still use an old $60 version of this software several times per week and it works as well as the day I got it.  However, as the developers have continually added new features, price has risen to a point that is out-of-reach for most students.


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– This is now my go-to app for backing tracks.  The price is right and it has just enough capability to be functional without all the confusing bells and whistles of Band in a Box. I use it several times a day and love that it is always in my pocket on my phone.  I encourage (actually beg) all of my students with compatible devices to purchase and use this app.  Then I email them the chord progressions for my assignments right from within the app.

Here are two “before and after” videos my student graciously let me share of her playing one of my favorite exercises called “Scalin’ the Chords.“ She is using iRealb on her phone with the following screenshot:

Her task is to play left hand chords in all the right places while her right hand improvises.  Notice that she has trouble synchronizing with the backing track in her first attempt. [My apologies for the shaky and wandering picture – I’m still learning to hold a camera, listen, correct and teach all at the same time.]

Following this trial run, I offered her these tips to help her better align her playing with the timing of the backing track:

  • Submit to the beat:  Rather than generating the beat, you have to “join” with it, which involves a mindset of acquiescence coupled with concentrated listening.  In other words, you aren’t in charge of the beat; only how your playing interacts with it.
  • Keep playing:  If it starts to feel like you are off the beat, you may have to play less or skip a few measures to reestablish your location in the form but don’t give up.  “Get back on the bus” when you find it.
  • Slow down:  Few students drag – – most rush, especially when the music is coming unglued.  Therefore, when things go wrong, assume you are in front of the beat and back off the tempo.

Here is the same student playing the same exercise just 5 minutes after she’d assimilated these tips.  It’s not perfect but her progress is a big leap forward.

Moral of the story:

Acquiring good time is a matter of tuning in and paying attention to the beat.  I’ve seen again and again how backing tracks can enhance this process.  Plus, it’s actually a lot of fun to play with a robot band.

For more tips and tricks like this, stay tuned to this blog and consider attending our awesome Creative Keys Camp this summer in Colorado.

Until next time, enjoy your creative musical journey!

Bradley Sowash

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Like what you see and hear? Want to learn more from Bradley? Check out the Creative Keys Camp, Workshop and Clinic coming to Colorado. If you can’t make it to Colorado, there are more camps to come in more locations.

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