Time mastery - feeling the phrase

In a recent post I made about understanding the difference between straight 8th notes and swung 8th notes, I shared my opinion that having a GREAT SENSE OF TIME is the BIIGEST diffeence between a master musician and a total hack, and I mentioned some of the aspects of time that are important, like playing “in the pocket” and feeling 4-Bar and 8-bar phrases.

I thought I’d take a moment here to talk about why it’s important to be able to feel these longer phrases, and one exercise we can do to improve our ability to feel them.

I was fortunate enough to have a mentor for many years who was a drummer. We played in a funk band together, as well as some jazz fusion and smooth jazz projects, and he helped me with ALL aspects of developing my sense of time.

In the funk band sometimes there would be open section where I could solo for as long as I wanted to, and my mentor would always chastise me if I didn’t end my solos in some multiple of a 4-bar phrase. This wasn’t an easy skill for me to learn. It took me about 5 years to start getting good at it. A lot of these solos were over a 1 Bar or 2 bar vamp, so it was more challenging then say a Blues form where the chords are changing and you can really tell where you are.

If you’re gonna be playing in the Blues genre, the most common form is the 12-bar blues (which consists of three 4-bar phrases, as I talk about in her in my Blues for Beginners video.) If you’re playing in more rock, country, pop, reggae, funk, jazz, or ethnic genres then 8-bar, 16-bar, or 32-bar forms are more common. Either way, when your improvising you’re ALMOST ALWAYS playing in SOME MULTIPLE of 4-bar phrases, so being able to feel those phrases will help you to know how to start and end your solo at appropriate times. (Nothing says “I’m a hack” more than ending a solo somewhere in the middle of a form!!!)

Playing a harmonica solo is like telling a story. Great stories have a beginning, middle, and end. First they set the scene, then they build to a climax, or a series of climaxes, and then they have some kind of conclusion and come to an end.

Great harmonica solos are exactly the same. In order to know where you are in the story you are telling, you HAVE TO BE ABLE TO FEEL WHERE YOU ARE in the form.

How can you get better at this? Like everything in life: PRACTICE IT. One way you can practice it is counting while you listen to music. Is it fun and relaxing? Um, no not really. Is it sexy? Nope. Will it help you learn forms and develop the ability fo feel 4-Bar, 8-Bar, and 12-Bar phrases better? YES IT WILL!!!

This is how I count bars. Common time is 4 beats per bar, so we count “1,2,3,4
1,2,3,4
1,2,3,4
1,2,3,4”
Over and over again throughout the song. But to keep track of where I am within, say a 4-Bar phrase, INSTEAD OF SAYING “ONE” on beat 1 of each bar, I will SAY THE BAR NUMBER on beat one of each bar.

So the first bar is BAR ONE so I say, “ONE, two, three four.”
Second bar is BAR TWO so I say, “TWO, two, three four”
Third bar is BAR THREE so I say, “THREE, two, three, four.”
Fourth bar is BAR FOUR so I say, “FOUR, two, three, four.”

Do you follow me? In a 4-bar phrase, I’m saying which number bar we’re in on the 1st beat of each bar.

If you’re counting bars in a 12 bar blues, you could do this for every bar so your last bar you’d be saying “TWELVE, two, three four.”

That’s not a bad way to do it. But another way to do it, because we know that the 12-bar blues is really THREE 4-Bar phrases, we count a four bar phrase like I just explained, BUT WE ALSO USE OUR FINGERS to help us remember which 4 bar phrase we are in.

So at the beginning of the form I HOLD UP MY INDEX FINGER AND COUNT:

ONE, two, three four.
TWO, two, three four
THREE, two, three, four.
FOUR, two, three, four.

The NEXT BEAT will be the FIRST BEAT of the SECOND 4-BAR PHRASE, so I RAISE MY 2ND FINGER (as well as my index) so that I remember I am in the SECOND 4-bar phrase (bars 5-8 of the 12-bar blues form) and I count again:

ONE, two, three four.
TWO, two, three four
THREE, two, three, four.
FOUR, two, three, four.

The NEXT BEAT will be the FIRST BEAT of the THIRD 4-BAR PHRASE, so guess what I do? Yep you guessed it! I RAISE MY 3RD FINGER to remind myself I’m on the third 4-bar phrase (bars 9-12 of the 12-bar blues) and I count again:

ONE, two, three four.
TWO, two, three four
THREE, two, three, four.
FOUR, two, three, four.

On the NEXT BEAT we are BACK AT THE TOP OF THE FORM AGAIN. So I raise only my first finger and start again.

Next time you’re listening to a blues song, try doing this for a few choruses. You will begin to hear more deeply how people are phrasing their solos as you are placing more attention on the form in which they are doing it.

This type of exercise is one form of a practice called ACTIVE LISTENING, and is as helpful to your harmonica playing as practicing scales or learning how to play songs or licks.

As you count and become aware of these phrases, you will grow in your ability to FEEL them without having actually count them, and that is a big step forward in your musicianship.

Try it and then LMK your thoughts.

Rock on harmonica fam!

Aloha,
Luke

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Fabulous explanation Luke.
Robert
London :canada:

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Right on Robert! Glad it helped!

Aloha from Hawaii,
Luke