5 Things I've Learned About Timing

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By Charles Gillingham of Counting Crows

When Counting Crows recorded its first record with producer T Bone Burnett back in 1992, I discovered that although I’d played in bands for many years, I didn’t know how to play things that would work on a record. The process was difficult, and to an extent, humiliating. But I learned a lot from producers like T Bone, Gil Norton, Steve Lillywhite, and Dennis Herring. These guys knew what should go on a record, and helped give me the best musical education anyone could have.

1. Lay Back
Inexperienced keyboard players almost always rush in the recording studio. They get excited trying to inject energy into a song and often end up ahead of the beat. Try laying back. Playing behind the beat can make your playing sound heavy, serious, and focused.

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2. Your Body Has Better Time than Your Fingers
It’s easy to play fast runs with a lot of emotion. But it’s hard to land every note so that the music really sings. The key is to involve your whole body in your playing. As keyboard players, we’re used to sitting down and moving our fingers. These motions are controlled by the motor cortex of the brain, which handles fine motor skills but doesn’t do timing very well. By involving our entire bodies, we activate the cerebellum, which can handle accurate timing on the order of milliseconds. Putting your cerebellum online helps you play in time.

3. Practice Along to Music
Better than practicing to a beat box or metronome is to play along with recorded music. Whenever I meet someone who has “naturally” good time, it often turns out that they learned their instrument by playing along with records. Practicing this way teaches you to listen and keeps your time honest.

4. Don’t Just Listen . . . Empathize
Sure, you should listen actively to what everyone around you is playing—especially the drummer, the click track, and the singer. But you should also know what the singer is feeling and emoting, and be able to respond to it.

5. Only Play Music You Like
When Counting Crows started recording the songs in 1991 that would eventually become August and Everything After, music was a hobby for me. My main rule was this: I only played music that I liked with people who I liked. This didn’t just make following the previous four rules easier—it changed the trajectory of my life.

Time Tip: Every time you hear a click or a snare or a kick drum, you should be trying to bury your note inside of it, advises Gillingham. 

*Watch and play along with Counting Crows video "A Long December."