Musicians who say they’re “not good with rhythm” are often just missing one key skill: they try to subdivide everything. Yes, counting is an important skill in rhythmic mastery, and subdividing is a kind of counting you need to do sometimes. But it’s just as important to know when NOT to subdivide.
Unless you’re a computer, you’re not going to get better at rhythm by counting “1-ee-and-ah, 2-ee-and-ah, 3-ee-and-ah” over every bar of music. That stuff is just a distraction, and it prevents you from doing all the other things you need to do. Rhythm needs to be internalized by memorization, just like any other musical skill. If you can learn a chord progression or a melody or the words to a song, then you can memorize rhythmic patterns.
To subdivide or not to subdivide…
When you’re learning to play in tune, you don’t compare every single note to your tuning pitch as you play. Instead, you compare each note to the others around it, and eventually your fingers learn where to go automatically. It’s the same thing when it comes to producing a good tone, or learning the technique on your instrument. At first, you need to think about all the small details every time you do them. Eventually, however, you just memorize how it works and you don’t have to think about it anymore.
For some reason, a lot of musicians forget this basic concept when it comes to rhythm. They assume that subdividing every rhythm is necessary to play music in time. That’s not true. You need to count strategically, as I’ve explained in this article. The rest of the time, you should simply follow the flow of the music and look for familiar rhythms that you’ve committed to memory.
Practicing vs. performing
Subdividing is only useful in one specific situation: when you’re at home practicing, and you see a rhythm that you can’t imagine in your mind. That’s when you should slow things down and subdivide to make sure you understand the rhythm correctly. Play it over and over until you have a feel for what the rhythm is, then stop subdividing.
In performance, you should almost never need to subdivide. Count the big beats, and look for rhythms that you recognize, but don’t try to work out all the tiny details of each rhythm in real time—that’s a recipe for disaster. If you’ve internalized the rhythms in the music, you should be able to step back, recognize them as they come, and play them with confidence.