Blog, Tips & Tricks

Syncopation…or STINKopation?

4 Simple Strategies to Help Tame the Beast

When I was young, I struggled with syncopation, the playing of notes that are off-beat. It was so frustrating that I called it “Stinkopation.”

Hated the stuff.

I struggled with that particular stinker of a concept.

Sometimes, I would think that I “had it,” only to find that I was completely wrong during rehearsal, playing on the beat when I should have been exactly the opposite.

So when students tell me that they struggle with the concept, I can empathize. Yet, syncopation is a vital component to music, so at some point, all musicians (myself included!) need to get buddy-buddy with it.

Here is what helped me:

“Play when you think you aren’t supposed to.”

One of my teachers said this of a syncopated passage that the class (myself included) was just not getting. He was frustrated, and I am pretty sure that he did not think it was as difficult as it seemed. 

It does over-simplify the idea. However, on a basic level, that is what we sometimes feel is happening in syncopated passages – because our minds want things to line up in perfect little rows.

Syncopation throws that into a tailspin. After all, syncopation is playing off-beat, at a point somewhere in between.

Do something to fill the space.

Our bodies are terrific at keeping time – our heartbeat is a great example! We can use this to our advantage.

During short rests where you have to come in on an off-beat, sniff, twitch, flinch, or otherwise recognize the actual beat. The idea is that you are taking advantage of the adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” 

See, if you do not fill that space (the rest) with something, your instinctive nature to do so will. So while you learn, be intentional about how you fill that space, and use your body to help.

Use a metronome.

Oh come on, you had to see that coming! Of course a metronome is a fantastic tool to help with syncopation.

Set your metronome to a smaller component of the beat you need to count. If you are in 4/4 time, set it to 8th or 16th notes, 2/2, set it to quarters or 8ths, etc., at a tempo you can handle.

Most often, our problem with accurately counting and playing syncopated passages is that we do not divide or subdivide the beat far enough to be successful.

The goal is to divide it far enough that you have a “tick” for every note in the syncopated passage.

Convert every note to a smaller value

Huh? Maybe this sounds weird, but what I mean, is this:

Do this several times, then convert it back to its written value. This exercise sometimes seems like a magic bullet, but it really isn’t. It gives your fingers more muscle memory to go on in when to change from one note to the next.

What helped you learn syncopation? 


Want more? I teach privately online, and in the DFW area of Texas teach in person & give workshops on Practice Like a Pro. Contact me to find out more or to schedule a workshop at your school.

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