I like musical exercises that are extremely simple but unexpectedly challenging. One such exercise in the domain of rhythm is to set your metronome really slow — 10 or 20 beats per minute — and try to tap along. We often associate difficulty with high speeds but high speeds present more of a motor challenge than a perceptual one. In the case of very low speeds it’s difficult to tap accurately because it’s difficult to feel the beat as such — the very slow metronome clicks may seem like disconnected events instead of being part of a continuous rhythmic thread that we can follow. (Well, that’s my own subjective account of the difficulty, but it turns out that tapping has been the focus of extensive research in psychology — see for example a paper by B. Repp titled Sensorimotor Synchronization: A review of the tapping literature.)
When you try to tap at 10 beats per minute you might find yourself playing a game of chicken with the metronome. You don’t want to tap too early, so you wait, and wait some more, and then you suddenly hear the metronome click and you rush to tap. If your reflexes are fast enough you can make it seem like you’re tapping in sync with the metronome but really what you’re doing is tapping in response to it, and each tap is ever so slightly late. One way to break out of this pattern is with plain mental fortitude: try to make a clear decision to tap and then execute it completely without second guessing, but if you’re way too late and you hear the metronome click before you’ve even decided to tap, just skip that beat, don’t rush to tap in response. Another way to break out of the pattern is to change the exercise so you aim to tap slightly before each beat instead of right on the beat. This way you can’t use the sound of the metronome as a cue. An advantage of practicing this way is that you’ll notice the brief duration between your tap and the following metronome click, and you can take this as feedback. Try to make those durations as consistent as possible so that you’re always anticipating the beat by the same amount each time — easier said than done.
Of course you can greatly improve your accuracy by subdividing the beat in your mind, and actually counting to yourself “One and two and three and four…” as you might do in standard musical practice. But that’s not the point of this exercise — the point is to see how close you can get to perceiving the slow metronome clicks as a fundamental beat without relying on a faster beat that you’re tracking internally. So give it a shot without counting.
In experimenting with this ultra-slow rhythmic practice I’ve noticed that it can make an interesting sort of meditation. Tapping is useful from a meditative standpoint since it requires attention, but it doesn’t really require thought — it forces you to stay present and not zone out. For a meditative exercise that combines pitch and rhythm try this: turn on a drone (electric tanpura, etc.) and keep singing its pitch on a steady, continuous “aaah” vowel; meanwhile turn on a metronome at 10 BPS and tap to it as you sing.
If you’re like me you’ll probably want to get the tapping right and you’ll experience a little bit of frustration every time you tap too early or too late. Can you isolate that frustration, notice any ways that it might manifest physically, and learn to dissolve it, even as you keep making mistakes? And when you get it right can you move on without becoming distracted?