Tips for Finding Your Own Reference Points
That seat we sit on is affectionately called a throne. This signifies to me that we are kings—or queens—of our domain. As such, we are in a position of power and honor. This means that we should never take for granted the responsibility that we have to create a reliable foundation for our band and the audience. Every decision we make, every tempo we choose, and every note we play matters.
Personally, I’m honored to pay attention to the little details—every ghost note, every nuance of every fill, every bass drum beat in every bar, and every exact tempo. Each song has a limited variation of tempo that will maintain the integrity of the groove. For that reason, I have my tempos memorized, which has proven to be a very useful talent for playing live and in the studio. Memorizing tempos helps you quickly determine the beats per minute (bpm) of a song, and it allows you to count off that song, for you and your mates, at an accurate pace. I love playing with a metronome on pop and rock gigs, but I don’t always have that luxury. In the cases where I don’t, having the tempos memorized helps me feel confident and secure from the first note to the last.
I have a couple of simple points of reference—120 bpm and 100 bpm— that I use to find any tempo. For me, 120 bpm is a comfortable walking tempo. I can call that up in my mind quite accurately. I also practiced a lot in the ’70s when disco was infiltrating the music scene, so I can always recall that standard dance tempo. (It’s branded in my brain for life!) A tempo of 100 bpm is about the fastest comfortable speed at which I can I play 32-note single strokes with my hands on my knees. These are both great reference points for me, and they may work for you too. The point is to be able to consistently recall a couple of tempos based on your body’s built-in physiology.
If I cut 100 or 120 bpm in half, I get 50 or 60 bpm. By playing quarter-note triplets at 120 bpm, I can find 90 or 180 bpm very easily, as 180 bpm is the pulse of the quarter-note triplet, and half of that is 90 bpm. Using that same formula with 100 bpm, I can now find 150 and 75 bpm. Using just 100 and 120 bpm as my reference points, I can call up a bunch of other tempos with accuracy (50, 60, 75, 90, 150, and 180 bpm). If I slow down or speed up any of these tempos, I can estimate nearly every rate in between.
Of course, I love working with a metronome, and I always suggest to my students to practice everything with a metronome to develop a consistent internal pulse. The more you practice with a metronome, the better you will memorize tempos. It’s also fun to test yourself by working at a few specific tempos per day and seeing if you can recall them the following day. Your body clock does change from day to day, so some days your recollection of tempos will be better than others. I’ve freaked myself out by being inaccurate at times. Don’t worry—it happens to all of us. The only remedy is to play to a metronome whenever you practice and perform, or at least to have one nearby for reference.
When I was touring with Pink, I always played to a metronome, regardless of whether we were jamming without sequences or I was getting a click track to play to in order to be in sync with sequenced parts. I did that because I wanted to know that all of the tempos were locked in. It created absolute consistency for every show. (I also used a metronome when I auditioned for gigs with Cher and Stevie Nicks.) You may be comfortable using the metronome just to give you starting tempos, and then you play the songs without it. It’s your choice. Either way, I say have a great time—with great time!
Mark Schulman has drummed for numerous rock and pop artists, including Pink, Sheryl Crow, Foreigner, Stevie Nicks, Destiny’s Child, Billy Idol, and Cher.