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Secrets of Sub-di-vi-sion

Bob Lark | April 2009

    At the top of the list of problems when I work with an all-state jazz ensemble or even my own groups is the issue of subdividing the rests and sustained notes to fit the style of the music. For that matter subdivision is a key area in classical music as well as jazz; some players get the feel of when to come in on the upbeat of beat 2 after a rest but the key is to do this consistently. Another way of describing the problem is that it is important to feel the music, but it is more important to subdivide the beats correctly.
    At outset I focus on where the pulse is kept, which is usually in the ride cymbal or the hi-hat. In a 4/4 medium-tempo swing piece, the drummer generally plays quarter notes on the ride cymbal and at times this might be a quarter-note/ eighth-note subdivision. Typically the hi-hat will be coming together on beats 2 and 4.
    In Latin or rock charts a 4/4 measure has four even downbeats and up beats, just as in classical music. In swing charts the subdivisions are given a different inflection or subdivision. As a mnemonic device I use the syllables sha-be-du-ba, to convey this rhythm. Two eighth notes are played as a quarter/eighth note triplet. The eighth note triplet becomes the pickup to count 2.
     The best approach to teaching this is for the group to sing the rhythm together after I diagram it on the chalkboard. It helps to explain that the downbeat is a little longer. Next, I have the group sing it as many times as it takes to get it right. Often students will miss the upbeat of beat 2, so I will have them almost shout the ba sound. I find when people are very deliberate about something they usually get it right.
     It takes some groups considerable time working on individual measures to perfect the rhythm. I regularly spend rehearsal time on subdividing traditional jazz figures, such as a dotted quarter note on beat 1 and and eighth note on the upbeat of 2.
     In a bossa nova the rhythms are played as even or straight eighths as in classical music (1+2+). The upbeat falls in the exact middle of the beat rather than at the last third of the beat in swing style. A samba is basically a bossa nova groove played twice as fast. “The Girl from Ipanema” is an example of this.
     The first note of a jazz phrase is typically accented but the accent may vary from subtle to extreme according to the context. After students learn to subdivide rhythms, I focus on sustained notes. I have learned that students often stop subdividing when they come to sustained notes and consequently do not know when to end it.
     A junior high or high school group will have to sing a difficult measure two or three times to produce the correct subdivision, tempo, and dynamic inflections. We do not play it until the singing is correct. I often clap the quarter notes or have the drummer hit a closed hi-hat to give the others a crisp beat to follow. This also conditions the band to listen to the drummer for the beat.
     I work on difficult rhythmic figures during every rehearsal. Even with a college jazz ensemble, there are usually some rhythmic figures that hang ups. We will stop playing and sing a complicated rhythm before going forward. For very difficult rhythms I will slow the tempo way down at first. At every playing level a group will stumble over something and require special work on the subdivision.
    I generally start each rehearsal  with something the band can play well. I find something with a comfortable groove at a medium tempo, usually a chart with a swing or latin groove. Once students are mentally set and listening from front to back and left to right they are able to move on to balance, intonation, and playing together.
     Next, we turn to unsolved problems from the previous rehearsal or others I anticipate will arise that day. Sometimes studens will grumble about rehearsing at a slow tempo but I remind them that speed kills. When notes, rhythms, and intonation flash past quickly, players cannot focus on all of these aspects when learning a new piece.
     I should mention that even professional groups begin rehearsal by playing something in a moderate swing tempo. One of my favorite models for professional jazz band excellence is the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. They have performed on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard in New York for more than 40 years. Even this band still has to find the groove each time they begin.
     Their long-time composer and pianist Jim McNeely once commented that they usually begin with a medium-tempo swing tune to give the band a chance to get settled. This is typically either Thad Jones’s “Walking About” or “Quietude.” Both are gentle swing tunes with classic figures. Then the group is ready to dig in on something harder. In programming a concert I may start with something fast and rousing but when we are in an unfamiliar venue I will start with a medium-tempo swing chart. If you should look for recordings of theirs, the band was originally known as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.