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Between the Beat: My Journey into Rhythm by Elsa Nilsson

Elsa Nilsson is not your average flutist and is quite an accomplished jazz player, having won the NFA 2018 Jazz Flute Competition. She has recently published her first book that emphasizes every musician’s responsibility for time, no matter what style we might play. In her book, she shares what she has learned about rhythm, time, and how note placement and the space between the beats is crucial to every performer. In this article, she shares some of her experiences on the journey to understanding and feeling rhythm. – Keith Hanlon

In high school, music was the only thing that allowed me to truly be myself. It pulled me out of my reality and gave me an alternate space to just exist, where I had intrinsic value without having to do, prove or be anything for anyone else. I could breathe. I felt this way when listening to music that I connected with, and also when improvising alone, but I was not skilled enough to generate it when playing written music. There was a gap between my ability and how I wanted to sound, and I had no clue how to bridge that gap. I figured if I practiced a lot that would do it, so I dug in. I practiced many hours a day; scales, pieces, arpeggios, songs, music theory, ear training, you name it. And, I got better at the things I practiced, but the gap was not getting any smaller. 

A few years later my sound and technique had gotten loads better. Better enough that I got accepted into Cornish College of The Arts in Seattle as a jazz performance major in 2005. I could now play the music that made me feel seen when I listened to it, but I still felt like I was stranded outside, like the music was going on in a space I couldn’t enter. I wanted desperately to get through that bubble and feel the same sensation of transportation when I played as when I listened. I was playing the right notes, but they didn’t feel like they connected to what was around me. I overplayed, spewing too many notes and hoping that something would stick. When it didn’t, I made excuses. I would say that flute is a quiet instrument, and that’s why my fellow musicians couldn’t hear me. The simple solution; use a mic. I would say my fellow musicians weren’t listening, when even if they were, I wasn’t giving them anything they could latch on to. I would assume they didn’t care what I had to say, when in reality musical interaction is a skill learned together over time. We were learning how to communicate through our instruments together, but I was missing something in terms of clarity and connection. It was easier to place blame outward than to look at myself. 

At Cornish I was exposed to other flute players with loud bands who communicated through their instruments in spite of the volume. I listened to Jamie Baum, Hans Teuber, Hubert Laws, Yusef Lateef, and the list goes on. All of them were playing clear and connected ideas with drummers who were not holding back. This is when I started really questioning what I was missing, and through analyzing recordings of my playing I found that my rhythms weren’t connecting. Growing up in Sweden I had never learned how to relate to rhythm in the way that we do in Jazz. My rhythm flowed but didn’t ground. In the recordings I discovered that the disconnect was a direct result of my lack of connection to the rhythm. Simply put, I was not in the same place at the same time as the other musicians. They couldn’t respond to what I was trying to say in the music, because I was pushing so hard that it shut everyone out. I wasn’t playing things that felt grounded, because I didn’t have a grounded sense of rhythm. Or a grounded sense of myself, for that matter. I’ve always sounded like who I am, and at that point in my life I was running away. Rhythmically, this translated to constant rushing. I sounded frantic, scared, and like I was trying to prove something. 

My next question: how do I improve my sense of rhythm? How do I learn how to relate to time differently? No one seemed to be able to tell me. It seemed to be a thing you either got, or didn’t. I had deep doubts about this. Maybe there was something wrong with me that I didn’t understand, and maybe I never would? I am stubborn to the core of my being, and I really wanted to be able to live in this musical space, so I was determined to do whatever it took to understand how to generate rhythm. But where to start? I loved books. The idea of being able to take a thing and say “if I do A, B will happen” was incredibly comforting to me. So, I read books on improvisation, philosophy, abstract ideas, anything that I thought might help. But there was no book for feeling grounded in rhythm. There are plenty of drum books, so I read and played through those. They improved my rhythmic reading, but not my sense of stability or grounding. I then started studying with rhythm section players who I thought had good rhythm, Chuck Deardorf, Tony Moreno, Peter Bernstein, Andy Milne, Jovino Santos Neto and Jean-Michel Pilc, to name a few. They showed me how to listen to music differently. I began listening for what it was that sucked me in, what exactly pulled me into that space in which I loved existing. Every time, it came back to the rhythm. I realized that rhythm is the bridge, the aspect of our musicality that allows us to breathe together in the music. It creates a sense of direction and grounding within an ensemble and as listeners, this is what invites us in.

In March 2019 I released the book that I wish I’d had back then. It shows what I did to get inside the rhythm. It’s full of drum exercises adapted for melody instruments, and also ideas on how to relate to them. Rhythmic depth and grounding are not style specific, so neither is this book. I’m not a picky listener when it comes to style, but I am when it comes to connection to the music. Being grounded in this fundamental aspect of how music is built gives everything more depth to me. My exploration of these rhythmic concepts made me realize that for me to gain the ability to create the space I love for others, I had to relax into that sense of space and calm within myself. When I hear musicians who can do this, it makes me happy, no matter what they are playing. When the musicians don’t do this, it is difficult for me to connect to what they are playing. I’m not saying the time has to be rigid, I’m saying rhythm needs to be grounded. What I am listening for is that tug and pull of the ensemble breathing together, landing together, creating a world together. The deeper into themselves and the music they are drawing the information to create this world, the more I lose myself in it. 

I still practice rhythm every day, but now I work on it because I find it grounding. I put the metronome on really, really slow to leave lots of space to enjoy the meditation of sinking and expanding into the rhythmic space.

  1. Excellent article Elsa! I always say, “EVERY Musician MUST have at least 3 levels of subdivisions going on at ALL times!”

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